With his usual farsightedness, Jonathan Schell ("The Folly of Arms Control," September/October 2000) warns of a gradual international drift toward arms proliferation unless the nuclear states together develop and implement plans to eliminate their arsenals. But in the meantime, Washington's strategic policies pose even more immediate dangers. Moreover, Schell's suggested public debate on nuclear policy would actually erode the chances of meaningful change unless it were preceded by presidentially directed reforms. Nuclear experts must equip the executive with informed proposals with which the White House can begin rethinking current strategy and impose reforms on resistant bureaucracies.
Nuclear accidents pose the greatest threat to the precariously balanced Russian-American nuclear equation. The two countries' thousands of nuclear weapons still stand poised on hair-trigger alert against each other. Even when the system is healthy, technological malfunctions, faulty intelligence, misperceptions, and crisis mismanagement are only a misstep away. Today the system is failing. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia's doomsday machine has been allowed to fall into disrepair. Indeed, the Russian nuclear infrastructure and command system are so frayed that if they belonged to the United States, regulations would compel the secretary of defense to declare the force unsafe and stand it down.
Yet, instead of dismantling this overworked machine, Russia's January 2000 national security doctrine extends nuclear weapons' missions to "repel armed aggression," a formulation that encompasses almost any scenario. In a future crisis -- with NATO, to take an often-invoked example -- this unrealistic strategy could pressure the Russian leadership to make nuclear threats to bolster the doctrine's credibility. NATO leaders would feel compelled to counter such threats. Any escalation thereafter would put the United States at the mercy of Russia's intelligence, warning, and command-and-control capacities. The sinking of the Kursk submarine revealed Russia's technological, operational, and decision-making competence today. And that was an exercise, not a conflict.
Even if it manages to avoid accidents, the ongoing American-Russian preoccupation with oversized, hair-triggered nuclear deterrence will preclude Russia's integration
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