The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
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 into the Western-oriented international system. Russia already feels undermined by NATO expansion and the conduct of war in the former Yugoslavia, an area of great Russian interest, without even an attempt to obtain U.N. approval. When the Clinton administration states that it will not consider reductions below 2,500 nuclear weapons, retrograde Russian nationalists and enterprising arms manufacturers justify selling advanced military technology and know-how to Iran, China, and other potential U.S. adversaries. When American politicians of both parties pursue national missile defense outside the agreed boundaries of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, they drive those Russians who do want to cooperate with the West underground.
Russia simply does not have the resources to compete militarily with the United States. But until Washington and Moscow admit that they do not need to keep thousands of nuclear weapons poised on alert against each other, Russia will rely on cheap and dangerous nuclear solutions to balance the United States. President Vladimir Putin may try to save money by shrinking Russia's arsenal, but the anachronistic attachment to mutually assured destruction remains at the core of both countries' systems.
The thousands of American nuclear weapons under a first-use doctrine will also eventually compel China to make its own long-range force, currently a mere 20 nuclear weapons, more threatening. Beijing was inevitably going to expand its arsenal, but Washington's nuclear strategy -- plus the prospect of ballistic missile defenses -- will push China to put a hair trigger on its growing forces as well. The two countries lack any agreed and verifiable "rules of the road" to avoid driving off a nuclear cliff in the fog of crisis.
Many defense officials believe that the United States is caught in the middle of a China-Taiwan political faceoff that is brewing a major military crisis. A Taiwanese bid for independence would provoke a perilous spiral of progressive confrontations: China would likely launch conventionally armed ballistic missiles across the Taiwan Strait; U.S. naval forces could become engaged; and for the first time in history, two nuclear-armed states might fire missiles at each other. Once missiles fly and casualties mount, how confident can Chinese and American officials be that nuclear weapons are not going to drop from the next sortie?
The U.S. bombing of China's Belgrade embassy during the war over Kosovo gives a sobering reminder that even the best-equipped military is not immune to intelligence failures or miscalculation during a crisis. Current American policies assume that China's military is bluffing and that U.S. nuclear superiority and missile defenses could intimidate the People's Liberation Army (PLA) at the critical moment. Yet Washington presses Taiwan not to declare independence precisely because the PLA may not be deterred, and the consequent risk of armed conflict is high. Indeed, President Jiang Zemin did not hesitate to threaten military force in 1996, when the Clinton administration merely allowed then Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui a "private" visit to his American alma mater, Cornell University.
Finally, Schell warns of the "anarchic" consequences of Washington's refusal to follow the commandments of its "unequivocal" treaty commitment to eliminate its nuclear arsenal. Current U.S. policies certainly carry this long-term risk, but the immediate danger is more insidious. By pressing its superfluous nuclear "advantage" Washington provokes other states, including friends, to challenge U.S. hegemony. Nuclear "have-nots," including such key states as Canada, Germany, Japan, Egypt, Sweden, South Africa, and Brazil, do not fear that America will use nuclear weapons against them. But they do see U.S. nuclear policy as hegemonic arrogance and needless militarism. These states, and others that are less friendly, want the nuclear-weapons powers to fulfill their commitment under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. The United States in turn needs the goodwill of both nuclear and non-nuclear states to shape the treaty-enforcing, cooperative international system on which American prosperity and peace depend.
ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN
If Schell understates the immediate dangers of American strategic policy, he overstates the degree to which American officials have analyzed the conditions necessary to eliminate nuclear arsenals. A 1961 initiative by President Kennedy and his disarmament adviser John McCloy marked the last time that the U.S. government took nuclear disarmament seriously enough to explore how to make it feasible. Even leaders who have sought modest reforms have been stymied. The next administration must understand this history if it is to overcome it.
As national security adviser, Henry Kissinger tried to moderate U.S. deterrence and targeting plans, as had Robert McNamara previously. In his memoir, Kissinger claims he failed: "Achieving a more discriminating nuclear strategy ... remains to this day one of the most difficult tasks to implement, requiring a substantial recasting of our military establishment."
President Reagan tried to go further and "pave the way for arms control measures to eliminate [nuclear] weapons themselves." His unattainable Strategic Defensive Initiative ("Star Wars") purported to make this possible, provided it were implemented with the understanding that "we seek neither military superiority nor political advantage." Of course, the bureaucracy under Reagan rejected both this operating principle and the ultimate goal. Although Reagan's successors in both parties are still chasing Star Wars today, they pursue an American missile-defense dream divested of the original vision of eliminating offensive nuclear forces in a transition to a collaborative, "defense-dominant" world.
