The Absolute Weapon

LAST WEEK the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to allow the development of low-yield nuclear weapons -- a reversal of a ban that had been in effect since 1993. According to press reports, the committee also approved funding to study bunker-busting nuclear weapons as well as funding to speed up preparations for underground nuclear testing. These decisions, taken in response to Bush administration requests, come as no surprise in the light of the Nuclear Posture Review that was released in January 2002, but they amount to first steps in the implementation of the administration's radical new nuclear policy. As The New York Times reported, the Senate Committee proposals are slated to be considered by the House Armed Services Committee today and by the full Senate next week. In each of these forums, Democrats should vigorously oppose the Bush administration's dangerous attempts to reshape America's relationship to nuclear weapons. Here is why:

The proposals relativize ''the absolute weapon.'' In 1946, only a few months after Hiroshima, the political theorist Bernard Brodie published a book with that phrase as its title -- a first statement of the fact that nuclear weapons are unique, have changed warfare forever, and must always be considered apart. That became the consensus of international statecraft, a key to the fact that nuclear weapons were never used during the Cold War. Any blurring of the distinction between nuclear weapons and conventional weapons was understood to move the world across the nuclear threshold again -- to disaster. It is that consensus that the Bush administration is overturning by lumping conventional and nuclear weapons together as ''offensive strike weapons'' and by proposing to develop ''usable'' low-yield nukes as part of the standard arsenal.

These proposals, if enacted, will exacerbate ''the security dilemma,'' a phrase referring to the built-in paradox that was laid bare by the Cold War. ''An increase in one state's security,'' as political scientist Robert Jervis put it, ''will automatically and inadvertently decrease that of others.'' The dynamic is inevitable: When one state enhances its military capacity, other states take steps to match it. Compared with the hugely expensive and unchallenged conventional force that the United States now possesses, nuclear capacity (like chemical and biological capacity) is cheap and relatively easily achieved. The security dilemma squared.

These proposals, if enacted, would violate Clause 6 of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which commits the United States (like other nuclear powers) to work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons, not toward their normalization. The Bush administration's effective abandonment of the nonproliferation regime may be its single gravest folly -- and in violating the Nonproliferation Treaty, the administration would be violating the law of the United States.

In Bush's defense, one Republican senator said last week, ''Experience has shown that nonproliferation treaties really don't have any effect on countries like North Korea, India, and Pakistan.'' But what about countries like Brazil, South Africa, or Sweden? Do we really want a world in which every nation is given urgent new cause to nuclearize its arsenal? The United States meets the challenge of so-called nuclear rogues by behaving like one.

All of this makes the United States less secure, not more. Indeed, the very idea of ''national security'' has become mythical. The only meaning ''national security'' can have now assumes an international mutuality, a system of acknowledged -- and treaty-enforced -- interdependence among states that will check the armed nihilism of nonstate actors, which is the real threat in the world today. The Bush administration's nuclear policy moves in exactly the opposite direction, keeping in place an outmoded system of nationalist rivalry that has nearly destroyed the globe twice. Those who think of America's new dominance as empire are stuck in the 19th century; our vast power will not protect us in a world where, because of new technologies and information systems, methods of mass disruption and violence are cheap and unstoppable.

These proposals represent a complete failure to imagine what such moves look like to other nations, both our friends and adversaries. As the war in Iraq shows, the United States is the one country in the world for which further nuclear capacity is entirely superfluous. Others must ask then, Why is the United States preparing to take such steps? Washington's motive may be the moral good of an orderly world, but its self-anointed militarism can only look to others, friends included, like arrogant swagger. Is this really what the United States has become?

As the presidential election season gets underway, the differences between Democrats and Republicans are muted, as if Democrats are reluctant to draw attention to their inbred opposition to Bush's various revolutions. But his radical overthrow of nuclear caution is by far the gravest issue facing this nation. We know what Republicans will do about it. Beginning today, the urgent question is, What about the Democrats?

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