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A major step towards the
abolition of nuclear



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

Comments directly to

August 24, 2006

LONDON - Many of the great and the good have dismissed the utility of nuclear weapons as well as finding the idea of their use morally indefensible but still they exist in enormous numbers in the arsenals of the great powers.

Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk both came to be convinced during their tenure in the Kennedy administration that their use was "unthinkable". President George H.W. Bush has written that in private he ruled out a nuclear response during the 1991 Gulf War although in public his Administration did not. General Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in his autobiography recalls chiding his boss, Dick Cheney, for even considering it.

Paul Nitze, one of the principal architects of containing the Soviet Union by nuclear deterrence, went even further. He argued in a Washington Post article in 1994 that it was time to "junk" America's nuclear dependence and rely instead on smart conventional weapons.

But in the 12 years since the Nitze article few analysts or senior officials have joined the debate on whether or not precision conventional weapons could do the job alone. But as Dennis Gormley argues in the current issue of the quarterly journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a careful analysis of the reports by both government and think tanks shows that conventional weapons can do anything that a nuclear weapon might be called upon to do, and to do it with less casualties and less political fall-out.

Ironically, conservative as he was in so many ways, it was President Ronald Reagan who tried to seize this bull by the horns. In late 1986 at a summit meeting with the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, he offered to eliminate all offensive ballistic missiles within ten years, provided that each side would then be free to deploy strategic missile defences. According to Steve Andreasen, who has served in the White House as Director of Defence Policy on the National Security Council, Gorbachev said no. However a year later the two presidents did agree to the more limited idea of eliminating all intermediate range cruise and ballistic missiles.

Reagan's' "zero ballistic missiles" (ZBM) demands another look, particularly since the element in the deal that the Soviets did not like, missile defences, is already accepted. Of all disarmament initiatives it is the one most easy to monitor and implement. And it would abolish, as Andreasen writes, "the most awesome weapon system ever devised". And yet to placate the worriers it would leave nuclear-armed planes and cruise missiles in place, whilst dealing with the issue that President George W. Bush raised during his first campaign for office, when he observed that the dilemma of ballistic missiles was that, "for two nations at peace keeping so many weapons on high alert may create unacceptable risks of accidental or unauthorized launch."

The beauty of the Reaganesque proposal is that it can easily be grasped by both politicians and public opinion. Most disarmament proposals have involved labyrinthine negotiations through the policy thickets.

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A global ZBM would reduce the incentive for either the U.S. or Russia to strike the other first with nuclear weapons. It would reduce the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch and, moreover, simplify the challenge for missile defences. Most important, it would satisfy a craving that is evident in much of American and Russian public opinion - to take each other off the enemy's list. After all neither side has ever fired a deadly shot in anger against the other.

Needless to say, in the age of Bush 2, when pre-emption is now a doctrine, it would make it impossible to pre-empt with nuclear weapons a threat from a rogue state or terrorist group, which is why, from Reagan on, proponents of ZBM put great of emphasis on improving the accuracy and destructive potential of conventional weapons.

Would Russia, China, Britain and France agree? Russia would find that it would simplify its strategic position. China would appear to lose out at first sight. But it has never chosen to build up its ballistic missile force against the U.S., which suggests it could be persuaded to rely on aircraft for its Asian defence. Britain and France would appear to be the big losers but London and Paris must be persuaded that it would be a major strategic gain to eliminate the threat of total annihilation.

Besides, sooner or later, they both have to face up to the big unanswered question: who do they think they are ever going to use nuclear weapons against? If Britain and France can't find the honest answer to this question then no one can. They should not be the ones who stand in the way of what would be a major step forward towards the elimination of all nuclear weapons.


Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


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


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