Paris, Thursday, March 23, 2000Doesn't the US have enough A-bombs?
By Geneva Overholser
WASHINGTON - When it comes to nuclear weapons, there are two particularly unsettling regions these days. One is South Asia, where India and Pakistan engage in edgy competition. The other is the United States.
Of course North Korea and Iraq are worrisome, and Chinese intentions and Russian instability raise threatening questions. But when the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace held its annual Nonproliferation Conference here last week, the most pressing concerns of those who gathered from all over the world came through loud and clear in the meeting's title: "New Challenges in Asia and America."
Joseph Cirincione, the director of the Nonproliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment, put it this way: "Multilateral negotiated agreements remain humanity's best hope to control the scourge of nuclear weapons" - and America's leadership is critical to the success of those agreements. Yet America suffers from a "relative inability to lead now."
This inability stems from a "fierce partisan divide" that produces pressure for increases in military spending, an unusually resolute opposition to arms control and a steady drumbeat for deploying a missile defense system.
Mr. Cirincione noted that huge sums were being spent "to show that verification can't work, that nukes are unstoppable and that we have got to rely on U.S. technology." The impact of this disdain for collective solutions is not just national. It is powerfully global. An arms control regime "that is in need of repair is virtually suspended because of political paralysis in the United States."
President Bill Clinton, about to depart for South Asia as the conference began, videotaped a message. He pledged that during his trip, he would make clear to India and Pakistan that "a nuclear future is a dangerous future for them and for the world." Yet that notion of the danger of nuclear competition has lost hold on a Congress dominated by hawkish unilateral sentiments.
It used to be that thoughtful debate about the control of nuclear weapons was very much a part of the U.S. elections. But, as Jessica Mathews, the president of the Carnegie Endowment, mentioned in her opening remarks, it now seems a long time ago that we asked questions about the "desirability or feasibility of zero nukes."
"And in the present context," she said, "it's hard to imagine that any of them can even be raised." Why not? Does it require "a mortal threat," she speculated, to sustain the pursuit of arms control and nonproliferation? "Is the United States suffering from the disease that historically afflicts hegemons - of wanting everything its own way, even when it's not in its own interest?" she said.
Americans have certainly come a long way from the widespread optimism, just after the end of the Cold War, that they could replace international tensions with collective actions to improve security for all.
Instead, a powerful unilateralism has taken hold among U.S. leaders. Immediately after the Senate vote rejecting the test ban treaty last autumn, the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, said the next step had to be to "strengthen U.S. nuclear deterrence." This for a country with more than 12,000 nuclear weapons, for which the U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $5.5 trillion
Can strengthening the United States' nuclear deterrence, already the most sophisticated and expensive in the world, really be a goal of the American people? Most unlikely. But the people are not being heard from on this matter. For, even as U.S. leaders have turned hawkish, the public has turned complacent.
In the presidential election, national security is discussed mostly in the guise of missile defense. The issue is framed in terms of timing and what manner of missile defense system - not as a yes or a no. And the public gets little hint of how unsettling is this costly American dream - to friend and foe alike.
Yet many national-security specialists agree with a trio of academics who concluded (in an article called "National Missile Defense: An Indefensible System" in the winter issue of Foreign Policy) that the price of a national missile defense system deployed by the United States might well be a world with more intercontinental ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction.
American citizens have continually made clear a preference for reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the United States' military posture. But that sentiment is nowhere reflected in this election. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is relegated to watching fearfully from the sidelines, yearning for American leadership - and seeing us instead as yet another trouble spot in the long, difficult struggle toward control of weapons of mass destruction.