The Common Good
May-June 2001

Dr. Strangelove, I Presume?

by David Cortright | May-June 2001

National missile defense is only the latest version of "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." Our best protection from nuclear war? A global ban on nuclear weapons.

Among the curious twists of the debate on national missile defense is the trend among conservatives to condemn the immorality of nuclear weapons. In a recent "BreakPoint" commentary heard on 1,000 radio stations, Christian conservative Chuck Colson spoke of "the moral insanity" of mutual assured destruction. According to Colson, thoughtful people question the doctrine of nuclear deterrence because the threat to annihilate millions of innocent civilians is morally untenable.

It's gratifying that Colson and other conservatives have finally "got religion" on this point. But by coupling their condemnation of nuclear weapons with support for national missile defense, these conservatives undermine the integrity of their argument and put themselves back into the very same moral bind they seek to escape.

The global threat from weapons of mass destruction is indeed great, and it is increasing as nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities spread to other countries. There are now eight nuclear weapons states—the original five (United States, United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China), along with Israel (with an arsenal of more than 200 weapons) and the latest entries, India and Pakistan. Several other countries, including Iran and Iraq, have been or are currently engaged in nuclear weapons development. Finding a way to protect against these dangers is a moral imperative. But the answer does not lie in technology, especially one as unproven as missile defense.

THE PURSUIT OF NATIONAL missile defense could increase international tensions and spark a new arms race. Conservative analysts and Bush administration officials argue that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty limiting missile defense systems is "ancient history" and should be scrapped. They want to rush ahead to deploy a national missile defense system, over the objections of Russia if necessary, in open violation of the ABM treaty. This would be an act of monumental folly that could seriously undermine U.S. and world security. Russia has repeatedly vowed to counter the deployment of a national missile defense with its own buildup of offensive nuclear weapons. Russia has also linked further progress on nuclear missile reduction to the continuation of the ABM treaty. China has also vowed to increase its offensive nuclear capabilities if the United States deploys a national missile defense.

The concept of a national missile defense system is premised on the possible threat of nuclear missile attack from "states of concern" such as North Korea or Iraq. But these dangers are grossly overstated, while the more likely threat of a low-level terrorist attack is unmet. A ballistic missile attack is one of the least likely threats facing the United States. If Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden wanted to attack the United States, they would place their weapons in a truck or a ship container, not atop a ballistic missile. The proposed national missile defense system is useless against these threats.

The notion that North Korea, an impoverished nation unable to feed its citizens, could attack the United States with intercontinental ballistic missiles is far-fetched. North Korea is indeed a militarized state and has attempted to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, but its capabilities are extremely limited. It has attempted to launch multi-stage missiles only twice, and both tests were failures.

WHAT HAS LESSENED the threat of a ballistic missile attack against the United States from what it was 15 or 20 years ago? The United States and Russia have reduced their nuclear missile arsenals by more than half since the end of the Cold War. Relations between Washington and Moscow have turned from hostility to cooperation across a broad range of activities—including the cooperative threat reduction program in which the United States is helping to dismantle the former Soviet nuclear arsenal. It is developments like these that make us more secure.

Why not apply the same approach of arms reduction and cooperative engagement to other nations that pose a potential threat? Instead of spending tens of billions of dollars in pursuit of an unproven technology in response to exaggerated threats, why not devote our energy and resources to improving political relations with other nations? The best guarantee of security is to turn enemies into friends. Diplomatic strategies offer a less costly means of reducing the threat of nuclear missile attack, with a higher assurance of genuine security.

The Korean peninsula may be one of the most promising examples of the effectiveness of diplomatic engagement as a means of reducing nuclear dangers. In 1994 North Korea and the United States negotiated the Agreed Framework that put an end to the North Korean nuclear production program. Under the terms of that agreement, North Korea agreed to halt its production of fissile materials, to end the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, and to open its nuclear facilities to on-site inspection. In return the United States and its partners (South Korea and Japan) agreed to supply the North with fuel oil and safer, less-proliferation-prone nuclear reactors and to begin the process of diplomatic engagement. The Agreed Framework has been a significant success. The North Korean nuclear production program was shut down and remains under international inspection today. The North Korean nuclear threat is effectively contained.

A similar bargain is possible now with the North Korean ballistic missile program. North Korea has said repeatedly that it will give up the development of ballistic missiles in exchange for a lifting of U.S. economic sanctions and the normalization of diplomatic and commercial relations. The Clinton administration partially lifted sanctions last year and came tantalizingly close to negotiating a missile agreement in its final days in office. Under the terms of the tentative agreement, North Korea would refrain from the testing of ballistic missiles and halt the transfer of such weapons to other countries. Such an arrangement would effectively end the missile threat from North Korea. President Bush has been urged to move quickly to close the deal, but he recently told visiting South Korean president Kim Dae Jung that his administration is in no hurry to resume negotiations with the North.

DIPLOMATIC OPTIONS for reducing the threat of weapons of mass destruction are also possible with Iran and Iraq. The United States has already taken tentative steps toward improving relations with the reform government in Iran. A lifting of U.S. economic sanctions could pave the way toward a genuine warming of political relations. In Iraq as well, a lifting of economic sanctions and the use of other incentives could help to resolve the impasse over the dismantling of Baghdad's weapons capabilities. No matter how seemingly intractable the dispute, strategies of diplomatic engagement have the potential to improve political relations and ease weapons-related tensions.

Of course, Washington could greatly enhance the effectiveness of U.S. diplomacy by fulfilling its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to eliminate its own nuclear weapons. Article VI of that treaty, as well as the preamble of the ABM treaty, commit the United States to the goal of nuclear weapons abolition. Despite this, the United States maintains more than 10,000 nuclear weapons, many of them deployed atop intercontinental ballistic missiles. It is unseemly and fundamentally unjust for the United States to insist that other countries give up their weapons while we cling to them as the bedrock of our defense. If we want to reduce the global missile threat, we must lead by example in lowering weapons stockpiles to zero and creating an alternative, non-nuclear security system.

Only a global ban on all nuclear weapons and their delivery systems can offer a morally consistent and politically effective means of protecting the innocent from the threat of weapons of mass destruction. The best protection is no nuclear weapons at all.

David Cortright is president of the Fourth Freedom Forum in Goshen, Indiana, a private foundation that addresses international security issues (www.fourthfreedom.org). Cortright is former director of the peace organization SANE and a

Sojourners contributing writer.
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