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From MAD to madder in Genoa




July 18, 2001

LONDON - Time moves on so rapidly that policy makers may forget that acronyms that were the common currency of a decade or two ago are now nothing to younger people today. Stop people in the street or even on the university campus and ask what MAD means and you'll get a glassy stare.

The leaders of the seven major Western countries themselves, meeting this weekend in Genoa, are not that well informed either. Most of them at the time of the Cold War were immersed more in the domestic nitty gritty of their countries; political advancement rarely came from knowing the nuts and bolts of foreign and defence policy.

Thus it is the civilian experts - the Donald Rumsfelds of the world - who set the pace on these things and who win their political prowess by playing unashamedly on the deepest fears of an uninformed but easily worried public.

MAD in its heyday was a useful concept. It said something sophisticated to the political decision makers and it rang bells with the public at large. It is the acronym for Mutually Assured Destruction- that if you, the enemy, set out to destroy my country with a nuclear bombardment you will be destroyed too. It was codified by Presidents Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev, both Cold War warriors, but shrewd enough to know when enough was enough. Thus between them they created the Anti- Ballistic Missile Treaty in an attempt to stabilise a nuclear warhead competition that had got way out of control.

The requirements of MAD had become relative, not absolute. If one side seemed to be gaining a quantitative or qualitative advantage in nuclear forces, the other had to respond and arsenals went through the ceiling. The ABM treaty put a stop to that. By foregoing national missile defences the two countries made themselves openly vulnerable to the other side. Deterrence- the threat of total retaliation- was left as the dose of ice-cold water that compelled both sides to abjure the use of nuclear weapons.

Now Rumsfeld and his acolyte President George Bush seem determined to put all this on one side. Strangely, they argue that deterrence is no longer enough. What was good for the goose of the Soviet Union is apparently not good enough for the gander of North Korea or even China. These states would not be rational like the old USSR, they appear to argue. They would not fear total retaliation. They are obviously a different breed of men who have no fear.

But to unilaterally break a solemn international treaty should be no easy matter and yet, despite the chorus of criticism from nearly every American ally, Bush and Rumsfeld have not only held steady to their plan for missile defences they have now declared they are accelerating it and the treaty will be breached in a matter of months. Moreover, there is little sign of the great cuts in nuclear armaments that Bush has averred are the policy's corollary.

Bush and Rumsfeld are conceivably right to dismiss the arguments of those who will say this will start a new Cold War. Russia is now so reduced in stature it has a national budget the same size as Belgium's. Its nuclear forces are becoming nearly obsolete. And President Vladimir Putin has wisely set his political sights on becoming an accepted part of Europe. Yet this is only part of it.

The other part is what happens to the chemistry of the rest of the world when the one superpower unilitaterally breaks one of the post war world's most solemn international treaties, and does it for reasons that everyone else judges are less than grave, if not trivial. What does it do to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that American presidents since Kennedy have struggled to create and then to sustain? It is a treaty that has had a profound effect, avoiding the proliferation of nuclear weapons to most of the 30 or so countries that Kennedy foresaw would have them by the end of the last century.

If the ABM is torpedoed we should reasonably expect to see the rapid spread of nuclear weapons' states- immature ones with poor command and control and weak supervision of nuclear materials that can be easily trafficked to terrorist groups. Thus, the launch of a program of U.S. national missile defences will create the very problem that it sets out to head off. Even now there is a honourable way out. It is to concentrate less on a national missile defence for continental America, which is a vast and unbelievably costly undertaking, and concentrate instead on theatre missile defences i.e. where U.S. troops overseas are threatened or where friendly but small allies are threatened in the course of a war by missiles, as was Israel during the Gulf War and Taiwan could be during a conflict with China. There are some inside the Pentagon who have argued for this.

More important, President Putin has argued a form of this- concentrating on destroying missiles shortly after the point of take-off. This is both easier to do and it speaks more to current issues- short-range missiles that pose far greater threats to U.S. allies and American forces abroad than missiles able to reach U.S. soil.

Neither do theatre defences give the Russians and the Chinese the impression that the U.S. is trying to neutralize the potential effectiveness of their intercontinental nuclear forces, which in turn would make it less necessary for India (and then Pakistan) to build itself an ever larger nuclear armoury.

Cooperation with Russia is everything- not to avoid all out nuclear war between enemies- that is long past- but to avoid an accidental launch of an antiquated unreliable Russian nuclear missile kept on a hair trigger alert. And to continue the under-reported Cooperative Threat Reduction Programmes with Russia.

By the end of 2000 this joint American-Russian effort had secured the deactivation of 5,014 Russian nuclear warheads, destroyed 407 intercontinental missiles and 366 missile silos, eliminated 68 strategic bombers and 256 launchers from ballistic missile-carrying submarines, and destroyed 17 ballistic missile submarines and 204 long-range cruise missiles.

Bush and Rumsfeld, despite all they say, are leading us all into a dangerous new world of unlimited MAD. What does it take to stop them? This surely is the big question for this weekend's summit. The leaders of the Seven have to find an answer - or allow us to be driven madder.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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