The Common Good
November-December 2002

The Bomb is Back

by Jonathan Schell | November-December 2002

What can be done about the growing nuclear threat?

The world has entered a new nuclear age, a second nuclear age. The danger is rising that nuclear weapons will be used against the United States. Just as bad, the danger is rising that the United States will use nuclear weapons against others. A paradoxical product of the new danger is the Bush administration's proposal to achieve the nuclear disarmament of Iraq (which may or may not be trying to build nuclear weapons) by overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein. To understand why, we have to look back to the beginning of the post-Cold War period.

When the Cold War ended, many Americans, encouraged by official statements, came to believe that nuclear danger might be a thing of the past. The conclusion was not surprising. The world's great nuclear arsenals, we had been told for some 40 years, were built for a purpose—waging the Cold War—and that purpose melted away with the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Might not the arsenals also melt away? What earthly purpose did they serve? Russia was our friend. Could it possibly make sense any longer to threaten it with annihilation—and to go on enduring the threat of annihilation at Russian hands? And indeed, reductions were occurring under the auspices of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, and more could be expected. Perhaps nuclear weapons were now simply the detritus of an age of peril that had passed, and would be carted away. Perhaps one day we'd wake up and discover that the last warhead had been dismantled.

The large hopes and modest achievements of the early post-Cold War years, however, bred complacency rather than a determination to act. Opportunity was mistaken for accomplishment, and little was done. Nuclear danger dropped out of public consciousness. Nuclear arms control negotiations slowed to a creep. In the ensuing atmosphere of official and public indifference, a shockingly different future began to take shape. It was a future that had its roots in the very genetic code of the nuclear threat. Nuclear arsenals are based on scientific and technical knowledge. It is the destiny of knowledge to spread. In the absence of clear political decisions to constrain the weapons, nuclear proliferation must be the result. During the Cold War, nuclear danger grew to threaten all points of the compass. In the post-Cold War period, if current trends are not reversed, nuclear danger will in addition arise at all points of the compass.

Yet if we are to understand the origins of the new nuclear dangers, we must grasp their connection with the old ones. Existing nuclear arsenals—the legacy of the Cold War—are inextricably linked to the budding arsenals of our time. Proliferation (to new countries or terrorists), in a word, is linked to possession (by the existing nuclear powers), and we cannot hope to address the former without addressing the latter.

IN THE EARLY years of the Clinton administration, it became clear that the United States would not seize the immense opportunity for nuclear disarmament that the end of the Cold War presented. The United States had already brushed aside Gorbachev's proposal to eliminate nuclear weapons by the year 2000. Clinton's Nuclear Posture Review, announced as an attempt to reconsider the need for nuclear forces in the post-Soviet era, concluded that things should remain substantially the same as before: Even in the absence of the Cold War enemy, the United States would retain immense nuclear arsenals and threaten their use—not merely in retaliation but even in a first strike. In early 1998, news leaked out that a new Presidential Decision Directive had been issued. One of its conclusions, as Robert G. Bell, a member of Clinton's National Security Council, told The Washington Post, was that the United States should retain nuclear weapons "for the indefinite future."

These critical decisions by the United States, matched by comparable decisions by the other Cold War nuclear powers, were little remarked on by the public, but they were watched closely in other capitals, where decisions whether to build new nuclear arsenals were being made. The most important were New Delhi, where the Indian government, already the possessor of a "peaceful" non-weaponized bomb, was deciding whether to become a full-fledged nuclear power, and Islamabad, where the Pakistani government, nervously eyeing India, was asking itself the same question. If nuclear weapons were to be the currency of power in the new age, India reasoned, then India must have them. Continued renunciation would constitute "nuclear apartheid," its foreign minister said.

In May 1998, India conducted five nuclear tests. Pakistan responded with six. The South Asian nuclear arms race was underway. In early 2002, the two powers engaged in the first full-scale nuclear confrontation of the nuclear age entirely unrelated to the Cold War. Other countries—including Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—also were developing nuclear programs. Recently Yasuo Fukuda, chief of staff to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan, aired his opinion that Japan might have to reconsider its ban on nuclear weapons in its armed forces, and though the government disavowed any such intention, other important figures in Japan voiced their agreement.

Meanwhile, proliferation was increasing the danger of nuclear terrorism. Plainly, the more nuclear powers there are in the world, the more likely it is that nuclear weapons or nuclear materials will fall into the hands of terrorists. The poor guardianship of Russian materials is an enduring international scandal. The danger is acute that Pakistani weapons or materials, many of whose managers are Islamic fundamentalists, will fall into terrorist hands. Before Sept. 11, one veteran of the Pakistani weapon program, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood, paid several visits to Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden has claimed to possess nuclear weapons, and though we may doubt the truth of his claim, no one can dismiss the possibility that his al Qaeda network or some other terrorist group may soon acquire one and use it against the United States or another country.

