TFF logoFORUMS Power Columns

Nuclear Armaments Should
Have Had Their Day



LONDON-- It's almost exactly one year since General George Lee Butler made his confessional statement before the National Press Club in Washington--that as commander in chief of the U.S. Strategic Command which controls all navy and airforce nuclear weapons he'd had moral qualms and profound doubts about America's possession of nuclear weapons. The speech triggered an avalanche of supportive phone calls and letters from all over the world. This led General Butler to conclude that he could "discern the makings of an emerging global concensus that the risks posed by nuclear weapons far outweigh the presumed benefits".

Yet barely a month passed before General Butler realized that for all this initial enthusiasm the heavyweight critics in the political, military and journalistic establishments were not impressed. They had, he said later, "sniffed imperiously at the goal of elimination, aired their stock Cold War rhetoric, hurled a personal epithet or two and settled smugly back into their world of exaggerated threats and bygone enemies". These were General Butler's thoughts last Christmas.

To get them in perspective we need to cast back our thoughts to Christmas, 1950. President Harry Truman had just written in his diary that he feared World War III was imminent, as North Korean and Chinese troops threatened to plunge into South Korea. On Christmas Eve General Douglas MacArthur, the American commander of the UN force, sent Washington a list of targets for which he needed 34 atomic bombs.

Since then the world has come perilously close to nuclear war a number of times and the risk of accidental war has been drawn attention to not just by the peaceniks but by such illustrious Cold War warriors as senior Reagan arms advisors, Fred Ikle and Paul Nitze. The post Cold War era is even more dangerous than the actual one. It is increasingly evident that Russian missiles are ill-maintained and that the command and control system is not as secure as it was in Soviet times. Moreover, other countries, with less expertise and experience, are rapidly developing their nuclear arsenals. As General Butler has asked, "Will history judge that the Cold War was a sort of modern-day Trojan Horse, whereby nuclear weapons were smuggled into the life of the world and made an acceptable part of the way the world works?" We have been led, he says, to "think about the unthinkable, justify the unjustifiable and rationalize the irrational."

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of our warped thinking is that nations cling to the impossible notion that at the same time they have the ability to threaten others with impunity they can tell the rest of the world that proliferation must be contained.

We saw this last week in Brussels when the American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright addressed her colleagues to the effect that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is "the most overriding security interest of our time." She went on to argue that the struggle to keep such weapons from falling into the wrong hands could be seen as the new "unifying threat" that binds the alliance in the twenty-first century.

But Mrs. Albright does not ask herself why the sauce that is good for the goose is not good for the gander. What exactly is the U.S. doing, what exactly are its nuclear allies, Britain and France, doing to set a plausible example of the imperative to do away with weapons of mass destruction? The policeman has no moral authority if he is stealing and raping too.

President Bill Clinton loves to say at regular intervals, "for the first time since the dawn of the nuclear age, there is not a single Russian missile pointed at America's children." This is an absurdly facile remark. Within minutes both Russia and the U.S. could program their missiles to aim at each other and could fire off 5,000 strategic missiles within half an hour. We live every day on a hair trigger and meanwhile negociations about bringing these numbers down are stymied by an impasse in the Russian Duma whose parliamentarians refuse to ratify the latest nuclear arms reduction treaty (START 2), a political freeze that took hold when Senator Jesse Helms managed to delay ratification in the U.S. Senate.

The best ploy is to skate round this ice block. Clinton could start off a process of reciprocal unilateral action with President Boris Yeltsin--first, to take their nuclear missiles off their accident prone launch-on-warning posture. The U.S. should take the first step, since America's second strike power is far superior to Russia's--the U.S. has 2,000 invulnerable warheads on submarines at sea compared with Russia's 200 mobile missiles.

Second, Washington should come to terms with the fact that Moscow is already engaged in a form of unilateral nuclear disarmament, albeit an unwilling one. Russian missiles almost literally are beginning to rust in their silos. Improperly maintained, their condition is visibly deteriorating. Washington should offer to match this de facto unilateral disarmament with its own. These two initiatives would do much to loosen the deadlock in the Duma and get mainstream disarmament back on the fast track.

Until the process of U.S./Russian nuclear disarmament picks up speed it would be wiser if Washington shelved its rhetoric about nuclear proliferation. Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones--especially at Christmas.


December 24, 1997, LONDON

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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