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Series: What America Needs to Do to Achieve Its Foreign Policy Goals ... Re Nuclear Weapons (2)

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Mr. Polk taught at Harvard from 1955 to 1961 when he was appointed a member of the Policy Planning Council of the US State Department. In 1965 he became professor of history at the University of Chicago and founded its Middle Eastern Studies Center. Subsequently, he also became president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. Among his books are The United States and the Arab World, The Elusive Peace: The Middle East in the Twentieth Century, Neighbors and Strangers: the Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs and the just-published Understanding Iraq. Other of his writings can be accessed on www.williampolk.com.

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Click here to read the other articles in this series.

America must renounce the threatening unilateralist approach to other nations proclaimed by the Bush administration to begin to reëstablish its leadership. Reëstablish is the key word. What I have to say is not so much an argument for change as for restoration, not radical but conservative, not theoretical but proven by experience. So, as Thomas Jefferson proclaimed in his First Inaugural Address, “let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.”

The most dramatic and potentially the most destructive problem in today’s world arises from the existence and spread of nuclear weapons. Nation-states have acquired them because they fear one another. There are today perhaps 20,000 of these lethal devices in widely scattered locations. Since America used them in the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, governments came close to using them on several occasions: the French (backed by the then chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff) wanted President Eisenhower to order the use of tactical nuclear weapons to destroy Vietminh forces attacking at Dien Bien Phu; we now know (but did not know then) that Russian submarine commanders had the authority to fire them during the Cuban Missile Crisis;1 and the Indians and Pakistanis were at the edge of using them against one another at least twice. As long as they are available, it seems almost inevitable that sooner or later some government will use them.

It is not only that governments may decide to use these weapons that is dangerous. Keeping them secure is enormously expensive and requires a skilled and loyal bureaucracy. As with any large number of things, losing a few is easy.2 Americans think we are very good at managing our many arsenals, but I understand that even we are unable to account for all of them. Presumably at least some other nuclear powers are less exact than we. And some of them have trouble keeping the loyalty of their officials or even regularly paying their salaries. So the temptation to steal and sell is high. And the temptation is not restricted to “rogue” officials. Several governments have fostered the spread of technologies, materials and even manufacturing equipment as America did in both Saddam Husain’s Iraq and the Shah’s Iran. Pakistan recently followed the American lead. Probably other countries will do so in the future.

On nuclear weapons, the United States has an obviously double standard: they are acceptable when our friends have them but not when others seek to acquire them. Of course, such a standard is justified in national terms. But it is not acceptable to those (like North Korea) which fear us or those (like India and Pakistan) which have regional rivals they fear. The head of Indian’s nuclear weapons program stated flatly that India “could scarcely accept a regime that arbitrarily divided nuclear haves from have-nots.” 3 In fact, it did not. While they have not publicly stated their positions, others have or probably will follow. Israel, which has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is known to have between 400 and 600 nuclear weapons while Iran, which has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, is believed to be on the way toward acquiring them.

Fearing America and watching a series of moves preparatory to invasion, North Korea plunged ahead with a nuclear weapons program. This move is relatively recent. During the Clinton administration, North Korea abided by the 1994 “agreed framework” and stopped weapons-related plutonium reprocessing. That moratorium at least bought time. North Korea did not produce nuclear weapons. But the time was not used to create an alternative means to achieve “security.” North Korea continued to be frightened of America. Its fear was soon given substance. Shortly after taking office, Under Secretary of State John Bolton, backed by Vice President Dick Cheney, scrapped the “agreed framework,” and President Bush issued his Inaugural blast against North Korea as a part of the “Axis of Evil.” Not surprisingly North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and pushed its nuclear program to conclusion. Blasted by “Wind,” it wrapped its cloak tightly around itself. A similar course of events is under way in American-Iranian relations. Iran’s leaders would have to be naïve not to take every precaution against America’s “Wind.”

Nor does the danger stop with North Korea or Iran. It is unlikely that Iran will be the last country that will consider acquiring what is the ultimate defense against attack, the “cloak” of nuclear weapons. As Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara wrote in the article I quoted above, “If the United States continues its current nuclear stance, over time, substantial proliferation of nuclear weapons will almost surely follow. Some, or all, of such nations as Egypt, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Taiwan will very likely initiate nuclear weapons programs, increasing both the risk of use of the weapons and the diversion of weapons and fissile materials into the hands of rogue states or terrorists.”

Is diversion of weapons a real possibility? Driven by a sufficient sense of threat and having at its disposal a relatively large amount of money, say $1 billion, I believe almost any government could acquire at least the components to assemble a weapon. How long will it be before some non-governmental organization can do so is anyone’s guess, but over time it is almost inevitable. Then our world will be very insecure indeed. In 1945, Robert Oppenheimer warned a Senate Conference4 that it would take just three or four men to smuggle components of a bomb into New York, reassemble them and blow up the city. Against this threat, he said, there was virtually no defense. Given that only about 2% of the 20,000 containers that arrive each day in America’s 300 ports are ever inspected for nuclear materials, the chances of intercepting a well-shielded weapon are very small.5 With the huge number of weapons that now exist, their spread to many states and their likely spread to still others and eventually to non-states, Oppenheimer was prescient: there is no defense. Our current policies will not protect us and if we stick to them we or our children are doomed at least to a world of constant fear and likely to a world of many ravaged landscapes and few disfigured survivors. Clearly, we must change course.

