Ronald E. Powaski

The Bush administration’s response to North Korea’s nuclear weapon challenge has been hypocritical. While the North Korean decision to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty last January was lamentable, it is also understandable. The Bush administration itself has done much to undermine the international effort to counter the spread of nuclear weapons.

Last year, for example, the administration scrapped the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which for almost 30 years was one of the pillars of the international nuclear nonproliferation regime, in order to free the United States to build a national missile defense system.

In doing so, the administration declared that the ABM Treaty, which was negotiated to prevent an arms race in defensive systems, as well as to maintain the balance of offensive nuclear power between the United States and the Soviet Union, no longer served America’s national interest. Preserving its national interest, not surprisingly, was the excuse used by North Korea to justify its withdrawal from the N.P.T.

But the Bush administration has been no friend of the N.P.T. either. In return for a pledge by the nonweapon states not to acquire nuclear weapons, the nuclear weapon statesincluding the United Statespromised to move toward eventual nuclear disarmament. Yet in a series of decisions affecting U.S. nuclear weapon policy, the administration has demonstrated that it has no intention of ending U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons.

While the Bush administration ostensibly took a major step toward ending the nuclear arms race by signing the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty, the step was largely symbolic. The agreement requires both the United States and Russia to reduce their nuclear arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 active duty warheads. But between 2,400 and 2,900 additional warheads will be kept in a ready reserve.

The administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, leaked to the press in March 2002, revealed that the additional warheads would be used in part to meet the requirements of an expanded list of nuclear targetsincluding targets in North Korea, Iran, Syria and Libya, as well as in Russia and China. The N.P.R. also suggested that the United States needed new, low-yieldand presumably more useablenuclear weapons to destroy hardened and deeply buried targets in these countries.

Last May, the House and Senate approved a series of provisions sought by the White House and the Pentagon that are designed to facilitate the development of such weapons. The House eased a 10-year-old ban on research into smaller nuclear weapons, while the Senate lifted it entirely.

The N.P.R.’s call for the use of nuclear weapons in response to nonnuclear attacks by so-called rogue nations, like North Korea, threatens to overturn a pledge by the United States not to use nuclear weapons against nonweapon states that are a party to the N.P.T. Why sign, or remain a signatory to a treaty (the N.P.T.), asked Le Monde, which, in exchange for your absolute renunciation of nuclear arms, does not guarantee that they will not be used against you?

The North Koreans obviously got the message. Fearful that the Bush administration would turn on them after disposing of Saddam Hussein, they announced on Jan. 10 that they were resuming activities that could give them the capability to produce a nuclear weapon. The North Koreans obviously reasoned that an American attack would be less likely if North Korea were equipped with a sufficient number of nuclear weapons. The same rationale is undoubtedly compelling the Iranians to develop such a capability as well.

As an early indication that the Bush administration was prepared to resume U.S. nuclear weapons development, shortly after entering office in 2001 it announced that it would not push the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The 166 nations that have signed this agreement so farincluding 97 that also have ratified itregard the C.T.B.T. as one of the most effective ways of ending the nuclear arms race. The C.T.B.T. is premised upon the proposition that if nations are prohibited from testing nuclear weapons, they will be less likely to develop them.

But the Bush administration obviously does not want this prohibition to apply to the United States. It requested, and received, congressional approval to cut the lead time for conducting nuclear weapons tests to 18 months from the current three years. This could pave the way toward resumption of underground nuclear testing, which Congress compelled the first President Bush to suspend in 1992.

Obviously, the resumption of nuclear weapon testing by the United States would do much to undermine international support for the C.T.B.T. If America does not do its part to maintain the nonproliferation regime, it can hardly expect the North Koreans, the Iranians or any other would-be nuclear weapon state to refrain from acquiring the ultimate weapon.

Pope John Paul II has stated repeatedly that there can be no moral acceptance of military doctrines that envisage the use of nuclear weapons or even continued reliance on nuclear deterrence. Nuclear weapons, the Holy See has declared, are incompatible with the peace we seek for the 21st century; they cannot be justified. These weapons are instruments of death and destruction.

This is why the pope has called for the banishment of all nuclear weapons through a workable system for negotiation, even of arbitration. The preservation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Holy See has declared, demands unequivocal action toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.

The result of this administration’s nuclear folly is likely to be a world filled with nuclear weapon states.

Ronald E. Powaski is an adjunct professor of history at Cleveland State University.

Comments

John Blakeney | 2/7/2007 - 12:44pm
As a new subscriber to America, I look forward to each issue, which is certain to be challenging, relevant and formative. I am not one who believes that politics has no place in a Catholic magazine, as I believe it is both impossible and inadvisable not to have our spiritual mettle temper our political thoughts and actions. I do, however, question the merit of giving editorial space to columns such as “No Questions, Please” (Terry Golway, 8/18) and “Bush’s Nuclear Folly” (Ronald E. Powaski, 8/4), which have no religious, spiritual, ethical or philosophical framework to them. These columns serve only as a forum for the authors’ opposition to the Bush administration. Please consider these columns against the backdrop of a column such as “Unjust War, Good Outcomes” (John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., 5/19), in which the author presents an intellectual opposition to the Iraq war that challenges readers to consider issues of ethics and to think beyond the author’s opinions.

America magazine is a wonderful resource for thinking Catholics. I ask the editors to please continue to present columns and articles that will challenge readers and help us to think for ourselves rather than columns that simply express the author’s editorial viewpoint on political issues.

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