An Uncomfortable Conversation About Nukes

Why are Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn writing opinion pieces in the Wall Street Journal calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons? Keep in mind, these four people are not just major defense hawks. People like Kissinger and Nunn helped push through the single most dangerous and destabilizing innovation in nuclear weaponry, the arming of missiles with multiple warheads. All four have supported every conflict the United States has engaged in since World War II, all have enthusiastically supported nuclear weapons, and none has suddenly gone kumbaya on us.

But all four have concluded that nuclear weapons no longer serve the interests of the great powers. Why the change of mind? The answer has some disquieting aspects.

Proliferation Consideration

The sudden concern with nuclear weapons is, in large part, due to the steady erosion of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the real danger that the Big Five -- China, Russia, the United States, France, and Britain -- may one day confront a host of nations similarly armed. Countries like Brazil, Argentina, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea, Egypt, Taiwan, and South Africa could all produce nuclear weapons in less than a decade if they wanted to. Several of these countries had begun the process before mothballing their programs several decades ago. Israel, Pakistan, and India, of course, already have nuclear weapons.

In the past, wars with countries like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq involved the loss of life and wealth -- far greater for them than for us -- but these countries never presented a serious obstacle to our use of military power. We might not "win" these wars in the conventional sense of the word, but none of these nations could prevent the United States from attacking them.

The acquisition of nuclear weapons has changed all that.

The Bush administration has invaded one member of its "axis of evil" and is threatening to attack a second, Iran. However, it is treading lightly in Northeast Asia. The Bush administration demonizes North Korea, but it has been careful not to let things get out of hand. Of course there are numerous reasons why White House rhetoric has not led to a war on the Korean peninsula, some of which have nothing to do with the fact that the North Koreans have nuclear weapons. But it is hard to argue with the conclusion that North Korea's nuclear weapons program has played a role in holding the U.S. military at bay. It is a powerful lesson for small countries threatened by bigger ones and an uncomfortable intervention in the non-proliferation debate.

More than Your Average Weapon

It is a misnomer to talk about nuclear weapons as "weapons" in any meaningful sense. As John Hersey noted more than 60 years ago, the bomb that flattened Hiroshima was not just a bigger bomb. What it inflicted on that city and its residents is almost beyond human comprehension. Throughout his Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, Hersey struggled to make his readers understand what happened in Hiroshima, occasionally resorting to the devices of fiction to get his point across.

And that bomb was the equivalent of a firecracker compared to today's nuclear weapons. "Fat Boy," the weapon that flattened an entire city in a millisecond, was 15 kilotons. The average warhead today is between 150 and 250 kilotons, and there are monsters out there whose power is measured in megatons.

A nuclear war between India and Pakistan -- something both countries came perilously close to at Kargil in 1999 -- would do more than kill tens of millions of people. If both sides exchanged 50 warheads the size of the Hiroshima bomb, it would destroy 70% of the ozone in northern latitudes, and 45% of the ozone in the mid-latitudes where most of the world's population resides. The loss of the earth's protective ozone would mean a sharp rise in skin cancers and cataracts from massive increases in ultraviolet radiation.

In short, a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan -- two minor nuclear powers -- could derail the economies of nations across the globe, in particular those in the United States and Europe, whose northern latitude position make them particularly vulnerable to ozone depletion.

The Gang of Four

Enter Kissinger, Nunn, Perry, and Shultz. Nuclear weapons were fine with them when the Big Five and Israel held a monopoly on the devices. But India and Pakistan have joined the club, and several others are waiting in the wings. However, if the "Big Five plus three" proliferation dam has cracks in it, they are wholly self-inflicted.

When 181 nations signed the 1968 NPT they thought they were taking the first step toward the abolition of nuclear weapons. In short, they took the Treaty seriously. Article VI of the NPT, for instance, states: "Each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measure relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international controls."

This is the heart of the NPT. The smaller countries agreed to forgo nuclear weapons only because the nuclear powers agreed to scrap theirs and, further, disarm their conventional forces. Instead, the Big Five increased the number of warheads in their arsenals and raised their military budgets. Finally, when they threatened non-nuclear countries with nuclear weapons, they were violating a 1978 addendum to the NPT (which was reaffirmed in 1995).

President George W. Bush used such threats against Iraq, Syria, and the Sudan, and in 2006, former French President Jacques Chirac warned "states who would use terrorist means against us" risk a "conventional" response, but "it could also be of a different kind."

As for the section of Article VI that requires disarmament: the official U.S. military budget for fiscal 2009 will be $522 billion, but that figure doesn't include nuclear weapons, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, and a host of military programs in the State Department, Justice Department, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Excluding the interest we pay on past military debts ($207 billion), the real figure is $728 billion.

Even using the faux $522 figure, however, U.S. military spending makes up 47% of the world's total. Adds the military expenditures of our NATO allies and that figure jumps to 70%.

In comparison, our "enemies" -- Cuba, Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Sudan -- make up one percent of the world's arms spending. Iran, which President Bush calls the most dangerous country in the world, spends $5 billion on armaments, what one might find rummaging through the couch pillows at the Pentagon. Teheran's entire budget would max out at 2.5 B-2 bombers.

The Gang of Four is worried that these "enemies" will try to close the enormous gap in military spending and capabilities by developing nuclear weapons. That, and their general fear of nukes falling into the "wrong hands," explains their interest in taking the NPT seriously.

Beyond the Gang of Four

There is certainly a growing sentiment to get rid of the world's nuclear weapons. In Germany, the increasingly popular Left Party is pressing for the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons. "If the federal government had some spine, it would immediately call on the U.S. to remove all nuclear weapons," Gregor Gysi, co-leader of the Left Party toldDer Spiegel, "and preferably by destroying them." Pressured by the Left Party, the Social Democratic Party, a minority member of Germany's ruling coalition, is moving in the same direction. Niels Annen, the Party's foreign policy expert, told the Berliner Zeitung that removing nuclear weapons from Europe "would be a huge step forward in terms of nuclear disarmament."

The United States is estimated to have between 150 and 240 B-61 warheads in Germany, Holland, Italy, Belgium, and Turkey.

Australia's Labor Party Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has called for establishing an "international commission on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament" to lay the groundwork for reviewing the NPT in 2010 and begin the process of abolishing nuclear weapons.

In the United States, 79 religious organizations, representing Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims have demanded that the Bush administration end its plans to reactivate U.S. nuclear weapons plants. "We call on our political leaders to show the moral and political courage necessary to bring about a shift in our nation's nuclear weapons posture," the organizations wrote in a letter to the Energy Department. "Today we have an historic opportunity to begin the journey out from under the shadow of nuclear weapons."

Presidential candidate Barak Obama said in October that "America seeks a world in which there are no nuclear weapons."

But any successful movement to abolish nuclear weapons will not only have to see that Article VI of the NPT is carried out, it will also have to address the Treaty's preamble: " accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, States must refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State..."

As long as the great powers maintain the ability to invade countries, overthrow regimes, and bomb nations into subservience, weaker countries will inevitably try to offset those advantages. The quickest and cheapest way to do that is to develop nuclear weapons.

The threat of nuclear proliferation will not end until all nations have given them up. And the danger of nuclear weapons will not disappear until the weak need no longer fear the strong.

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