Interrupting the concerted efforts by the United States to thwart renegade nations in their attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction comes this news item. The Bush Administration announced on March 2 that the specifics of a plan to begin upgrading many of the almost 10,000 weapons in its nuclear arsenal with a new and improved warhead design, the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW). It is hard to imagine a step that this government could take - short of the use of nuclear weapons - that could undercut more thoroughly the moral basis of its opposition to the proliferation of nuclear arms. Yet, somehow this story goes largely unnoticed by a public that, in spite of its weariness with the war in Iraq, stands confidently behind the administration in its attempts to staunch the spread of WMD to other countries. Why is this?
To some extent, our collection of thousands of fission and fusion bombs is the elephant in our living room. These weapons have insinuated themselves so thoroughly into the status-quo, that they are seldom remarked upon anymore. As a result, the debate that raged over the RRW was not about the size of the nuclear stockpile, but about which of the two competing designs - one from Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, the other from Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico - would be selected. (The politically expedient, but technically flawed, idea of a "Frankenbomb" mash-up of the two proposals had been jettisoned soon after it was suggested.) Sadly, as has become common in discussions concerning U.S. weapons systems, the fundamental question - do we really need all of these warheads - was avoided entirely. It was assumed that program would go forward. The only issue that remained to be resolved was how the money, in this case billions of dollars, was to be distributed.
I wish I could say that the waste of taxpayer dollars was my primary criticism of the warhead program, but its fiscal impact pales in comparison with the harm it will do to U.S. - and international - security. Whatever safety is gained by having marginally more reliable nuclear weapons will be dramatically offset by the fact that such a modernization effort will only encourage other nations either to acquire nuclear arms, if they don't have them, or to upgrade them, if they do.
The insistence on the part of the U.S. on building and refining nuclear weapons while continuing to demand that other countries remain nuclear-free is yet another chapter in its half-hearted compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) of 1968. It is widely known that the NNPT restricted the possession of nuclear weapons to the 5 nations who were the acknowledged nuclear powers at that time - the U.S., the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China. What is seldom remembered is that the treaty also obligated members of the so-called nuclear club to work toward the dismantling of their own nuclear arsenals. These lesser known provisions were ignored by the super powers from the start, and, by the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had amassed around 20,000 nuclear explosives each. A couple of rounds of strategic arms reduction talks and the dissolution of the USSR have cut those totals in half, yet there are no significant reductions in store.
Once upon a time the justification for brandishing a large number of these fearsome weapons was that they provided deterrence against nuclear attack according to the appropriately named doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Although the relationship between the U.S. and Russia could not now be described as untroubled, it is certainly a far cry from the state of nuclear brinkmanship that once prevailed. The U.S. hardly views Russia as the existential threat it once did (although Russia's estimation of the United States may differ), and it would seem that both countries could meet their security needs with drastically reduced nuclear stockpiles. If that is the case, why does the U.S. want not only to maintain but even to modernize a nuclear force whose size exceeds any reasonable military requirement?
With the end of the Cold War the U.S. was at a foreign policy crossroads. Should it take a place as the first among equals in an international framework in which power is shared and security is collaborative, or should it seize the opportunity to pursue a kind of global military supremacy the likes of which the world had never before seen? The die was cast, and, unfortunately, the unilateralist path was chosen. What began in the immediate post-Cold-War years as a slouching toward a "New World Order" became, with the inauguration of George W. Bush in 2001, a headlong rush toward "Pax Americana" and the of creation of a military force so formidable that, it was imagined, no adversary would dare challenge it. An unassailable stockpile of "modern" nuclear arms was considered to be an essential component of this strategy.
Of course this direction in U.S. policy is questionable on a number of grounds, but with regard to nuclear arms it is particularly troubling. What has differentiated nuclear weapons (along with their chemical and biological counterparts) from conventional ones for the better part of the last 40 years was the understanding that their use had to be avoided at all costs. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty recognized this fact both by attempting to limit the spread of such weapons and by requiring nuclear-armed powers ultimately to liquidate their own stockpiles. For a period of time the Cold War gave the U.S. cover to disregard these obligations, since it otherwise would have not have been able to deter the threat posed by the Soviet Union, but that exemption ended with the collapse of the USSR. Instead of seizing the opportunity to move forward with reductions in these "exceptional" weapons, though, the United States adopted a policy whereby nuclear weapons have become "unexceptional" ones, in the sense that they could be employed to accomplish military objectives at its discretion. This legitimation of the use of nuclear weapons is the Pandora's box that the Bush administration has opened further with its decision to fund the Reliable Replacement Warhead program.
Now, I don't believe for a minute that Iran or North Korea, for example, would refrain from pursuing the development of their own nuclear weapons based upon a U.S. decision not to proceed with its own weapons modernization plans. But I do believe that the cooperation of the international community is essential in securing the compliance of nation states with the non-proliferation treaty and that such cooperation is drastically undermined when the U.S. hypocritically reserves the right to build and deploy nuclear weapons based exclusively on what it considers to be its interests while denying that very same prerogative to other countries.
If the United States is genuinely committed to ensuring that the proliferation of WMD is restrained, there is no better step that it could take than to reaffirm its commitment to the NNPT and reduce its arsenal of nuclear weapons and forgo the development and modernization that make the use of such weapons more likely.