BUT MOST STARTLING has been the revolution in the United States' nuclear policy unveiled since the attack of Sept. 11. It threatens nothing less than a full-scale nuclear revival—a worldwide re-legitimization of nuclear weapons and a resurgence, in this country and elsewhere, of reliance upon them for military purposes.

The United States has always been the world's leader in matters nuclear. Our country invented the atomic bomb, was its first and only user, invented the H-bomb, developed the strategy of deterrence that guided and rationalized the Cold War buildup, and pioneered almost every innovation in delivery vehicles of the nuclear age. Now, by finding new uses for nuclear weapons, building new nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles, and building new anti-nuclear defenses, the United States once again is taking the lead in the nuclearization of the international arena.

Reversing 50 years of precedent, the Bush administration has decided to deal with proliferation not through diplomacy and treaties but through the use of force, including nuclear force. This is the radical policy shift that underlies the administration's call to overthrow the government of Iraq by force. In his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush melded nonproliferation policy into the war on terrorism, lumping three potential nuclear proliferators—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—together in the "axis of evil," to whom he delivered something of an ultimatum. "The United States of America," he announced, "will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons." If in the '90s continued possession had led to proliferation, proliferation now had led to pre-emption. That is, having failed to put a stick in the gears of proliferation by committing itself to abolition, the United States now proposes to stop it by military means—by "counter proliferation." Meanwhile, the United States will seek to defend itself against retaliation by building a missile defense system—a system that will do nothing, of course, to protect against bombs delivered by car, boat, or truck.

A new policy, called "offensive deterrence," has come into effect. Its linchpin, as in the planning for war in Iraq, is the pre-emptive strike, conventional and nuclear. The president has made it known to the world in the bluntest terms. Though deterrence and containment—the mainstays of Cold War policy—will remain in effect in some areas, the new policy will be to attack first. America, the president said in his speech to the graduating class at West Point, must "be ready to strike at a moment's notice in any dark corner of the world." For "Deterrence—the promise of massive retaliation against nations—means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend. Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies." Thus the United States must "be ready for pre-emptive action."

A new Nuclear Posture Review, leaked to the press in March, added detail to the new policy. New nuclear weapons, including something actually called a "Robust Earth Penetrator," would be built. A new plant to build nuclear weapons would start production in 2030. A new ICBM would be readied for the year 2020, a new submarine-launched missile for 2030, a new bomber for 2040. A widening array of nuclear targets—Russia, China, Libya, Sudan, North Korea, Iraq, Iran—were named.

As these new dangers were being born, were the old dangers from the Cold War arsenals at least being liquidated? No. The recently signed agreement by Bush and President Vladimir Putin of Russia cutting operational strategic weapons to about 2,000 on each side over the next 10 years will remove the weapons from delivery vehicles but not dismantle them. In the year 2012—21 years after the fall of the Soviet Union—there would still be more than 10,000 nuclear warheads in the American arsenal. Even the operational arsenal of some 2,000 will be enough for the two countries—putative allies—to destroy one another many times over.

The new American policy provides the missing link in a vicious circle that is as dangerous as the arms race of the Cold War, if not more so. In this new process, nuclear possession goads proliferation (including proliferation to terrorist groups); proliferation goads missile defenses and pre-emption; and missile defenses and pre-emption in turn goad proliferation.

The policy, whose first step is the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, seeks to prevent proliferation and safeguard the United States. It can do neither. It in fact generates the very threat it hopes to remove. It is a path not to safety but to nuclear proliferation and nuclear war. The vicious circle needs to be disrupted by a beneficial one, in which a commitment by the nuclear powers to abolition and a negotiated program of nuclear reductions becomes the foundation for an effective policy of nonproliferation, and these lead over time to abolition itself, the only sane goal of nuclear policy for the 21st century.

But history suggests that the impulse for such a profound reorientation of policy is unlikely to come from the political establishment. It must come—as other profound moral and political changes, such as the abolition of slavery, have so often done in American history—from the people. The Urgent Call (page 22) is an instrument offered to help serve this purpose. The bomb is back. But those of us who oppose the bomb are back, too. And we're not going away.

Jonathan Schell, author of The Fate of the Earth and The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons Now, was a peace fellow at the Nation Institute when this article appeared.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)