In 1993, the Clinton administration, too, called for a "fundamental ... reexamination" of nuclear doctrine. Yet, as so often has happened during Clinton's years in office, the initiative suffered from presidential inattention and reluctance to challenge Washington's odd couple of Pentagon bureaucrats and myopic and doctrinaire senators. No real change in nuclear doctrine occurred, despite huge increases in America's overall military superiority over every other nation.
Today there is not one person in the U.S. government devising a road map to disarmament. "We have reached the point," exclaimed General Eugene Habiger, recently retired commander in chief of all U.S. strategic forces, "where the senior military generals responsible for nuclear forces are advocating more vocally, more vehemently, than our politicians, to get down to lower and lower weapons."
Paradoxically, even "vehement" arguments from the generals who have commanded U.S. nuclear forces do not wield sufficient firepower to jolt the executive branch out of its inertia. The Navy, Air Force, and particularly the civilian wizards of Armageddon have vested interests in maintaining extravagant arsenals. Dick Cheney found this out in 1989 when he took over as secretary of defense and discovered that "nobody had ever asked how much is enough." The general who commanded the Gulf War air campaign concluded that although "nuclear weapons ... really have no utility," such pragmatic considerations do not get priority in strategic planning. "Don't ask the Pentagon to change the Pentagon," he once said. "The executive branch has to provide leadership."
This statement confirms Schell's argument that nothing will change until the White House has a president willing to be a policy innovator, initiator, and implementer. To bridge the diplomatic chasm created by unilateral American nuclear superiority, the president must now lead multilateral moves to fulfill the npt's "unequivocal" obligation of nuclear disarmament. During the Cold War, the nuclear powers realized that their strategic policies were interdependent. Hence the philosophy underpinning the negotiations that led to the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties. The United States must proceed toward nuclear elimination with the same understanding in mind.
Collectively, national governments must define the necessary prerequisites for a safe, progressive elimination of nuclear arsenals: a global system to count and monitor fissile material; security guarantees to enable Israel to relinquish its nuclear force; verification measures to give India and Pakistan mutual assurance that their nuclear weapons have been dismantled; plans and capabilities to respond to potential rearmament by bad actors; and so on. Even if these conditions cannot all be achieved, Washington would gain much-needed international appreciation for exploring them seriously. The U.S. would cease to appear as the greatest obstacle to international denuclearization.
The current presidential candidates offer little hope of leading a cooperative charge toward disarmament. Governor George W. Bush has apparently forgotten his May 2000 speech that called it time "to rethink the requirements of nuclear deterrence," in which he advocated taking more nuclear forces off alert. Vice President Al Gore has pledged that he would initiate "a thorough reexamination [of] official nuclear doctrine" and "engage deeply in the process." But if seven years in the Clinton White House have not given Gore sufficient time to find vision or political courage on nuclear issues, can he realistically be expected to become the disarmament president?
WAG THE DOG
Schell hopes that a general democratic debate will motivate the next president to reform U.S. nuclear policy and asserts that "the public must give its permission and support" for an effort to eradicate nuclear weapons. Yet the complicated logistics of nuclear forces and the dynamics of proliferation and diplomacy in such areas as the Middle East, South Asia, the Korean Peninsula, and the Taiwan Strait make the eyes of most busy Americans glaze over. A disinterested public lacks the historical, international, and technical knowledge necessary to make informed policy judgments.
Furthermore, Schell gives undue credit to contemporary democracy, which is soundbite obsessed and photo-staged. Media-driven politics will undermine rather than strengthen the prospects of responsible reform. Talk-radio hosts and elected politicians, whether doctrinaire or simply vote-conscious, will take advantage of widespread public ignorance to "simplify" policy choices and make them understandable to audiences. The duty to provide information could easily degenerate into an opportunity to sell propaganda. Knowledgeable centrists may well bow out of the argument, feeling that they cannot bring sense either to the simpletons of bellicosity or to the wishful thinkers of global peace. Meaningful policy change cannot occur amid a babble of extremist discourse.
