Cold War Has Ended, Why Is Nuclear Arms Race Still Here?

Robert A. Manning, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, served as a State Department policy advisor from 1989 to 1993

Just when you thought the arms race, if not the nuclear era, were relics of Cold War history, a breakdown last month of negotiations in Geneva for a comprehensive Test Ban Treaty serves as a discomfiting reminder that nuclear weapons are alive and well. This, even as the International Court of Justice will deliver an advisory opinion tomorrow on the legality of using nuclear weapons. Indeed, as the test-ban impasse underscores, not only do nuclear weapons remain very much a part of the strategic landscape, but the nuclear build-down accompanying the end of the Cold War may be at risk. More ironic still, it is democratic India, which first proposed the test ban in 1954, that is stifling the treaty.

An end to testing has long been viewed by nonnuclear states as a measure of the nuclear powers' commitment to move toward disarmament, a key part of the nuclear bargain. That bargain--the nonnuclear states agreement to forego attaining weapons in exchange for access to peaceful use of nuclear power and a pledge by the nuclear haves to move toward disarming--underpins the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Without testing, it is difficult to have confidence that an atomic bomb will work properly. Thus, a test ban is thought to be a major step toward ending nuclear arms races--an elusive goal in a world of U.S.-Soviet competition.

The end of the Cold War, however, dramatically altered the strategic logic of the five declared nuclear powers, bringing a test ban into the realm of the possible. Four of the five nuclear powers (United States, Russia, Britain and France) are now observing a moratorium on testing; China says it will suspend testing after September. A commitment by the five declared nuclear powers to complete negotiations for a test-ban treaty "no later than 1996," was key to achieving an indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by consensus of 178 nations last year. That treaty is the foundation of the network of institutions and mechanisms that comprise the global nonproliferation system.

The test-ban treaty would symbolize a strengthening of the nuclear taboo. Over the past two years, the Geneva talks surmounted one obstacle after another: China dropped its demand for oxymoronic "peaceful nuclear testing"; agreement on "zero-yield," banning even small explosions, and details on verification, for on-site inspection of suspicious activities, have also been largely sorted out. There is now one key obstacle preventing the test-ban treaty from becoming a reality: the question of whether the accord should enter into law after the five declared nuclear powers plus the three undeclared powers (India, Israel and Pakistan) ratify it or if it should take effect on approval from only the five declared powers.

Washington is alone in favoring the treaty entering into force with the five nuclear powers' approval, but not India (Pakistan will sign only if India does, Israel has hinted it will sign). Thus, it is India, by demanding a timetable for complete nuclear disarmament as the price for its support, that is the spoiler. New Delhi knows the nuclear powers will not scrap their weapons soon, but has taken this hard line, U.S. officials say, in order to keep its nuclear option open.

The test-ban negotiators will reconvene later this month to give it one last try. But the current draft treaty proposes that all 37 nations that have nuclear research facilities sign the treaty before it becomes legally binding. Few expect India to change its stand. Thus, under current plans, the draft treaty may be sent to the U.N. General Assembly to collect signatures without a way to formally take effect. Instead, negotiators propose a review conference in three years, during which time they anticipate the declared nuclear powers will sustain a testing moratorium and India will be pressured to join the treaty.

Perhaps this is possible. But all the diplomatic to-and-fro highlights the fragility of the nonproliferation regime--and the harsh reality that nuclear weapons are still viewed as the currency of power. India's nuclear fetish is driven largely by its rivalry with Pakistan and its exaggerated concern about China. Its inferiority complex--it lacks the status conferred by being a member of the nuclear club--is also a factor. India's point is to illuminate the inequality of a two-tiered world.

But India's obduracy is poorly timed, occurring just as the inequality it objects to is fading. To U.S. military planners focused on high-tech weapons systems, nuclear bombs are of declining usefulness. The end of the Cold War has made it possible to dramatically reduce the inequality of the nuclear regime. The test-ban treaty, along with a proposed ban on the production of nuclear material for weapons, are universal measures--applied equally.

Obviously, nuclear weapons can not be disinvented. But in terms of U.S. interests, they are becoming more of a liability than an asset in light of U.S. preponderant conventional military superiority. No wonder former Defense Secretary Les Aspin said, "If we now had the opportunity to ban all nuclear weapons, we would." In fact, there is a growing body of opinion, including retired senior generals and other hard-nosed analysts, that it's time to consider radical cuts down to a few hundred or less. Indeed, some prominent vintage Cold Warriors are ready to contemplate eliminating nuclear weapons entirely--if compliance could be verified.

This growing consensus exists almost everywhere--except in the U.S. government. Despite an admirable commitment to nonproliferation, the Clinton administration has been status quo-minded on nuclear issues. It has yet to ask the key questions: what is the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy?; How low is too low? Rather than gaining political capital by projecting a vision of a world that cannot justify nuclear weapons, this approach risks losing the momentum of the post-Cold War build-down.

Indeed, concerns about the direction of Russia and the emergence of China could well lead to renewed nuclear competition. All the more reason to lock-in deep cuts now. If the other nuclear powers would agree to proportionate cuts, the United States and Russian should offer to make radical cuts. But when President Boris N. Yeltsin proposed talks on further cuts in 1994, Washington failed to respond.

While the administration can not be blamed for the impasse in the test-ban talks, there is concern that new opportunities to strengthen nonproliferation may be lost by the lack of a comprehensive, post-Cold War nuclear strategy. Even so, in light of India's posturing, one may be forgiven for wondering if the nuclear powers disarmed, would aspiring powers fill the vacuum. The point is that failure to rethink reliance on nuclear weapons leaves a two-tier world, providing nuclear aspirants such as Iraq, Iran, North Korea and others with an excuse. Regardless, a test ban is an important step in the right direction and India is ill-advised to play the skunk at the party.

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