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US: going nuclear?

01 September 2002

It has become commonplace to say that the events of 11 September have changed international affairs dramatically. With regard to nuclear affairs, this is also partly the case. The terrorist attacks themselves had no direct nuclear implications, but they gave new impetus to ongoing change in the nuclear landscape.
On the positive side, 11 September has greatly strengthened the awareness of the urgent need to fight proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and to prevent terrorists from acquiring or developing WMD and WMD-related materials. This led, in June 2002, to the G8 Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. Within this framework, the G8 countries committed themselves to raising up to $20 billion over the next ten years for the financing of collaborative projects with Russia on non-proliferation, disarmament and nuclear safety. Given the persistent risks that stem from Russian WMD-related installations and stockpiles, this commitment is without doubt vital and a major success – provided that the partners keep their promises and find the necessary financial resources.
However, the G8 Global Partnership could not conceal profound divergence over the way to fight proliferation that persists – and it is getting worse. In this respect at least, 11 September has been both a catalyst and a boost for developments that were under way before that tragic day. The US tendency to concentrate the ‘war on terror’ on the so-called ‘axis of evil’ has revived and intensified the debate about rogue states and the way in which to deal with them. This, in turn, has a nuclear dimension.
In particular, the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review was initiated before 11 September but it nevertheless reveals that the United States will draw up contingency plans for using nuclear weapons against Iraq, North Korea Iran, Libya and Syria, because they ‘all have long-standing hostility towards the US and its security partners, [. . .] sponsor or harbour terrorists, and have active WMD and missile programs’. Calling for a new force posture able to deter and respond to any and all emerging threats, the NPR suggests combining the deployment of missile defences with a mixture of nuclear and non-nuclear weapons, together with a so-called ‘hedge policy’, all of this designed to enhance flexibility in offensive and defensive capabilities. According to the NPR, the United States should maintain the capacity to reverse reductions of deployed warheads, develop and deploy a Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system, and continue to examine the possibility of developing low-yield nuclear warheads for use against hardened and deeply buried targets.
The US search for greater flexibility was also reflected in the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) signed with Russia in May 2002. Only three pages long, the treaty significantly scales back oversized nuclear stockpiles but does not mandate permanent reductions. It contains no requirement to destroy withdrawn warheads, and allows both sides to return to any force level they desire after 10 years and to pull out with 90 days’ notice at any time. Moreover, the United States is now able to develop its nuclear force without detailed treaty limitations, and there is no link between strategic reductions and constraints on missile defences.
Both the 2002 NPR and SORT indicate a strong will to increase the ability to respond militarily, on the one hand, and to avoid clear and binding obligations, on the other. In pursuit of greater American freedom of action, Washington is reinventing arms control, basing it on implicit trust (instead of treaties and verification), turning its back on irreversible arms reductions, seeking to develop new, more usable nuclear weapons and targeting non-nuclear weapon states. All of this is fundamentally incompatible with both the spirit and the letter of the NPT; it could therefore not only contribute to the ongoing undermining of the current regime but devalue arms control itself, thereby leading to even greater risks of proliferation – which is surely not the intention. The same is true for the envisaged combination of missile defences, on the one hand, and a mixture of nuclear and non-nuclear weapons, on the other. What some consider an indispensable part of maintaining an effective deterrent could be interpreted by others as an attempt to increase the chances of a successful pre-emptive attack, which could provoke destabilising reactions on the part of potential opponents.
All of this shows that there is a major shift in US nuclear policy that runs against the European preference for binding and verifiable multilateral arms control and non-proliferation arrangements. In consequence, nuclear issues like BMD, the role of nuclear weapons, or the future of disarmament and non-proliferation, will probably become yet more transatlantic bones of contention, even if a possible attack against Iraq would not imply the use of WMD. The problem is, once again, the absence of a systematic and comprehensive debate among EU members on these issues. Without such a debate, however, there will be neither a common European position nor an open and fruitful transatlantic dialogue about the best way to achieve effective security.