It is no accident that the vast majority of states that decided to abandon nuclear weapons programs in recent decades -- Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, Kazakhstan, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, and Ukraine -- did so outside of established democratic processes. Nor was it happenstance that the far-reaching U.S.-Soviet nuclear reductions between 1987 and 1992 were made possible by the one-party leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev and by President George H.W. Bush's bold, secretive 1991 initiative to take U.S. nuclear bombers off alert and remove tactical nuclear weapons from service. Today, six of the eight nuclear-weapons powers are democracies: the United Kingdom, France, India, Israel, Russia, and the United States. Their elected executives and parliamentary leaders are highly reluctant to stick their necks out in favor even of exploring how to eliminate nuclear weapons.
Authoritarian government is not the answer. Rather, farsighted changes in nuclear policies will depend on determined experts' pushing the president to do the necessary executive work and painstaking diplomacy. The 1991 Bush initiative, which was not vetted by the interagency process or exposed first to public debate, is a good model for how the necessary changes will begin.
MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON
The onus is now on security and nuclear-policy experts to make the next U.S. administration jettison counterproductive Cold War nuclear doctrine. The time for mutually assured destruction has passed, and the United States has the opportunity to create a policy of mutually assured safety instead. The process will begin with new presidential guidelines for the Pentagon. Specialists should debate and offer objectives that the president should endorse and the guidelines should meet. Today's neglected task of strengthening the nonproliferation regime must take priority in these guidelines. Before the guidance is completed, the president and his top officials should discuss and debate it with outside experts. Know-nothings will try to threaten reputations and careers, but a president emboldened by a plan that has the backing of credible experts could then rally public support to overcome the resistance of bureaucrats and congressional extremists.
The national-security establishment rewards the cautious and uncontroversial. Yet only when leaders take personal risks to push enlightened policy through the Washington mill does the nation move forward. If the stewards of nuclear policy do not rise to the post-Cold War historical challenge, they will jeopardize the nation's physical security and hasten the decline of America's international leadership.
George Perkovich is Deputy Director for Programs and Director of the Secure World Program at the W. Alton Jones Foundation. He is the author of India's Nuclear Bomb.
REALITY VS. UTOPIA
By Ernest W. Lefever
Jonathan Schell's prescription for saving the world from nuclear catastrophe boils down to five interrelated propositions.
ARMING FOR PEACE
First, Schell asserts that the "existence of the world's present nuclear arsenals poses the ever-present danger of unimaginable catastrophe." Although his apocalyptic premise is theoretically true, it is also true that nuclear arms and delivery systems have not led to nuclear war. In fact, these awesome weapons have helped make possible a half-century of great-power peace, a peace paradoxically bought at the risk of nuclear conflict. Thus mutual deterrence at the strategic level has worked so far.
Ironically, the 1962 Cuban missile crisis highlighted not the danger of nuclear weapons but their stabilizing impact. This risky "eyeball to eyeball" confrontation demonstrated the virtues of nuclear restraint and reinforced the Cold War adversaries' inclination to rely on less lethal means of pursuing their interests.
Second, Schell states that "every nuclear arsenal is linked to every other nuclear arsenal in the world by ... powerful ties of terror and response." He insists that the U.S. policy of nuclear deterrence inevitably induces other states to choose the nuclear option.
Of course the proliferation of nuclear arms also proliferates dangers, but compelling evidence suggests that neither India nor Pakistan, for example, has any intention of using its small nuclear arsenal in open warfare. In a visit to both countries early this year, I found no knowledgeable person in either place who regarded the recently acquired nuclear capability as anything other than a mutual deterrent, a bargaining chip, or a source of national prestige.
In fact, all with whom I spoke thought the existence of nuclear arms would dampen the bitter conflict over Kashmir -- and they could claim evidence for their case. In 1999, when New Delhi and Islamabad came to the brink of a fourth war over Kashmir, both sides pulled back. This suggests that each country had already learned the discipline of nuclear-induced restraint. After all, during the nuclear standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States, neither side ever fired a shot at the other, even though Washington was seriously provoked in Berlin, and Moscow was provoked by our u-2 flights over its territory.
U.S. & U.S.S.R.: MORAL EQUIVALENTS?
Schell's third key point is to bemoan the shift from the early "nuclear disarmament" negotiations to "arms control" efforts. Under the arms control regime in both Washington and Moscow, he says,
first-strike forces regularly got the better of the hope for stability. Each side habitually saw itself as lagging behind. Cries of alarm and appeals to catch up -- to close the "bomber gap," a "missile gap," a "throw-weight gap," or a "window of vulnerability" -- sounded through the halls of Congress as well as the hidden precincts of the Politburo.
