Friday, June 1, 2007

New Nuclear Weapons are no Bargain

Discussions regarding a modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal through the design and development of a series of “Reliable Replacement Warheads” and the “Complex 2030” plan to create a “responsive infrastructure” for U.S. nuclear weapons production are miscast.

The Bush Administration’s plan to modernize the nuclear arsenal has caused great concern among nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament advocates. New nuclear weapons constitute an area of particularly acute concern for our treaty partners (see groundbreaking work on Foreign Perspectives on U.S. Nuclear Policy and Posture led by Ambassador Lewis Dunn) and the Bush Administration’s plan leads the world in the wrong direction, toward greater reliance on Cold War weapons and away from progress toward compliance with U.S. obligations under Article VI of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Proponents of modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal have responded with the idea of a “grand bargain,” by which these steps to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal would be matched with deep cuts in the massive overkill capacity of the existing nuclear arsenals left over from the Cold War. While rhetorically appealing, a “grand bargain” sounds a little too familiar to anyone who recalls the history of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and past “bargains” for the ratification of arms control treaties. The U.S. Government has entered into legally binding international commitments to nuclear reductions we have not yet fulfilled and until we can find our way to a global leadership role on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament a “grand bargain” would be hollow. Dr. Michael Krepon points the discussion of nuclear weapons modernization in a more productive direction in a recent article that suggests conditions under which modernizing the nuclear arsenal might be less destabilizing.

Ultimately, creating conditions under which nuclear weapons enhance U.S. national security should not be our objective. National security should be our objective, and to the extent possible it should (and to a large an increasing extent only can) move forward in tandem with global security. Nuclear weapons are the principle threat to U.S. national security and Constitutional democracy. Honest debate is possible about whether present political circumstances and verification capacity empower us to promptly eliminate the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal, but the quality of this debate degrades significantly as we climb back up the nuclear disarmament asymptote to the Bush Administration’s apparent intention to indefinitely retain more than 5,000 deployed and reserve nuclear weapons (as Federation of American Scientists / Natural Resources Defense Council analysis suggests).

Could there be a role for a “safer” nuclear explosive device? Nuclear explosive devices are inherently unsafe so, at best, the answer depends on several factors.

First, it depends on casting the discussion in terms of a real commitment to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. There are several specific steps that we should take on this path immediately: (1) commitment to a new round of Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) nuclear weapons reductions negotiations with Russia aimed at a 50% cut below Moscow Treaty levels (1700-2200 deployed nuclear weapons, with no new limit on the number of weapons in reserve) with improvement in verification and compliance measures commensurate with the technical and political possibilities of 2007, (2) multilateralization of these disarmament negotiations to bring in the United Kingdom, France, China, and other states of proliferation concern as well as those concerned with proliferation like Canada, Australia, and Mexico; (3) global zero high-alert negotiations to end the preposterously dangerous Cold War practice of having enough nuclear weapons to wreck the planet available for use within half an hour; (4) the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) ratified by the United States and in force; (5) global fissile material production cutoff discussions well underway; (6) and expansion and integration of nuclear weapon free zones would be a good start.

Second, a reasonable context for the consideration of modernization would also depend on the reaction of our international partners in nonproliferation: nonproliferation only works if the governments of countries believe that it contributes more to their security than nuclear weapons would – a delicate counterintuitive proposition on a good day, but in practice much more valuable to American national security than a few hundred extra nuclear weapons.

Third, it also depends on being sure that we (as a nation) know what we would do with all these nuclear weapons, and I see no indication that this is the case.

Finally, it depends on what we give up to get it – how many more national sacrifice zones, premature deaths, and billions of dollars? What are the medical, public health, and environmental consequences of this course of building new nuclear weapons and what are these new weapons going to cost?

The discussion about a “grand bargain” on the Reliable Replacement Warhead reminds me of the film Groundhog Day in which Bill Murray relives the same day hundreds of times. He learns after a few dozen tries that he can get Andie McDowell to fall in love with him if he exposes her to a certain sequence of romantic experiences. So, the next day, he tries to cram all these romantic experiences into the morning as fast as he can to get to the good stuff – and he totally blows it. Right now, we are totally blowing it by rushing to discuss a “grand bargain” about the Reliable Replacement Warhead rather than undertaking a deliberate, focused, and careful effort to establish the necessary conditions for the discussion.

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