17 May 2003
by Christopher Kremmer, for the Sydney Morning Herald
FOR almost half a century nuclear weapons poisoned the global imagination, a force so devastating it could literally destroy life on our planet. It's a nightmare that could return if the Bush Administration gets its way. It almost did last week, when a US Senate committee voted to lift a decade-old ban on the research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons, providing $US15.5 million ($24 million) for research on a "bunker buster" hydrogen bomb called the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator.
Designed to take out enemy command and control facilities, the tactical bomb is billed as a "useable" nuke with a yield as low as 0.3 of a kiloton, much smaller than strategic nuclear weapons.
Yet scientists believe human casualties from radiation would still be in the order of 10,000 to 15,000 dead if such a weapon were used in a built-up area. Thousands more would die in the fires and building collapses caused by the blast.
This week, the Senate committee's vote was overturned by the House Armed Services Committee, but trench warfare over the proposal will continue.
Already, a string of decisions and pronouncements from Washington have convinced many experts that the United States is on an ambitious program to revitalise its nuclear arsenal and widen the scope of its possible uses.
The Doomsday Clock, which is maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists as a measure of global insecurity, now stands at seven minutes to midnight, 10 minutes closer to Armageddon than it was at the end of the Cold War in 1991.
On May 1, 2001, the US President, George Bush, declared: "Nuclear weapons still have a vital role to play in our security and that of our allies."
The Administration's Nuclear Posture Review completed later that year called for new and improved nukes. New weapons require testing, and having refused to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the US faces no legal impediment to a resumption of nuclear tests. Soon test sites from Nevada to India and China could be rumbling once more to the sound of underground nuclear explosions.
The Bush strategy is to maximise America's room to manoeuvre in its war on terrorists and rogue regimes. But in doing so it threatens to inflict mortal damage on the global agreement that for 30 years has contained the spread of nuclear weapons.
The Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons of 1968 enshrines a bargain between states with the bomb and those without it. Under Article Six, the 182 signatory nations that don't have nukes promised not to acquire them, while the five officially recognised nuclear powers agreed to negotiate in good faith to reduce and ultimately eliminate their arsenals. But, says a former director of alliance policy at the Australian Defence Department, Ron Huisken, a methodical analysis of American statements and actions in recent years would reveal "no trace of a commitment to Article Six".
"The obligation on them to negotiate in good faith towards total nuclear disarmament no longer receives even lip service, which is as it should be, because they are no longer interested in that goal. They do not intend to allow their interests to be contaminated in any way by any formal obligations to any other states," says Huisken, who is now with the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University in Canberra.
For countries which desire to build or enlarge nuclear arsenals, such as India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea and Iran, that's good news.
"The nuclear non-proliferation treaty is dead," says the Indian defence expert Bharat Karnad , who is predicting a repeat of India's 1998 nuclear tests, despite Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's pledge not to. "Our scientists want more tests, the Defence Research and Development Organisation, which matches nuclear warheads to missiles, wants more tests. Even the military is pressuring for the government to sanction another round. It's not a matter of if, but when."
To the neo-conservatives who dominate the Bush team, the nuclear breakout by India, which was then mimicked by Pakistan, proves the NPT is no longer working. They argue that the status quo is fatally flawed and diplomacy has failed. They recall how in the 1980s Iraq pursued a clandestine nuclear weapons program under the nose of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and express horror at the politically correct process that earlier this year saw Iraq assume the chair of the Conference on Disarmament. Last month North Korea withdrew from the NPT and said it had developed the bomb, and Iran appears to be headed in the same direction. Non-proliferation is dead, say the Bushies, long live counter-proliferation.
Israel's 1981 strike on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor was an early example of counter-proliferation in action. But Iraq in 2003 was the first counter-proliferation war. Militarily it was a success, but in terms of finding Saddam's suspected arsenal of weapons of mass destruction it was far less impressive.
As war in Iraq loomed, Bush signed National Security Presidential Directive 17, declaring that "the United States will continue to make clear that it reserves the right to respond with overwhelming force including potentially nuclear weapons to the use of WMD against the United States". The directive knocked out yet another pillar from the architecture of nuclear restraint, the so-called Negative Security Assurances of 1995, in which the nations with nuclear weapons pledged never to use them against countries that didn't have them. The NSA were designed to encourage threshold states not to go nuclear.
