The New Nuclear Threat: Twenty years after the end of the cold war, the arms race intensifies.

During the height of the cold war, in September 1961, President John F. Kennedy addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations. “Every inhabitant of this planet,” he said, “must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or madness.”

With the demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the United States as the world’s lone superpower, the immediate possibility of nuclear Armageddon has receded, especially in people’s consciousness. Yet Kennedy’s warning still resonates. The world remains a very dangerous place, and the threat of a nuclear catastrophe is still very real. The next U.S. president, whether Republican or Democrat, must face this threat head-on by rebuilding the international nuclear nonproliferation regime, which has been grievously weakened by the Bush administration.

The heart of that regime is the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. One of its main provisions is the promise by the states that have no nuclear weapons not to develop or otherwise acquire them. In return for that promise, the major nuclear weapon states—the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France—pledged eventually to eliminate all of their own nuclear weapons.

The treaty also permits nonweapon states to develop nuclear energy for purely civilian purposes. To this end, the nuclear powers promised to provide the nonweapon states with nuclear assistance, including research reactors, nuclear power plants and nuclear technology. To ensure that this civilian nuclear assistance would not be diverted to military applications, the International Atomic Energy Agency was charged with monitoring the nuclear activities of the nonweapon states.

As demonstrated by the large number of treaty signatories—189 countries, including the United States—the nonproliferation regime has been very successful in restricting the number of states with nuclear arsenals. In addition to the five recognized nuclear-weapon states, only four other countries, which are not parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, have developed nuclear weapons. They are India, Pakistan, Israel and, since 2006, North Korea.

Yet in spite of its success in stemming the spread of nuclear weapons, the treaty is now in peril. One cause of the problem is the failure of the weapon states to live up to their promise to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. Although the United States and Russia have made substantial reductions in the size of their respective nuclear weapon stockpiles, they are far from having eliminated them.

In 1987, when the United States began reducing its nuclear arsenal, it contained 24,000 warheads. By 1992 that number had been cut to 10,500 warheads. In 2002 the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, or SORT, required the United States and Russia to reduce their “operationally deployed” strategic warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 by the end of 2012. SORT, however, permits each side to retain thousands of additional warheads in a reserve stockpile for redeployment if necessary. As a result, by 2012 the U.S. nuclear arsenal will still contain 4,600 warheads. Russia is expected to have about the same number.

While these reductions are impressive—even amazing, considering the zeal with which each country once built them—both Russia and the United States have no plans to eliminate their nuclear arsenals completely in the foreseeable future. Indeed, if SORT is not renewed before it expires at the end of 2012, both countries will be free to increase the size of their nuclear stockpiles once again.

Undermining the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

In an effort to spur the nuclear weapon states to fulfill their nuclear disarmament promise, as well as to halt the further proliferation of nuclear weapons, the nonweapon states approved the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1995. But they did so on the explicit condition that the nuclear powers would permanently cease all nuclear-weapons testing and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The C.T.B.T. is based on the assumption that if nations are prohibited from testing nuclear weapons, they will not be inclined to develop them. As of February 2008, 178 states have signed the treaty and 144 have ratified it, including the whole of the European Union, illustrating the overwhelming support this treaty enjoys. However, before the treaty can go into effect, it must be ratified by nine more of the 44 states listed in its annex.

The United States, which signed the C.T.B.T. in 1996, is one of those nine states. In 1999 the Republican-controlled Senate refused to ratify the treaty in order to permit the United States to resume nuclear tests, which it had halted in 1992. For the same reason, apparently, the Bush administration has refused to resubmit the C.T.B.T. to the Senate. In fact, in November 2003 the administration persuaded Congress to shorten the time required to prepare for the resumption of U.S. nuclear testing from 24 months to 18. Without saying so, it wanted the ability to resume testing because it was eager to develop, and if necessary test, a new generation of nuclear weapons.

New Nuclear Weapons

A new U.S. nuclear weapon system, proposed early in the Bush administration, was the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. It was designed to destroy hardened and deeply buried targets, similar to the cave complex in Afghanistan that was used by Al Qaeda. But Congress rejected the administration’s rationale for the new weapon. Not only would the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator have produced significant collateral damage and radioactive fallout, but the building of a new nuclear weapon would have undermined the international effort to limit other countries from developing their own nuclear arsenals.

Blocked in its effort to obtain Congressional funding for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, the Bush administration has turned to another new nuclear weapon program, the Reliable Replacement Warhead program. This project calls for the development of new nuclear warheads that supposedly would be easier and safer to maintain, and more reliable than existing models. Moreover, the administration insists that the new warheads could be built without having to conduct a proof test, thereby preserving the nuclear test moratorium. Congress has refused to fund this program as well. A group of independent scientists, the JASON Defense Advisory Group, reported that there was “no evidence” to suggest that the existing stockpile of U.S. nuclear weapons would be unreliable for at least another century.

