If the remark had been made by almost anyone outside the Bush administration, it might have passed unnoticed as a statement of the blindingly obvious. The fact it came from the US defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, makes it deeply disturbing.
The possession of "overwhelming nuclear power", he said, does not deter every type of conflict. We've had the Korean war, he told journalists in Australia, where he has been drumming up support for the US administration's missile defense project and its intention to play a more active role in Asia. We've had the Vietnam war, he added, the Gulf war, and "we have seen terrorists attack things".
Could it be that Rumsfeld had suddenly seen the light and recognized that because the US did not drop a nuclear bomb in these conflicts (though there were those who advocated such a course) nuclear deterrence had failed - even that nuclear weapons have no place in modern military doctrine?
Far from it. America's refusal to ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty is proof enough that nuclear weapons remain a central feature of US strategic policy. What is more, the principle that nuclear weapons could be used against non-nuclear countries continues to be an integral part of US and NATO doctrine.
No, what Rumsfeld is saying is that the US must retain overwhelming nuclear power, but that this is not enough. Hence the missile defense project which, Washington claims, is needed as an insurance policy against so-called rogue states whose leaders - undeterred by the threat of massive retaliation against their own people - might fire a missile at the US or blackmail the US by threatening to fire one.
There is in fact no evidence that the lack of missile defense has encouraged missile proliferation. Indeed, the contrary is far more plausible: the Bush administration's project is far more likely to encourage it.
As the nuclear physicist and Nobel peace prize laureate, Joseph Rotblat, has said, any missile defense system "could be saturated by the use of a larger number of missiles and offensive missiles are much cheaper than defensive ones".
If Saddam Hussein or North Korea's President Kim, or Colonel Gadafy, or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or Osama bin Laden, were as crazed as Washington affects to believe, they would be unlikely to be deterred by any US missile defense system.
It is certainly true that US bases and any other manifestation of American power and worldwide presence are vulnerable - the Israeli government recently accused Washington of caving into blackmail by terrorists for refusing to dock an aircraft carrier in Haifa. But missile defense cannot cope with that kind of threat.
Washington's missile defense project is instead just one manifestation of an epochal and potentially irreversible shift in the relationship between the US and the rest of the world. The strategy, the latest issue of Le Monde Diplomatique notes, was first formulated in 1992 by Paul Wolfowitz and Lewis Libby (now respectively deputy secretary of defense and national security adviser to Vice-President Dick Cheney) in a confidential Pentagon document.
They said the US should prevent any "hostile power from dominating regions" whose resources would allow it to attain great power status; should discourage attempts by any other advanced industrial nation to challenge US leadership or upset the established political and economic order; and should act to prevent the emergence of any potential global competitor. These are the people now running US defense policy.
This vision of global military, as well as economic, domination was set out at the height of the "unipolar moment", as the French paper puts it, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf war.
It is also significant that many central figures in the Bush administration have a military or strategic background in promoting the notion of the national security state, egged on by such corporations as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon. They include Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, Cheney, and John Negroponte, Bush's choice as US ambassador to the UN who played a key role in the secret war waged against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
Rumsfeld further gave the game way by warning of the "increasing vulnerability of the US" to a "Pearl Harbor in space". A report he commissioned says that threats come from "people like Osama bin Laden [who] may be able to acquire capabilities on satellites". The US defense department refers to "space control" "death stars", space-based lasers, and anti-satellite weapons. Vision for 2020, published by the US space command, foresees "space-based strike weapons ... emerging as an essential element of battlefield success and future warfare".
In its quest for the chimera of absolute security, the Bush administration is planning a future with "smart" weapons, unmanned aircraft, space and cyberspace weapons as well as national missile defense This aggressive, sod-the-rest-of-the-world, approach will cost tens of billions of dollars in the development of technology which no other power, not least Russia, can possibly hope to emulate - though they will be driven to do what they can to protect their own security.
In these circumstances could China (economically vibrant but with just 20 long-range ballistic missiles able to carry nuclear warheads) be blamed for speeding up its missile program, its sole means of projecting its power? Moscow has little option but to talk to Washington in the light of Bush's determination to abandon the 1972 anti-ballistic (ABM) treaty, under the terms of which the then two superpowers agreed to preserve mutual vulnerability under the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD).
Washington says MAD and the ABM are out of date. It describes MAD as perverse and somehow immoral. But given that it has helped to prevent nuclear war, in the absence of complete nuclear disarmament or at least the kind of arms control agreements the Bush administration shows absolutely no sign of accepting, it makes pretty good sense.
Bush meanwhile wants to press ahead with the further enlargement of NATO, with priority given to the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, formerly part of the Soviet Union. In answer to the obvious question of whether the NATO allies go to war if the Baltic states were attacked, serious western commentators are now suggesting that Russia herself should join NATO That would further consolidate American domination.
There is time, before it is too late, to try to get Washington, including the US Congress, to see sense, move towards a bi- polar, even tripolar world - has not Tony Blair raised the prospect of the European Union becoming a superpower?
They could even soberly discuss a limited system of regional, as opposed to national, missile defenses, or, better still, effective arms control. And rather than indulging in a posture of arrogant unlilateralism, Washington should consider the causes of the real threats to the US and where they come from.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001