"The Bush Administration," says the American nuclear guru George Perkovich , of the Carnegie Endowment , "essentially favours a strategy of repeated regime change plus a large, steadily modernising nuclear arsenal."
The danger, however, is that states liable to US punitive action, such as North Korea and Iran, will now rush to develop nuclear arsenals, triggering a spate of proliferation by Western friends and foes alike.
For a while, in the early '90s, it seemed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Cold War rivalries would allow for deep cuts in the world's massive stockpiles of death. Since then, the two countries which between them possess the vast majority of the world's WMD have reduced the number of warheads and delivery systems kept on hair-trigger alert. But they've destroyed very few bombs.
According to the US Centre for Defence Information, the US and Russia retain 28,800 intact nuclear warheads. And, if their most recent effort at arms reduction are any indication, they intend holding on to them.
Under the Moscow Treaty, signed by Presidents Bush and Putin in May 2002, a maximum of 4400 deployed strategic nuclear weapons will remain in US and Russian arsenals by 2012. But, as the Union of Concerned Scientists has pointed out the agreement merely transfers thousands of thermonuclear bombs into so-called "inactive reserve" and "responsive force" stockpiles. Described by the UCS as a "paper-thin agreement that fails to build a stable, predictable future for US and Russian nuclear forces", the deal requires no destruction of weapons and lacks verification measures and international safeguards.
The Russians have mixed feelings about the twists in US policy since the end of the Cold War. Moscow would like to be rid of the huge expense of maintaining what is now an absurdly large arsenal, but that arsenal remains Russia's sole qualification for major power status. At times, Russian leaders have appeared genuinely mystified by Washington's moves, never more so than in 2001, when the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. For Bush, the ABM treaty had to go to make way for the Republicans' long-cherished plan of building a national defence capable of shooting down incoming ballistic missiles fired by rogue states.
But the Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov , described the move as "a political decision reflecting a certain ideology" and said he hoped Washington would not adopt the same attitude to other arms control treaties. The Defence Minister, Sergei Ivanov , fumed that "spending so much money is senseless and the missile defence system itself is a myth".
In the 2002 financial year, the Administration's budget request for missile defence totalled $US8.3 billion, up 50 per cent on the previous year.
Australia, too, has appeared nonplussed by America's shift on nuclear policy. For three decades Australia's commitment to the NPT has been absolute and our campaigning to eliminate weapons of mass destruction has bordered on the messianic. Australia sits on the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Our diplomats led the push for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and other conventions to outlaw and eliminate chemical and biological weapons. The Canberra Commission embodied a fervent national conviction that nuclear weapons are a cancer threatening the world.
When India and Pakistan tested in 1998, the Howard Government took a hard line, recalling defence attaches and banning military co-operation with the two countries. But the US believed sanctions were futile and that a nuclear India could act as a buffer to the growing power of China. It quickly entered into a close strategic dialogue with New Delhi, undercutting Australia's position. The US's subsequent refusal to ratify the test ban treaty appears to have crushed any residual commitment to the issue that Australia might have had. Since then, Canberra has been wary of getting in front of Washington on disarmament.
Australia was the first US ally to oppose Ronald Reagan's original "Star Wars" plan, citing its potential to trigger a new and expensive arms race. But in February this year, Australia's Strategic Defence Review revealed that discussions were under way to join the Bush version of the system. The new Australian posture was on show in Geneva last week at a conference of NPT members, one of a series of meetings before the treaty's 2005 review conference.
Australia's formal statement could have been written in Washington. It scolded North Korea and Iran and described the Moscow Treaty as a "a significant step towards nuclear disarmament".
"The Howard Government has downgraded multilateral approach in a very foolish way," says Dr John Walker, a lecturer in politics at the University of NSW. "We have adopted the US rhetoric without having the power the US has to back up our threats ..."
There was always an element of hypocrisy in Australia's proselytising against the bomb. As India never ceased to point out, a country protected by America's "nuclear umbrella" was in no position to preach to others who had no such protection.