Schell's views suggest a kind of unjustified moral-equivalence doctrine. Washington focused on nuclear stability over provocation, whereas Moscow occasionally threatened the use of nuclear arms to maintain control over its satellites in Eastern Europe. And the Soviet Union and the United States behaved quite differently in the global arena. As a predatory power, Moscow was hostile toward Western Europe and sought to expand its empire elsewhere by subversion.
Fourth, although Schell supports the three major arms-control agreements -- the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and the NPT -- as well as the test-ban negotiations, he feels that the U.S. failure to commit to a totally denuclearized world is subverting these efforts. Schell sternly criticizes the unilateral American determination to deploy a national missile defense system, which, he insists, jeopardizes the old ABM treaty and will spur a new nuclear arms race. He also condemns the Senate for rejecting the patently unenforceable Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Schell rightly sees the "arms control regime" as a weak reed, even as "folly," but he cites the wrong reasons. Arms control advocates should not be faulted for seeking to avoid war but for raising utopian expectations by exaggerating the force of international treaties. Yet Schell wants to invest even greater confidence in such instruments, which he sees as handmaidens in the ultimate task of pushing the evil nuclear genie back into its bottle. Alas, nuclear arms and missile technology, like dynamite and guns, cannot be uninvented.
States, not international treaties, are and always have been the primary actors in world politics. And in grave crises the vital interests of the state always trump treaties, however solemn or multilateral they may be.
A MINIMUM DETERRENT
Schell's final thesis pins the primary responsibility for eliminating nuclear weapons on the United States. He writes that in "many parts of the world, a steady undertow of nuclear sanity" has slowed "a global scramble to obtain nuclear arms." Washington should follow this sane lead and resolve to eliminate this scourge, he argues.
However unrealistic Schell's principal proposal, he is right in implying that mutual deterrence during the Cold War could have been achieved with fewer arms on each side. After Moscow exploded its first H-bomb in 1953, Washington sought to maintain effective mutual deterrence at the lowest prudential level. But Moscow's paranoia and ironclad secrecy prevented America from knowing the numbers and disposition of Soviet nuclear forces. Then at the 1955 Geneva summit, President Eisenhower made his daring "open skies" proposal that, if implemented, would have provided each side with sufficient intelligence about the other's arsenals to permit something approximating a minimum deterrent approach. Premier Khrushchev promptly rejected the proposal.
This development made the u-2 espionage flights over Soviet territory a viable alternative. Had Khrushchev accepted the mutual verification of warheads and missiles, no u-2 flights would have taken off and the superpowers might well have maintained the stability conferred by mutual deterrence at a much lower level of nuclear arms, thus saving hundreds of billions of dollars.
Finally, in September 1983 Ronald Reagan's firm response to Moscow's deployment of medium-range ss-20 missiles targeted on cities from Oslo to Istanbul made possible a substantial reduction in the intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) based in the Soviet Union, East and West Germany, Belgium, and Italy. Despite pressure from nuclear-freeze advocates, including Schell, Reagan deployed Pershing IIs in West Germany to counter the ss-20s. This move got Gorbachev's attention, and in 1987 he agreed with Reagan to jettison this highly destabilizing system on both sides. The INF treaty, the most significant arms reduction of the nuclear age, was achieved not by protracted arms control negotiation or by an international treaty but the unilateral decision -- backed by NATO allies -- of a courageous president facing a clear and present threat.
BETWEEN UTOPIA AND HELL
Schell insists that "every last nuclear warhead" must be destroyed. This goal, in his view, can be accomplished only if American leaders heed his apocalyptic advice and launch a vigorous crusade to that end. Alas, the alternatives that statesmen face are not utopia or hell, but purgatory. Constrained by the realities of history and politics, they confront agonizing choices in their quest for a tolerable balance of power that restrains aggressors and permits -- but does not assure -- a measure of peace and freedom.
Nuclear weapons, like all technology, are morally and politically neutral. They are inert and have no life of their own. Weapons are not actors in the global drama but pliant tools to be used or misused by fallible human beings. Their significance derives from how statesmen employ them. For all their portent, nuclear arms so far have served as instruments of peace.
Ernest W. Lefever is Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. He is the author of Nuclear Arms in the Third World, among other books.