The Nuclear Beast Reborn

NEW YORK: Rejection by the US Senate of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was a torpedo aimed at the fragile global nuclear arms control regime built in the final decades of the Cold War. It comes after a series of recent blows to that regime, including: reports that China may be planning to expand and modernize its strategic nuclear arsenal by using information obtained through spying on America; second, the successful test by the US a few weeks ago of a prototype national missile defense (NMD) system; third, reports that India and Pakistan are proceeding to "weaponize" their nuclear arsenals (meaning that the intend to mate their bombs with delivery vehicles); fourth, the recommendation to the Indian government that it create forces to sustain a policy of nuclear deterrence; and, fifth, the takeover of Pakistan by armed forces favoring a hardline with India. Taken together, these events have the potential to sweep aside today's nuclear arms control regime -- something that the Republican majority in America's Senate would not be sorry to see.

That arms control regime, like the arsenals of the US and Russia, is a triad. The most important leg is the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1969. It is, in fact, a slow-motion nuclear abolition treaty, under which nations lacking nuclear weapons agree to renounce them forever, while those that possess nuclear weapons (consisting in 1968 of America, the USSR, England, France, and China) agree, over time, to reduce and ultimately eliminate their nuclear arsenals. Today, 185 nations are signatories to the Treaty.

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The second leg is the bipolar Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) between Moscow and Washington. Begun during the Cold War, they paradoxically ground to a halt when that conflict ended. If the aim of the NPT is to rein in "horizontal" proliferation, the aim of START is to reverse "vertical" proliferation -- to progressively reduce the twin mountains of nuclear weapons that were heaped up in the US and the Soviet Union for purposes of the Cold War. The third leg is the Test-ban Treaty, which, like the NPT, is universal in scope. Its aim is qualitative disarmament, placing modest limits on technical improvements of nuclear arms.

Although each leg originated independently of the other, they are now interdependent. None is likely to survive without the other two. Today, all are in jeopardy. A breakdown of the test ban undermines the NPT, to whose renewal the world's nuclear have-not nations agreed in 1985 on condition that the test ban would be ratified. Continued stalemate of the START talks, whose progress was another condition of the NPTs renewal, will have the same undermining effect.

But these talks, stalled since the end of the Cold War, are threatened by America's bid to establish National Missile Defense, which Russia regards as menacing and contrary to the US/Soviet Treaty banning most missile defenses. The strategic framework of START is the doctrine of deterrence, which holds that each of the two former superpowers must be able to destroy the other after suffering a first strike. If the US can defend itself against nuclear attack, the Russians argue, their retaliatory capacity will be eroded and deterrence undone.

China adds that if the US deploys anti-nuclear defenses in Asia to protect Taiwan and Japan, as America threatens to do, China will have to build up its offense nuclear arsenal -- perhaps making use of information that China obtained from the US through spying. In that case, China, needing to test its new warheads, is likely to drive through the gap in the testing regime just blasted by America's Senate. The fruits of spying are not very useful to China, but the combination of spying and testing could be.

National Missile Defense works against the entire project of arms control: in the minds of the system's supporters, it provides safety against nuclear attack for a US that has washed its hands of nonproliferation by scuttling the test ban. Deployment of the NMD and rejection of the test ban are the twin pillars of the Republican vision of the nuclear future. The first will give America a shield; the second will keep its nuclear sword sharp. The US, these people believe, will maintain overwhelming nuclear superiority by nuclear testing while swatting down attacks by "rogue" proliferators with missile defenses.

The fact that fifty years of the Cold War show nuclear superiority to be a chimera and that the defenses are not yet known to be technically feasible somehow leaves the minds of these strategists unaffected. In the words of Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, "We have never been able to have peace through paper. It's always been peace through strength that the United States has put forward."

Meanwhile, in South Asia, the world's first full-scale nuclear arms race independent of the Cold War receives fresh impetus from local events. When India and Pakistan exchanged volleys of nuclear tests in May of 1998, Western observers suggested that nuclear standoff between the two countries would have a sobering influence, as it allegedly did upon the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War. Instead, India and Pakistan fought their first hot war in twenty-five years in Kashmir. The recommendation that India create a nuclear arsenal, the reported weaponization there and in Pakistan, and the military coup in Pakistan point to an acceleration of South Asia's arms race.

East and West no longer have a monopoly on nuclear folly; the South has joined in. But India and Pakistan are not separated from the rest of the world any more than the US Senate is. If these countries return to testing, will China be far behind? If China tests, will Russia and the US maintain unilateral restraint?

The arms control agreements of the Cold War were never more than gossamer threads thrown over a nuclear beast never truly under anyone's control. They were mere outlines for more serious measures, that, even when the Cold War ended ten years ago, were never put in place. Now, the beast is reawakening, the threads are snapping one after another, and the world faces the task, neglected for ten critical years, not so much of restoring as of reinventing the control of nuclear arms.