The President's Nuclear Threat

''THE NATIONAL Security Strategy of the United States,'' the document published by the Bush administration last week, explains the rush to war, lays bare how much more dangerous the world is under President Bush, and shows that neither he nor his advisers understand the history they have lived through. In a statement full of disturbing assertions, perhaps the most troubling is the sweeping dismissal of nuclear nonproliferation agreements among nations in favor of ''proactive counterproliferation efforts'' that will now originate in Washington.

A myopic fixation on unproven fears about the capabilities and intentions of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea has blinded the Bush administration to one of the great contemporary triumphs of American-led diplomacy. Far from being a failure, the nonproliferation regime, originating with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970, has been a success, the partiality of which underscores its significance.

As I first learned in conversation with nonproliferation expert James Walsh of Harvard's Kennedy School, the true wonder of nuclear weapons is how few nations have come to possess them, how many nations have renounced nukes altogether.

In 1970, five nations openly possessed nuclear weapons, but many others stood on the nuclear threshold. Since then Israel, India, and Pakistan have joined the club, but consider what else happened. Argentina and Brazil, mutually suspicious, both embarked upon nuclear weapons development, but then renounced it. South Africa did likewise, and so did Taiwan.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus could have clung to remnant nuclear capacity and expanded on it, but all three did the opposite. In 1994, even the demonized North Korea, responding to US diplomatic pressure, halted plutonium production, and South Korea stayed on the nuclear sideline. When India exploded three nukes in May 1998, the American intelligence establishment was, as usual, completely surprised, but the real surprise, as one sees in ''India's Nuclear Bomb'' by George Perkovich, should have been that India, having tested its first nuke in 1974, had waited so long.

Nonproliferation defined the international order. The exceptions only prove the point. We could very easily be living in a world with nuclear weapons as common, say, as high-tech fighter aircraft - with countries like Egypt, Indonesia, Australia, and numerous others armed with nukes. Pakistan's nuclear capacity, despite that nation's grave impoverishment, is a signal of how widely dispersed the weapon could be.

The nations that renounced nuclear ambition, and the 167 nations that renewed the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995, have done this not out of a preference for powerlessness, but out of commitment to two foundational principles. The first is the ideal of ultimate nuclear disarmament. The cornerstone of the treaty is Article VI in which the five possessor states (United States, Russia, China, France, Britain) agree ''to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date, and to nuclear disarmament.''

That process has proceeded in fits and starts, but until now it has remained at the center of international hope. In last week's statement, Bush renounced the ideal of eventual nuclear disarmament, by renouncing any ''intention of allowing any foreign power to catch up with the huge lead the United States has opened since the fall of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago.'' American military supremacy, based on nukes, is forever. And so, therefore, is the inherently destabilizing gulf between nuclear haves and have-nots.

The second principle that allowed nonproliferation to take hold is the idea of democracy. The Bush strategy claims to be at the service of democracy, but what Bush fails to grasp is that you can't have democratic nations while repudiating democratic values among nations. The Non-Proliferation Treaty worked because it embodied the idea that nations, even if unequal in power or treasure, are mutually accountable, devoted to common standards, and bound by shared commitments. The main structure of democracy among nations consists precisely in that web of treaties (ABM, Kyoto, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty - now Nuclear Non-Proliferation) that is brushed away by Bush's ''distinctly American internationalism.''

''We will not hesitate to act alone,'' Bush declares, promising to extend American sway by ''convincing or compelling states to accept their sovereign responsibilities.'' The United States has become a ludicrous self-contradiction: a dictator state dictating democracy. And how does Bush imagine others nations will respond?

It is certainly true that no power will compete with us for world dominance, but in the nuclear age total throw-weight is irrelevant. Other nations will inevitably respond to this unprecedented American swagger exactly by pursuing nuclear capability - if only to force Washington to treat them with respect.

Proliferation squared. With nuclear know-how dispersed and, especially, with Russian nuclear materials and capabilities headed to market, the only possible protection from eventual nuclear disaster is precisely the tissue of international agreement that the United States has just crushed and trashed, like used Kleenex.

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