To the Editor:

Although Jonathan Schell's article eloquently describes the current nuclear weapons predicament, it does not justify its title, "The Folly of Arms Control" (September/October 2000). Schell's proposed remedy for the stagnation in the arms control process is a commitment made by the nuclear powers, led by the United States, to abolish nuclear weapons. But as a signatory to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the United States has already accepted this commitment. What would a reaffirmation of it accomplish without concrete steps in arms control?

A series of progressive restraints must be implemented to counteract the NPT'S discriminatory designation of nuclear and non-nuclear states. Indeed, as Schell emphasizes, the U.S. retention of an "enduring stockpile" of some 10,000 nuclear weapons is fundamentally inconsistent with the nonproliferation regime. Moreover, Russia's recent proclamation of increased reliance on nuclear weapons contravenes the goal of nonproliferation. If the strongest nations still need large and "enduring" inventories of nuclear weapons, don't other nations need nuclear weapons even more?

In view of all this, the "folly" of arms control must be pursued to decrease the numbers of all nuclear weapons, not only strategic weapons. U.S. leadership is essential. Nuclear states must continue to improve the surety of command-and-control systems and remove the hair-trigger status of nuclear weapons. The disposal of nuclear-weapons materials must be drastically accelerated.

We must distinguish between the "abolition" of nuclear weapons and their "prohibition." In its strict sense, abolition appears impossible: nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented. But prohibition would be feasible if a broad international consensus could be built to attain it. Moreover, alternate routes toward prohibition must be considered. Should the nuclear weapons-free zones be augmented such that eventually they cover the entire globe? Should the NPT be amended to abolish the category of "nuclear" states? Should the nuclear states convene to generate a timetable under which they would meet their obligations to the NPT? Should prohibition of nuclear weapons be placed on the agenda of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva? Should a broad-based conference be called to discuss the worldwide prohibition of nuclear weapons?

Each of these routes faces profound obstacles but also extends hope for progress. It is unfortunate that Schell's article only advocates reaffirming the commitment to nonproliferation but does not attempt to chart a road map for the prohibition of nuclear weapons.


Professor and Director Emeritus, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Stanford University