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The Two Sides of the Nuclear Coin

by Lawrence S. Wittner on Mar 17, 2004

Lawrence S. Wittner

Despite George W. Bush’s repeated warnings about nuclear proliferation, he and his fellow Republicans deserve much of the blame for their increase. Ever since the advent of the Bush administration, it has charged that other nations are acquiring nuclear weapons. Justifying war with Iraq, the administration hammered away at that nation’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. It has also assailed North Korea and Iran for their nuclear programs. On Feb. 11, in a major policy address, President Bush called for new steps to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. The world must act, he said, to “confront these dangers and to end them.”

At the same time, the administration has virtually scrapped the longstanding U.S. policy of nuclear disarmament — exactly the policy that, over the decades, has provided the key to halting nuclear proliferation.

In 1965, when the U.S. and Soviet governments worried about the prospect of nuclear weapons spreading to dozens of nations, they teamed up to submit nonproliferation treaties to the UN General Assembly. Non-nuclear nations immediately objected to these proposals, arguing that they would merely restrict the nuclear club to its current members (then the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China). Alva Myrdal, Sweden’s disarmament minister, insisted that “disarmament measures should be a matter of mutual renunciation.” Willy Brandt, West Germany’s foreign minister, argued that a nonproliferation treaty was justified “only if the nuclear states regard it as a step toward restrictions of their own armaments and toward disarmament.”

Unlike the Bush administration, U.S. and Soviet leaders of the time recognized that nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament were two sides of the same coin. As a result, the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation

Treaty (NPT) that emerged from the United Nations was substantially broadened. Non-nuclear states pledged “not to make or acquire nuclear weapons.” And nuclear nations agreed to take “effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” Further, when it signed and ratified this treaty, the U.S. government pledged not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states that had endorsed the NPT and that were not allied with a nation possessing nuclear weapons.

With this bargain struck between the nuclear haves and have-nots, nearly all nations signed the NPT. Over the next 30 years, only one additional nation (Israel) developed nuclear weapons. To some degree, the success of this nonproliferation policy reflected citizens’ campaigns for nuclear disarmament that stigmatized nuclear weapons and encouraged the signing of nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties. But it also resulted from the mutual renunciation features of the NPT, which paired abstention from building nuclear weapons by most nations with nuclear disarmament and non-threatening behavior by the others.

Unfortunately, the NPT began unraveling in the late 1990s. The Republican-dominated U.S. Senate refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a landmark measure negotiated and signed by President Clinton. Given their control of Congress, the Republicans also managed to advance plans for a national missile defense system, a venture that contravened a key arms control measure, the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. Meanwhile, India, pointing to the failure of the nuclear powers to divest themselves of their nuclear weapons, became a nuclear nation in 1998. This act provoked Pakistan to do the same.

After the presidential election of 2000, U.S. policy tilted sharply against nuclear disarmament and other pledges made in the NPT. Ignoring the commitments made by his Democratic and Republican predecessors, Bush pulled the United States out of the ABM treaty, ordered the deployment of a missile defense system and rejected the test ban treaty. The administration’s Nuclear Posture Review called for sustaining and modernizing nuclear weapons for at least the next half-century. The review also included contingency plans for U.S. nuclear attacks upon non-nuclear nations, among them North Korea. In the fall of 2003, the Bush administration pushed legislation through Congress to authorize the development of new, “usable” nuclear weapons.

Given this repudiation of NPT commitments, it’s not surprising that North Korea has pulled out of the NPT and, perhaps, has begun building nuclear weapons. Nor is it surprising that a number of other nations might be working to develop a nuclear weapons capability. If the nuclear powers cling to their nuclear weapons and threaten their use, then other nations will inevitably try to join the nuclear club.

As Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has observed: “We all have to be moving away from nuclear weapons. It can’t be just a mandate from the United States that everybody goes in one direction while we go in another.” But this is exactly what the Bush administration — in yet another example of its go-it-alone foreign policy — is pressing for.

Nuclear proliferation cannot be halted without nuclear disarmament. As the old song goes: “You can’t have one without the other!”


Lawrence S. Wittner is a professor of history at the State University of New York/Albany and author of "Toward Nuclear Abolition" (2003).