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Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: 

Contradictory Actions on Nuclear Weapons

by John Burroughs and Jacqueline Cabasso


San Diego Union-Tribune, San Diego, California, May 30, 2000
Copyright 2000 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

George W. Bush's new proposals for unilateral cuts in America's nuclear arsenal while pursuing missile defense and space-based weapons are one illustration among others that the United States suffers from a kind of schizophrenia regarding the future of its nuclear arms.

One side of the American policy brain seems wired for the idea that huge stocks of nuclear weapons are, as Bush said, "expensive relics of dead conflicts," and we should use this moment in history to pursue arms reductions and defuse the nuclear threat. The other is wired for continued reliance on fewer but fancier nuclear weapons, and missile shields that presuppose nuclear weapons will exist indefinitely.

Bush's rhetoric of rejecting the "Cold-War mentality" is indicative of welcome re-evaluation of nuclear policy thinking. But the contradictory idea of proceeding with missile defense while at the same time convincing the Russians to reduce the numbers and alert status of nuclear warheads is out of touch with reality.

The Clinton administration suffers from the same sort of split personality. In international negotiations such as the just concluded review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the United Nations, the United States talks disarmament and opposes the spread of nuclear weapons, while in Washington policies are still openly based on fielding threats of nuclear annihilation.

On May 20, the NPT review ended with the United States and other nuclear weapons states agreeing to an historic consensus statement affirming their "unequivocal undertaking . . . to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals." For the first time in the NPT's 30-year history they dropped weasel words such as "ultimate goal" regarding their treaty obligation to pursue nuclear disarmament.

Back in Washington, by contrast, authoritative Defense Department annual reports plan for maintenance of large nuclear forces and the policy of nuclear deterrence for the "foreseeable future." A 1997 presidential directive affirms that the United States will continue to rely on nuclear arms as a cornerstone of its national security for the "indefinite future." A March 2000 Energy Department document obtained by the Los Alamos Study Group identifies the requirements for keeping nuclear weapons viable "forever."

At the NPT conference the United States also committed itself to "concrete agreed measures to reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons." This means we promise to work with Russia to take nuclear forces off hair-trigger alert, so that missiles are no longer ready to fly within minutes of an order to do so. Candidate Bush also says "the United States should remove as many weapons as possible "from high-alert, hair-trigger status" because that status "may create unacceptable risks of accidental or unauthorized launch."

But diplomatic "talking points" recently obtained by The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists revealed that U.S. negotiators actually advised Russia that keeping its nuclear forces on alert would be a good idea. Under "any possible future arms control agreement," the talking points say, Russia (like the United States) could maintain on "constant" alert a "large, diversified, viable arsenal," sufficient to mount an "annihilating counterattack" in response to a U.S. first strike. This astonishing suggestion was supposed to reassure Russia that it could overwhelm the limited U.S. national missile defense system the Clinton administration seems bent on deploying.

And Bush calls for an even more elaborate missile defense system, possibly including space-based weapons, even though he must know what the U.S. talking points make clear: that it would force Russia to refuse de-alerting and reduction in nuclear arsenals. At the NPT conference the United States also committed to "a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies to minimize the risk that these weapons ever be used and to facilitate the process of their total elimination." Yet Defense Secretary William Cohen, in his February 2000 Report to the President and Congress, described an expanded role for nuclear weapons, "to deter any potential adversary from using or threatening to use nuclear, chemical, or biological (NBC) weapons against the United States or its allies, and as a hedge against defeat of U.S. conventional forces in defense of vital interests."

At the NPT conference the United States additionally agreed that a no-backtracking "principle of irreversibility" applies to nuclear disarmament. Yet U.S. laboratories are being funded for nuclear weapons maintenance, research, design and development at inflation-adjusted levels higher than the average Cold War year. Among many new programs, the labs are planning by 2020 to be able to produce annually, at a new facility, 450 plutonium triggers for nuclear warheads - a number comparable to or exceeding the size of the individual arsenals of China, France, the United Kingdom and Israel.

The U.S. government needs to start speaking with one voice, its disarmament voice, and to act accordingly. The imminent Clinton-Putin summit in Moscow in June is the place to start. The United States should stop pursuing national missile defense schemes that block arms reductions and threaten to spur new arms races, seek and accept sweeping reductions in both strategic (long-range) and tactical (short-range) weapons, and together with Russia take all weapons off hair-trigger alert so that Armageddon is no longer the push of a button away.

Finally, the United States should initiate multilateral negotiations on the framework for a nuclear-weapon-free world. These would be good first steps toward nuclear sanity and real global security.

Burroughs is the executive director of the New York-based Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy. Cabasso is the executive director of the Western States Legal Foundation in Oakland.




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