New Rules for the Nuclear Age ; Defeat of Test-Ban Treaty Signals That US Remains Tied to a Cold- War

By Peter Grier, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 19, 1999 | Go to article overview

New Rules for the Nuclear Age ; Defeat of Test-Ban Treaty Signals That US Remains Tied to a Cold- War


Peter Grier, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


As 2000 approaches, the world may be facing a growing threat from the most dangerous invention of the 1900s: nuclear weapons.

The years following the fall of the Berlin Wall saw an easing of atomic tensions, as the superpower arms race evaporated and a feared spread of nuclear weapons to terrorists and rogue states didn't occur.

Now the clock is ticking again, say experts. India and Pakistan have The Bomb. North Korea is at work on long-range missiles. Russian nuclear security has been called into question by a series of incidents.

Meanwhile, the US remains committed to a cold-war-style nuclear force and a cold-war-era framework of arms-control agreements. It's not yet clear what direction long-term American policy will take in the wake of the Senate's historic rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty last week.

"The old architecture doesn't work anymore," argues Paul Bracken, a political scientist and professor at the Yale School of Management. "We need to fundamentally rethink arms control for an era where there are 10 states with weapons of mass destruction."

This does not mean that the globe is anywhere near as close to nuclear war as it was during the worst moments of the long shadow struggle between the US and the Soviet Union, such as the Cuban missile crisis. The 1990s have seen many events that arguably dimmed the shadow of the mushroom cloud.

The START I treaty, concluded in 1991, has reduced the US and Russia's permissible arsenals from well over 10,000 deployed nuclear weapons apiece to around 6,000. START II, signed in 1993, will cut these levels to between 3,000 and 3,500 - if it's ever ratified by the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.

South Africa, a clandestine nuclear state, renounced its program. Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakstan chose to remain non-nuclear after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Both Russia and the US have pledged to not target the other with their remaining nukes. Never mind that the warheads of both nations can be retargeted within two minutes - it is, say Russian and American officials, the symbolism that counts.

Moving too slowly?

The problem, say some experts, is that these changes amount to slow and steady improvement in a world that is morphing at Internet speed.

As its economy shrinks to a size smaller than that of Belgium's, Russia can no longer afford many expensive conventional army divisions and fighter wings. It may be becoming increasingly dependent on its nuclear weapons for national security and prestige, says Professor Bracken of Yale.

The much-feared scenario of nuclear theft from Russian arsenals has not come to pass. But troubling incidents are increasing. Two years ago, a Russian submariner shot seven seamates and barricaded himself in the torpedo bay of his nuclear attack submarine. At around the same time, the guard of a Russian facility containing 30 tons of plutonium shot others and escaped.

"The list of incidents of this kind in Russia that we know about is chilling," writes Michael Krepon, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, in a summary of world nuclear dangers.

True, the US arsenal has been reduced by more than half. But it costs $20 billion a year to maintain, and secret US war plans for its use in any conflict still focus on 2,000 targets in Russia.

"What would the United States conceivably do with 6,000 deployed nuclear warheads in the post-cold-war era?" concludes Mr. Krepon.

Yet it is in the so-called Arc of Crisis, stretching from the Middle East across south Asia and up to the Korean Peninsula, where the principal nuclear dangers of the early 21st century may lie. …

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