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Why Nuclear is Not the Answer

17 March 2002

Seven weeks ago, in his first State of the Union address, US President George Bush declared the existence of an "axis of evil". The three states he identified as forming that axis - Iran, Iraq and North Korea - were included because of their alleged support of terrorism and their efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Last week, we learnt through the leaking to the press of the secret portions of a Pentagon document - the Nuclear Posture Review - key elements of the planning being carried out to deal with the axis of evil, and another few of the traditional adversaries of the US. Simply, the US would nuke them.

Naturally, the axis of evil concept drew attention. The Bush administration would have been disappointed if it had not. It was formulated to deepen already strong domestic support for the post-September 11 war on terror, and proved to be a brilliant success. Americans loved it - from Joe Sixpack to the Star Wars crowd.

Elsewhere, reactions have been largely negative, ranging from concern about the manifest implausibility of the notion of an axis, to outright alarm. The fact that Secretary of State Colin Powell had to spend four to five weeks explaining the concept to members of Congress, the media and world leaders, demonstrated that the President's rhetorical flourish had incurred heavy costs for the US.

Much more compelling, though, was how the truly significant portion of the same address was sidelined by the glitzier "axis" remark. This was where the President declared the US's new willingness to strike first at its perceived enemies: "I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most dangerous weapons."

Mark these words. At least three factors were new here: the overtness of the statement; its replacement of a posture of deterrence with a policy of pre-emptive strike; and, its underlying rationale that the US can hold, deploy, and now, it seems, use weapons of mass destruction to protect its own security but others absolutely may not.

The Nuclear Posture Review document went a considerable distance towards answering the question of how such pre-emptive action may be taken in the future - with nuclear weapons, including newly developed, special-purpose weapons. The document calls for the production of new missiles, bombers and submarines, and new, smaller, more mobile and ground-penetrating weapons, nuclear "bunker busters". It is important to understand what all of this might mean, beyond its merely muscular aspect.

First, and above all, it places nuclear weaponsin a category no different from conventional weapons. They would become incorporated into the regular,war-fighting arsenal. This would reverse 50 years of recognition that nuclear weapons are different, that their capacity for devastation, including radiological and environmental damage, sets them apart from all other weapons. It is for this reason that nuclear weapons have always been, and remain, a special source of moral concern. It is odd that an American government with deep roots in a Christian moralistic movement would so lightly set this concern aside.

Second, the largely successful collective action taken by virtually all nations for more than 30 years to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons has rested on the promise, given in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, that states that have nuclear weapons will progressively reduce them and those that do not will never acquire them. The US is one of the former and, in May, 2000, made an "unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination" of its nuclear arsenals. That the US now proposes to abrogate that commitment will have grave consequences. It is inconceivable that other states will not follow suit and develop new nuclear weapons.

Third, the goal of preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction has always had a gut problem embedded in it - equity. Other countries have repeatedly asked of major weapons states, such as the US, why does your security justify your holding such weapons but ours does not? This, for example, was India's question for more than a quarter of a century. It got tired of waiting for an answer and, three years ago, gave its own by going nuclear. Pakistan immediately followed suit, illustrating the axiom of proliferation- that as long as any state holds such weapons others will seek to acquire them.

Fourth, the actions the US President proposes to take are, of course, driven by September 11. But, they raise the question of whether the cure may be worse than, or at least greatly exacerbate, the disease. Simply, if the US now turns upside down a bedrock principle of the age of nuclear weapons - that if they have any utility it lies in deterrence not in their use - it is possible that others, including terrorist groups, will welcome this development, in which the inadmissible will have become acceptable.

The bottom line is this. If the US now cedes the moral ground previously staked out in the policy of nuclear deterrence - the hallmark of which was no first use of nuclear weapons - it will fulfil the terrorists' and the outlaws' most demonic picture of the US as a state that preaches probity and restraint to others but reserves complete freedom of action to itself, now apparently including the use of nuclear weapons. Were this to occur, the previous doctrine of deterrence - mutual assured destruction - would be replaced by unilateral assured destruction American-style. If this develops, the response will be a runaway nuclear arms race.

The proposed use by the US of nuclear weapons as a regular part of war fighting would require it to abrogate a solemn commitment it has given the world community and would change our world far beyond the way in which it was changed by the outrages of September 11, 2001. Where this would then lead is beyond human calculation.

Richard Butler
Published in The Age (Melbourne) © The Age

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