There’s another tsunami coming -- a tidal wave of nuclear proliferation. This one is human-made. So it can be prevented, if enough people know about in time. We do have an early warning system: the news media. When it comes to nuclear proliferation, though, our warning system is pretty much out of commission. We are nearly as defenseless as last week’s tsunami victims.
Oh, we do spend U.S. tax dollars to warn the world of the nuclear danger. On December 27, the Voice of America broadcast news of a UN report on proliferation: the international community "is approaching a point at which the erosion of the non-proliferation regime could become irreversible and result in a cascade of proliferation." At least 40 nations have the technology to build nuclear weapons at relatively short notice.
But the VOA only mentions two of those nations as dangers: Iran and North Korea. What about the other 38? Apparently, in this age of a “what-me-worry” president, we just aren’t supposed to worry.
At the tail end of its news item, the VOA adds this: “Nuclear issues will be discussed next year in New York, during the review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty -- the legal cornerstone of non-proliferation efforts. Under terms of the pact, non-nuclear states are bound not to acquire nuclear weapons while the five declared nuclear states (the United States, France, Britain, China and Russia) pledge to disarm. The four-week session in May will bring the 187 signatories together to debate whether the treaty needs to be revised and strengthened to meet the nuclear challenges in the years ahead.”
But neither the VOA, nor any U.S. news media, have reported the important news about that meeting in May: the Bush administration is going to New York not to strengthen the NPT, but to destroy it.
Do you want to know why? You could study every news outlet in the USA and not get an answer. You have to go to Japan, where the Kyodo News Agency reported a few days ago: “The United States plans to suggest that a 2005 international conference to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty should invalidate a document adopted at a 2000 meeting in which five nuclear powers committed to an ‘unequivocal undertaking’ to a nuclear-free world, according to U.S. government and congressional sources.”
In other words, the U.S. wants to scrap the very heart of the NPT, the deal that says if all you non-nuclear nations stay that way, we nuclear nations will move steadily toward getting rid of our nukes. If the treaty were permanent, we’d be stuck with that deal. That’s why the U.S., under the Clinton administration, insisted that the treaty be reviewed and subject to change every five years.
Now the Bushies are planning, not merely to change it, but to make it meaningless. They want to tell all the non-nuclear states: “Y’all must stay non-nuclear, but we’ll have as many nukes as we want. We’ll make new nukes but keep the old. And if you don’t like it, just take a good look at Iraq, because you could be next.”
According to the Kyodo News Agency report, this makes perfect sense in Bush-logic: “A U.S. government official described the final accord adopted during the 2000 NPT review conference as a ‘simply historical document’ and pointed out the need to adopt a new document reflecting drastic changes in international security conditions, including the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.”
The NPT is an international treaty signed by the president and ratified by the Senate. Most of us thought that made it law. How silly of us. It’s not “a binding guideline or anything like that," the anonymous official explained. The idea that the U.S. should move toward nuclear disarmament is now “outdated,” so it must go.
“A congressional source also pointed out that an article in the NPT which requires nuclear powers to make a serious commitment to disarmament was created against the backdrop of a nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War,” the Japanese article continues.
Now that no other country has nuclear capability even remotely close to ours, why should we let all those little countries tell us what nukes we can or cannot have? When George W. was planning the invasion of Afghanistan, he reportedly said: “At some point, we may be the only ones left [in the coalition]. That’s okay with me. We are America.” No doubt his attitude about nukes is pretty much the same.
Administration policy now authorizes preemptive nuclear attack against nations that it says are close to acquiring nuclear weapons. No proof needed. Suspicion is good enough. And if the rest of the world is outraged, well, screw ‘em. We are America.
All this fits the Bush pattern of nuclear irresponsibility, which Lawrence Korb recently described in the Boston Globe. In the last four years, the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, kept the Senate from ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, refused to commit itself to halting future tests, and began work on two new nuclear weapons. The U.S. now spends nearly $7 billion a year for nuclear research and upgrading US nuclear capabilities, and the spending curve keeps rising.
But if the administration demands this radical change to the NPT, it will take nuclear irresponsibility to a new level, because it will effectively destroy the Treaty. If the U.S. won’t even pay lip service to the idea of a non-nuclear world, why should Iran, North Korea, or any other nation renounce their right to have their own nukes? If the U.S. is boosting its own nuclear program, why shouldn’t others follow suit?
The only reason the Bushies will give them is fear of U.S. attack. That takes away the last fig-leaf of moral justification from U.S. non-proliferation efforts. It turns the world into a schoolyard where the U.S. is the reigning bully, ruling by nuclear intimidation alone.
Our news media keep telling us that it’s only Iran and North Korea we need worry about. But any country can be added to the “axis of evil” list. The British press is now reporting that Egypt has done nuclear weapons research too. As long as the Egyptians are “good guys,” we won’t hear much about that in the U.S. media. But if the Egyptians step out of line, they could easily end up part of the “axis.”
The message coming from the Bush administration and the U.S. media is clear. It’s not about the danger of weapons of mass destruction. It’s about using the fear of that danger, along with our own growing nuclear arsenal, as a club to rule the schoolyard roost.
Iran and North Korea are already showing quite effectively that the schoolyard bully approach won’t work. Either all nations make the same commitment to a nuclear-free world, or we end up where the UN report sees us going: “the erosion of the non-proliferation regime could become irreversible and result in a cascade of proliferation." Which route is safer for America? It should be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, we face four more years of a scarecrow administration with no brain.
May 1, as the NPT meeting in New York begins, will be a day for massive demonstrations to warn the wold of the coming nuclear tidal wave. It will be a day to say “No” to Bush’s brainless nuclear bully approach and “Yes” to a nuclear-free world. It’s not too early to begin sounding the alarm. Those of us who care about the safety of America and the world can’t wait for the mainstream news media to do it. We have to take care of that business ourselves.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org