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.

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.