In addition, the JASON group doubted that the Reliable Replacement Warhead design could be certified without testing it, which would violate the nuclear test moratorium. Nevertheless, the administration again has requested funding for the program in its fiscal 2009 budget.

The Bush administration has demonstrated that it has no intention of ending U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons. That impression has been reinforced by the administration’s decision to resume, for the first time since 1992, the production of nuclear weapons, albeit on a small scale, and by its desire to have Congress fund the expansion of America’s nuclear weapons laboratories.

Preventive Nuclear War

The Bush administration’s eagerness to produce new nuclear weapons is directly related to the new U.S. strategic doctrine that the president approved in 2002. It calls for the possible pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons against so-called rogue states, like North Korea or Iran.

This new nuclear doctrine threatens to overturn a U.S. pledge not to use nuclear weapons against nonweapon states that are still a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, such as Iran. “Why sign, or remain signatory to a treaty” (the N.P.T.), asked an unsigned editorial in the Parisian newspaper 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 and Iranians have gotten this message. It explains, in part, North Korea’s decision to test a nuclear weapon in 2006, and Iran’s refusal to meet the U.N. demand to stop enriching uranium, a primary ingredient of a nuclear weapon.

Clearly, if the United States is going to be serious about halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons, it will have to accept the same standards of behavior for itself that it is attempting to impose on nonweapon states. If it insists that other nations abide by the provisions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it should make sure the United States does so as well. Preparing to build and, if necessary, use new nuclear weapons is obviously not the way to do this.

The India Nuclear Deal

Perhaps the most blatant example of President Bush’s disregard for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is the nuclear deal he signed with India in July 2005. India, which never signed the N.P.T., became a nuclear weapon state in 1974. Nevertheless, the agreement calls for the United States to sell civilian nuclear materials to India, thereby formally acknowledging that country as a weapon state and in effect rewarding it for producing nuclear weapons.

In order to complete the deal, Congress must exempt India from the 1978 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, which bars the United States from providing nuclear technology to countries that have not signed the N.P.T. In December 2006, Congress caved in to pressure from pro-agreement lobbyists and, by a voice vote, gave tentative approval to India’s exemption from the 1978 act.

Final Congressional approval of the deal, however, was made contingent on India’s meeting a number of conditions. For one, India must negotiate a safeguards agreement, which permits the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect India’s civilian nuclear facilities. The deal also must be approved by the 45 countries participating in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which establishes rules for the nuclear trade between nations.

India has yet to fulfill these conditions, mainly because Indian opponents of the agreement argue that it impinges upon their country’s national security and sovereignty. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who negotiated the nuclear agreement, is still determined to see it ratified. But the State Department has warned him that before the deal can be concluded, India must fulfill the conditions set by Congress before it recesses for the summer. After that time, the attention of the legislators will be focused on the November elections.

If Congress does eventually approve the India deal, it will have cooperated with President Bush in undermining the second major part of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’s “grand bargain.” That part contains the provision that the nonweapon-state signatories can obtain nuclear assistance for peaceful purposes, but only after pledging that they will not make nuclear weapons and will accept full-scope safeguards to ensure that they do not.

Moreover, if the United States drops the restrictions on nuclear sales to India, because the Indians are now our friends, what will inhibit Russia from ignoring international restrictions on sales to its friends, including Iran or China, or from dropping controls on sales to its friend Pakistan? The international nuclear export control system works only by the restraint of all the supplier countries. It is too much to expect other nations to restrict nuclear sales to their clients if the United States sells the same technologies to India.

Tasks of the Next Administration

The heart of the problem confronting the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which the U.S.-India nuclear deal has made manifest, is that it divides the world into nuclear haves and have-nots. In so doing, it discriminates against the nonnuclear states by prohibiting them from producing nuclear weapons, while it allows the weapon states—which have pledged to eliminate their nuclear weapons—to continue to maintain their arsenals. And if the Bush administration has its way, the United States will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

The only way to end the discriminatory character of the N.P.T., and thereby save the nuclear nonproliferation regime, is to have the weapon states live up to their side of the N.P.T. bargain. This will require the weapon states to stop producing nuclear weapons. One way this could be accomplished is by means of a negotiated treaty establishing a mandatory timeline, say 15 years in duration, for further nuclear weapons reductions, terminating with their complete elimination. Only then will the world’s inhabitants be free from the scourge of a possible nuclear war.

Read the Americal editorial on "The Challenge of Peace," from 1983.

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