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Dr. Strangelove for a New Millennium

Guest Column Brice Smith

Seven minutes to midnight. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently moved the hands on their Doomsday Clock down to seven minutes, signifying the increasingly dangerous and unstable nuclear world in which we live. It has been one month now since sections of the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) were leaked, and since then we have witnessed a backslide into global nuclear posturing on a scale unthinkable only a few short weeks ago.

The revelations from the NPR, written under Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, sent shock waves around the world and have turned the threat of nuclear war from a fading Cold War memory into a topic discussed almost casually by the world’s leaders.

Following America’s lead, Britain soon threatened the use of nuclear weapons against four non-nuclear states, Pakistani leader General Musharraf warned India that his country might be provoked into using their atomic bombs, and an influential Japanese official cautioned China to either scale back its military programs or face the potential of his country producing several thousand warheads overnight. The policy review that began this spiral contains three highly controversial suggestions that have provoked a sharp international response.

First was America’s plan to store rather than destroy most of the 4,000 warheads Bush plans to cut from the U.S. stockpile. Moscow has expressed strong opposition to this idea and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said that “Russia does not see in this any sort of cutback.”

Second was the proposal that America be ready to use nuclear weapons (even potentially in a first strike) against China, Russia, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Libya. Of these, only Russia and China possess nuclear weapons, and all seven have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. By openly abandoning their promise not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, the United States is in danger of undermining the only motivation to remain nuke free.

This threat provoked widespread international condemnation, prompting a member of the Russian parliament to question whether American officials had “somewhat lost touch with the reality in which they live.”

Third was the plan to develop new “earth-penetrating” nuclear weapons to defeat underground military facilities. According to experts, no such weapon could entirely contain its blast and would thus produce a particularly dangerous type of fallout in the form of a radioactive dust cloud.

The review also states that to maintain the nuclear stockpile, testing may have to be resumed in violation of the 1992 Nuclear Testing Moratorium. Last year, the administration commissioned a study to determine how quickly test sites in Nevada could be put back into use, and in March, a senior American nuclear scientist asked Congress to allow nuclear tests to begin three months after a request instead of the current three years.

The release of the NPR has brought into focus the accelerating U.S. trend of violating major international security agreements and international law. A 1996 World Court of Justice ruling clearly stated that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict.” In addition, a 188-page report released this week found that Washington has “violated, compromised, or acted to undermine in some crucial way” each of the treaties studied, according to co-author Nicole Deller.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and the authors of the NPR have also openly stated that they view arms control regimes like the ABM treaty, which the United States pulled out of on December 13, as little more than Cold War relics and that the current arms control process is “incompatible with the flexibility” now required by U.S. military planners.

A concern that has been voiced over and over again about the U.S. policy is that it potentially lowers the bar for considering the use of nuclear weapons. In just four weeks we have already seen that bar fall away.

Following on the heels of the NPR’s release, Britain’s Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told the Defense Select Committee on March 21 that other countries should be “absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons.” Hoon focused on four so called “states of concern,” Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, although he put special emphasis on Iraq. Three days later, in a television interview, he reiterated his warning to these nations.

In an interview on April 7, Pakistan’s military leader, General Musharraf, warned that “if pressure on Pakistan becomes too great then as a last resort, the [use of the] atom bomb is also possible.” In the same interview he accused India of having a “superpower obsession” and of “buying up the most modern weapons in a megalomaniac frenzy.”

Neither India or Pakistan have signed the NPR, and both countries have remained on full military alert since mid-December. Pakistan, whose conventional forces are much smaller than its rival’s, has retained the option of using nuclear bombs first, whereas India has said that it would only use its arsenal for a devastating retaliatory strike.

And finally, Ichiro Ozawa, head of the Japanese Liberal Party, said over the weekend that he had warned a Chinese intelligence officer that if China went ahead with its massive military modernization program, Japan could “produce thousands of nuclear weapons overnight” using plutonium from their reactors. He added that China is expanding “in the hope of becoming a superpower,” but that Japan would never lose if it became serious about strengthening its defenses. Currently Japan adheres to a long-standing ban on nuclear weapons, but their energy program has up to 38 metric tons of plutonium, which is enough to quickly make more than 7,000 warheads.

In a clear example of the changing nuclear climate, Ozawa’s threats are in sharp contrast to three years ago when a member of his party was forced to resign as a junior defense minister after he called for a debate on Japan acquiring a nuclear deterrent.

Possessing by far the world’s largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, America’s posture carries tremendous weight in international affairs. By its systematic rejection of multilateralism and the rule of law in favor of unilateralism and the rule of force, the U.S. nuclear policy has itself become an undeniable and growing threat to global security.

Seven minutes, and counting...

Brice Smith is a graduate student in the Department of Physics.