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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 41, November 1999

Sleepwalking Towards Nuclear War

Are we sleepwalking towards nuclear war? There was momentary shock when the US Senate rejected the CTBT, but few are out on the streets. Among some governments' officials, there is an acknowledgement that arms control is in trouble, but a comfortable certainty that though they may complain, no states will actually withdraw from the NPT. Nuclear weapons are being revalued across the world and there is an air of official self congratulation that there is no visible, public abolition movement to object.

The warning signs are all there. India drafts a nuclear doctrine, while unstable Pakistan rattles its nuclear sabre behind non-nuclear skirmishes along the borders. China has continued to modernise and increase its arsenal. NATO displayed US technological and military might against Yugoslavia, and now Russia is pounding Chechnya, pausing only to tell the world not to interfere and to remind the United States with whom it is dealing - a collapsed superpower with a very large nuclear arsenal. Amongst all this, Washington neglects multilateral arms control, bent on fatally weakening the ABM Treaty in order to have unilateral freedom to build ballistic missile defences.

The US obsession with missile defence reminds me of a scene from a silent movie, Buster Keaton I think. Our hero would look up and see clouds, unfurl his over-sized umbrella, and holding it resolutely in front of his face he would walk along the road, not seeing where he was going. Of course he fell into a lake. Repeatedly. And it never actually rained.

The United States is over-reacting to storm clouds such as the North Korean and Iraqi programmes and it is not looking at the impact of its own actions on the rest of the world. There are indeed worrying incidents of chemical weapon use, missile flight tests and non-compliance with the NPT. Missile proliferation and terrorism cannot and should not be ignored. But the worst-case scenarios that seem to feed US weapons programmes are set to nourish and even create worse threats than they can possibly contain.

US timing is all wrong. If it pushes ahead now to amend the ABM Treaty, the United States will deal a body blow to nuclear arms control and the credibility and coherence of related agreements. If the militarily most advanced country in the world is allowed to pick and choose among the treaties it has acceded to when they later become inconvenient, what arguments do we use to persuade others to abide by collective arrangements for international security? The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibited placing weapons of mass destruction into space. How large is the step from weakening the ABM Treaty to destroying the Outer Space Treaty if, in a few years' time, US defence planners decide that they want nuclear weapons in space? This really is a slippery slope.

The greatest danger comes not from the hawks pushing for new weapons, who are, despite their financial clout, a relatively small minority - but from the neglect of political leaders and the complacency of the rest of us. Similarly, the threat to the non-proliferation regime is not that countries will walk out if the 2000 NPT Review Conference goes badly, but of a gradual erosion of confidence, as more countries hedge their bets. Slowly but surely that would kill the NPT, indefinite extension or not.

In the Cold War, the constant dread of nuclear war was a fact of life. After it ended, many people believed that nuclear weapons were things of the past that were being reduced, controlled and gradually eliminated. So they could spend more time worrying about other important problems like human rights, poverty and globalisation. Public movements are always cyclical, reacting to threats, dangers and opportunities as they come to the fore. As France discovered when it resumed testing in 1995, military decision-makers should not mistake the quiet now for agreement to revive nuclear planning. Nuclear weapons are still an accident or military mistake waiting to happen, only now more countries want them. That realisation should bring people out on the streets again. But they don't see it, because they still think their governments are dealing with the problem.

In its sombre analysis of present dangers, one of the most important insights of the 1999 Tokyo Forum was to reject the cosy belief of nuclear planners that they can keep their weapons and 'manage' proliferation. The choice is much starker: "between the assured dangers of proliferation and the challenges of disarmament".


© 1999 The Acronym Institute.

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