Under the Republicans, the United States does not intend to become a nuclear Gulliver tied down by a UN coalition of Lilliputians. Says Hugh White, the director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute: "Norms will be set and countries will be judged on whether or not they're prepared to measure up to them." To counter-proliferationists, the Iraq example will deter other nations from attempting to get the bomb.
Yet in the case of North Korea, the risks of triggering war with South Korea and missile strikes on Japan are so great that most observers believe Washington will avoid military action. The big-talking US unilateralists may be forced to fall back on Clintonesque sanctions, hoping the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il , proves less resilient than Cuba's Fidel Castro has been.
In Iran, too, the prospect of an invasion is remote. Like Pyongyang, Tehran's reaction to US sabre-rattling has been to accelerate its push for nuclear defences. In February it announced it was building two uranium enrichment plants. Iran insists it has no intention of building the bomb, but such plants do produce weapons-grade fissile material.
The Geneva conference witnessed a rhetorical clash between the US and Iranian delegates that reminded delegates of the Arctic tone of Security Council debates during the Cold War.
Referring to Iran, the US assistant secretary of state, John Wolf, asked how many other countries had built an enrichment plant before their first power reactor was finished, what responsible country would build a production-scale plant without extensive research and development, and how many other states with nuclear programs based solely on light-water reactors had built large-scale heavy-water plants. The answer to all these questions was none.
In reply, Iranian delegates asked how many countries, other than the US, had threatened to use nuclear weapons in conventional conflicts and how many others had developed new types of nuclear weapons compatible with combat scenarios, or legislated against the CTBT. The answers were the same: none.
"Counter-proliferation has yet to take on a case as tough as Iran. The US may well be forced back onto an old-fashioned, multilateral consensus-based approach to solve the problem," says White. Indeed, Washington has asked the IAEA to investigate its allegations about Iran.
Yet it may already be too late. Iran's interest in nuclear weapons is partly driven by outrage at Israel's suspected acquisition of some 200 nuclear weapons, and intensified after neighbouring Pakistan exploded a bomb in 1998.
"There are no bad weapons," said The New York Times recently, paraphrasing the Bush policy, "only bad regimes." To this way of thinking, India and Pakistan's nukes are good. The former is a democracy, the latter a military dictatorship that's co-operating in the "war on terrorism". The US ambassador to New Delhi, Robert Blackwill , recently spoke of India as "a rising great power of the 21st century".
Undoubtedly, the Bush policy is full of glaring contradictions that are costing the US goodwill around the world. The refusal to allow UN weapons inspectors into Iraq to search for the WMD it claims justified the invasion is but one example.
But, says White, the international community is sufficiently "supple and realistic" to adjust to Washington's muscular new posture, however hypocritical it might be. "We don't want to overlook the potential for unilateral approaches to have their place. Having demonstrated a willingness to move in Iraq has changed the environment for the better," he argues.
Professor Carlyle Thayer of Deakin University agrees. "It's laughable that states like North Korea can just walk out of the NPT without any legal consequences. The treaty's exit provisions definitely need to be tightened up."
But, equally it's clear that much of the world fears that threats to stability and security are coming not just from Kim Jong-il and the ayatollahs, but from the new American doctrine as well. Many doubt the US's ability to sustain a series of regime-change wars, with or without nuclear weapons. They seek a renewed commitment to global co-operation as the only way to address the evils of nuclear weapons and terrorism.
"The probability of terrorists getting hold of nuclear weapons is increased the more countries acquire them, and then have to keep them absolutely secure every minute of every day until kingdom come," says Ron Huisken. "The new central security theme of the 21st century that is, terrorism actually leads you back to a very focused interest in nuclear disarmament."
After 35 years, only four nuclear weapons states Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea stand outside the NPT, with 180 rejecting the nuclear option. Important countries such as China and France were acceding to the treaty as late as 1992, and in 1996 the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan joined. Cuba and Brazil are the most recent converts. It's not perfect, but it's absurd to suggest it's been a total failure.
Finding balance between Bush's brave nuclear world and the existing infrastructure of nuclear restraint may be the main game in global politics in the coming years.
Get it right, and a revitalised system of global security could result. Get it wrong, and the result could be disaster.
Table: Fatal attraction - Nuclear weapons held by the nine nuclear powers, 2017
North Korea 20
Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2017