The review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), a five-yearly event, opened in New York on May 2 without benefit of an agenda. The conference had no agenda because the world has no agenda with respect to nuclear arms. Broadly speaking, two groups of nations are setting the pace of events. One -- the possessors of nuclear arms under the terms of the treaty, comprising the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China -- wants to hold on to its nuclear arsenals indefinitely. The other group -- call them the proliferators -- has only recently acquired the weapons or would like to do so. Notable among them are North Korea, which by its own account has built a small arsenal, and Iran, which appears to be using its domestic nuclear-power program to create a nuclear-weapon capacity.
As the conference began, Iran announced that it would soon end a moratorium on the production of fissile materials and Pyongyang declared that it had become a full-fledged nuclear power -- a declaration buttressed by testimony in the Senate from the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, that North Korea now has rockets capable of landing nuclear warheads on the United States. If the two countries establish themselves as nuclear powers, a long list of other countries in the Middle East and North Asia may seek to follow suit. In that case, the NPT will be a dead letter, and the gates of unlimited proliferation will swing open.
The two groups of nations are in collision. The possessors want to stop the proliferators, and the proliferators want to defy them as well as ask them to get rid of their own mountainous nuclear arsenals. One of the liveliest debates at the conference concerns the nuclear fuel cycle, whereby fuel for both nuclear power and nuclear bomb materials is made. In the possessor countries, proposals abound to restrict this capacity to themselves, thus digging a moat around not only their arsenals but their nuclear productive capacities as well. The proliferators respond that the world's nuclear double-standard should not be fortified but eliminated: In the long run, either everyone should have the right to the fuel cycle -- and for that matter to the bombs -- or no one should. (This was the view of Pakistan and India until, in May 1998, they remedied the inequity in their own cases by testing nuclear weapons and declaring themselves nuclear powers.)
Far more contentious is the new American military doctrine of pre-emptive war, aimed at stopping proliferation by force, as the United States said it sought to do by overthrowing the government of Iraq. Inasmuch as the Bush administration has suggested that even nuclear force might be used, the new policy represents the ultimate extreme of the double standard: The United States will use nuclear weapons to stop other countries from getting those same weapons. The proliferators accordingly fear a world whose commanding heights will be guarded by the nuclear cannons of a few nations, while the rest of the world cowers in the planet's lowlands and back alleys. Nuclear disarmament, once the domain of the peace-loving, would become a prime engine of war in an imposed, militarized global order.
The debate between the nuclear haves and have-nots is probably unresolvable anytime soon. Certainly it will not be settled at the review conference. And yet, as is true of so many adversaries, the two groups of nations have more in common with each other than with other nations: They both want nuclear weapons. And if one looks at what is happening on the ground, a remarkable uniformity appears. All the parties in this quarrel are expanding their nuclear capacities and missions. In a sense the two groups, even as they threaten each other with annihilation, are cooperating in nuclearizing the globe.
The end of the cold war was supposed to be the beginning of a farewell to nuclear danger, but now, fifteen years later, it's clear that a nuclear renaissance is under way. China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Britain are all increasing their arsenals and/or their delivery systems. (In an amazingly undernoticed development, the shadow of danger from Chinese nuclear weapons is falling over larger and larger areas of the United States.) The United States, even as it reduces the number of its alert nuclear weapons -- though not the total number of nuclear weapons, alert or otherwise -- is rotating its nuclear guns away from their traditional Cold War targets and toward Third World sites. (The United States and Russia built up such an excess of nuclear bombs during the Cold War that they can string out their dismantlement almost indefinitely without carving into their joint capacity to finish off most of human civilization.) Britain likewise is redirecting its targeting. Its Defense Secretary has stated that even the modest step of declaring no-first-use of nuclear weapons "would be incompatible with our and NATO's doctrine of deterrence, nor would it further nuclear disarmament objectives." In other words, Britain may find it necessary to initiate a nuclear war to achieve nuclear disarmament. Finally, individuals and terrorist groups are reaching for the bomb and other weapons of mass destruction. Osama bin Laden, for instance, has declared that obtaining such is the "religious duty" of Muslims, and September 11 gave us an example of how he might use them.
All but unheard in the snarling din are the true voices of peace -- voices calling on the one group of nations to resist the demonic allure of nuclear arms and on the other group to rid themselves of the ones they have, leaving the world with a single standard: no nuclear weapons. Of the countries represented at the conference, fully 183 have found it entirely possible to live without atomic arsenals, and few -- barring a breakdown of the treaty -- show any sign of changing their minds. In the UN General Assembly the vast majority of them have voted regularly for nuclear abolition. Behind those votes stand the people of the world, who, when asked, agree. Even the people of the United States are in the consensus. Presented by AP pollsters in March with the statement, "No country should be allowed to have nuclear weapons," 66% agreed. In other countries, the percentage of supporters is higher. On the day their voices are heard and their will made active, the end of the nuclear age will be in sight.
Jonathan Schell, author of The Unconquerable World, is the Nation Institute's Harold Willens Peace Fellow. The Jonathan Schell Reader was recently published by Nation Books.
This article will appear in the May 23rd issue of The Nation Magazine.
© 2005 Jonathan Schell