By Peter Weiss
The Morning Journal, Lorain, Ohio, June 5, 2000
Presidential candidate George W. Bush said recently that he would be willing to reduce America's nuclear arsenal to the "lowest possible number consistent with our national security."
These are welcome words, but they demonstrate Bush's ignorance of the terms of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The treaty points to a better way.
The result of the treaty's recent five-year review, reached May 20 at the United Nations, surprised almost everyone. The surprise lay in the fact that the five official nuclear powers - the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and China - pledged to make "an unequivocal undertaking ... to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals."
This was greeted by the world press as a major breakthrough. Well, yes and no.
The five major powers have never disavowed their obligation to get rid of their nukes. But in the past, they have always defined this as an "ultimate" or "eventual' goal. When measured against the words of their military people, who are fond of speaking of their reliance on nukes "forever" or "for the foreseeable future" or "until there is a more stable security environment," this has sounded like a program for the next century, if not millennium.
Now the weasel words are gone. But the chances of turning the words of the May 20th pledge into action are not overwhelming. There is no effective enforcement mechanism for the pledge and no deadline. The major nuclear powers have a history of foot-dragging on this issue.
Plus, there's the influence of strong lobbies in each of these countries arguing for the retention of nuclear weapons. Current U.S. policy on this issue is not encouraging. The Pentagon has already decided that when President Clinton meets President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in June, the United States will not agree to the Russian proposal to cut nuclear arsenals to 1,500 for each country.
And the United States, in an effort to lessen Russian opposition to our plans for a ballistic missile defense (better known as "Star Wars"), has assured the Russians that they will have 2,000 to 2,500 nukes to use in the case of a nuclear attack. Therefore, they do not have to worry about a few missile defense sites in Alaska aimed at a mere handful of North Korean or Libyan missiles.
In other words, MAD - the doctrine of mutual assured destruction - still lives in the minds of our "security" experts. At its ratification 30 years ago, the Non-Proliferation Treaty was a Faustian bargain between the five countries that then possessed nuclear weapons and the rest of the world.
Every state today except India, Pakistan, Israel and Cuba has promised, in accordance with the treaty, not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons. In return, the countries that already had nuclear weapons in 1968 agreed in Article VI of the treaty, "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race ... and to nuclear disarmament."
In 1996, the International Court of Justice, at the request of the U.N. General Assembly, ruled unanimously that this constituted a general obligation not only to pursue but to bring to a conclusion negotiations for nuclear disarmament "in all its aspects."
Nuclear weapons are morally abhorrent, militarily useless and illegal under international law. A single bomb would destroy hundreds of thousands of lives. Small steps like those taken at the United Nations on May 20 will have to lead to big results: not ultimately, not eventually, but very soon.
Peter Weiss is president of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy in New York.