Mar 15, 2010
Think of Niagara Falls. Think of the onrushing current as the river
pours itself toward the massive cascade. Imagine a lone swimmer a
hundred yards or so upstream, desperately stroking against the current
to keep from being swept over the precipice. That swimmer is President
Obama, the river is the world, and the falls is the threat of unchecked
Henry James used the image of Niagara to describe the rush into World
War I: ". . .the tide that bore us along.'' Hannah Arendt defined the
wars of the 20th century as events "cascading like a Niagara Falls of
history.'' Jonathan Schell used Niagara as an organizing metaphor for
his indispensable critique of war, "The Unconquerable World.''
But now the image has entered the lexicon of strategic experts who
warn of a coming "cascade of proliferation,'' one nation following
another into the deadly chasm of nuclear weapons unless present nuclear
powers find a way to reverse the current. The main burden is on Russia
and the United States, which together possess the vast majority of the
world's nuclear weapons, but President Obama deliberately made himself
central to the challenge when he said in Prague, "I state clearly and
with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a
world without nuclear weapons.''
Now the Niagara current is taking him the other way. Here are the
landmarks that define the swimmer's momentum.
#The US-Russia Treaty. Negotiators in Geneva are late in reaching
agreement on a nuclear arms treaty to replace START, which expired last
December. Obama is threading a needle, having to meet Russian
requirements (for example, on missile defense) while anticipating
Republican objections in the US Senate (for example, on missile
defense). Warning: Bill Clinton was humiliated when the
Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999. Republicans'
recalcitrance on health care is peanuts compared to the damage their
rejection of a new START treaty would do.
#The Nuclear Posture Review, the Congress-mandated report on how the
administration defines nuclear needs today. This, too, is overdue,
probably because the White House has been pushing back against the
Pentagon on numerous issues. Are nukes for deterrence only? Will the
United States renounce first use? Having stopped the Bush-era program to
build a new nuclear weapon, will Obama allow further research and
development? What nations will be named as potential nuclear threats? Warning:
The 1994 Nuclear Posture Review was Clinton's Pentagon
Waterloo. It affirmed the Cold War status quo, killing serious arms
reduction until now.
#Although usually considered apart, the broader US defense posture
has turned into a key motivator for other nations to go nuclear. The
current Pentagon budget ($5 trillion for 2010-2017) is so far beyond any
other country, and the conventional military capacity it buys
is so dominant, as to reinforce the nuclear option abroad as the sole
protection against potential US attack. This is new.
#In April, a world leaders nuclear summit will be held in Washington,
but both nuclear haves and have-nots will be taking positions based on
the US-Russia Treaty (and its prospects for ratification) and the
Nuclear Posture Review. Warning: if China sees US
missile defense as potentially aimed its way, a new nuclear arms race is
#In May, the signatories to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty will
hold their eighth regular review session in New York. Since the nations
that agreed to forego nuclear weapons did so on the condition that the
nuclear nations work steadily toward abolition, the key question will be
whether Obama has in fact begun to deliver on his declared intention.
If not, get ready for the cascade.
In truth, the current rushing toward Niagara cannot be resisted. Not
seven nuclear nations, therefore, but 17, or, ultimately, 70. But beware
an analysis like this. The falls are an analogy, not a fact. Obama
warned of such fatalism, calling it in Prague, "a deadly adversary, for
if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in
some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons
is inevitable.'' Therefore, reject the analogy. Obama is not a lone
swimmer, but a voice of all humanity. The nuclear future is not
pre-determined. Human choices are being made right now to define it
© 2023 Boston Globe
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