The prospects of evolving a successful policy in time to prevent a further spread of weapons are not bright and, at best, will take foresight, wisdom and will. The more we seek to coerce other governments, the more likely they are to follow the path of North Korea. By attempting to implement the 2005 “National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, ” that is, to preëmpt the process with force, we will incur nearly ruinous cost to Americans and to American interests. So what must be done?

On nuclear weapons, we need a vigorous policy of elimination. This horrible device has no useful function in our world. Even keeping it in being is outrageously expensive. Over many years in negotiations with the Russians, we worked out a process to scale back. We must restore the momentum of that process. We can begin in Europe where hundreds of now-redundant but still-lethal “tactical” nuclear weapons are in place to fight the war that did not happen. They should be destroyed. From that first step, others follow. We and the Russians should rapidly and severely reduce our enormous and dangerous stockpiles and decide not to upgrade the remaining weapons. Moves taken in this field have so far been paltry or even duplicitous.6 We need to get serious. From those beginnings, we need to address the related issue of regional disarmament. In some ways, this is the most dangerous aspect of the nuclear weapons problem since poorer countries can be assumed not to have the money and technicians to manage their arsenals safely. Effectively addressing this issue will be impossible so long as such countries as North Korea and Iran are driven by fear of us or when some regional powers, like Israel, refuse to enter the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Solving these dilemmas will certainly not be easy, but failure to do so will almost certainly ensure that nuclear weapons will be used -- with ghastly effect.

The process of moving toward the elimination of nuclear weapons will be beneficial not only in reducing the danger of their use but also in restoring the confidence of other peoples in America’s respect for law on which their willingness to trust it depends. We have, after all, treaty obligations which, having been passed by the US Senate, are also American law. In the nuclear field. the main focus of this paper, America should honor the Nonproliferation Treaty. Although not legally bound by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty because it was not ratified by the US Senate, America would do well to abide by it. This is to its own best interests because, if America begins, as now appears likely, to resume testing, its action will constitute a license for other states to do so. Then, the process of curtailing the spread of nuclear weapons will become far more difficult and their use far more likely.

Respect for law Is, of course, not limited to treaty obligations. America’s closest friends are shocked at the way it has flouted its own and other countries’ laws. The Abu Ghuraib scandal certainly played a part in the new view of America, but the trend away from respect toward fear predated disclosure of some of the uglier aspects of America’s “crusade.” Kidnapping and “rendition” of more than 100 persons whom the American government asserts are terrorists are the latest aspects of what most other peoples see as a lawless pattern in the “new America.” 7 They are not alone. Even senior American military officers have spoken out about the stain on their honor by the our practices at Abu Ghuraib Guantánamo, Bagram and perhaps dozens of other prisons and torture centers.

By its respect for law, America will set a standard which, in their own interest, others will usually follow. Conversely, Americans may be certain that if they set the style of breaking the law, others will certainly follow. We cannot hope to succeed in inculcating a respect for law and order in other countries when we violate it ourselves. This will not only endanger Americans, as it certainly will, particularly in the military, but it will also lower the standards by which the whole world community conducts relationships. Even a casual reader of the press can see that the veneer of civilization is thin in our world. We would be very foolish to rend it.

Selfishly, Americans should also recognize that lawlessness abroad breeds lawlessness at home. A government that breaks its own laws anywhere is likely to do so everywhere. Those who argue that infringement of liberty and circumvention of law are necessary should be reminded of the remark of the English statesman William Pitt shortly after the American Revolution that “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.” In the quest for “security” we are giving up both the rule of law and our traditional liberties. Our Ben Franklin warned us that in following this course of action, we would deserve – and get -- neither. Put another way, what we are doing is violating not only our own laws but our image as a democratic as well as a law-abiding society. Such practices have done America more damage than any terrorist could have done.

Kidnap and torture are, of course, the worst, but we have also created a lawless limbo. The American government sought, successfully, to avoid the procedures for which our ancestors have struggled since the Magna Carta and which were embodied successively in the 1689 Bill of Rights, the 1789 American Constitution and the 1946 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The government excluded civil courts from dealing with the new category of “enemy combatants,” but when, bowing to public outrage, used military courts, presumably to attempt to administer justice under ill-defined or non-existent law, it has tainted these courts.8 American practice has slipped far from what we think of with pride as our standard.9 As President Eisenhower affirmed, there is only one law, not one for America and another for the rest. That has been a key element in our real national armory. In its own national interest, both domestic and international, America must recapture its traditional commitment to a firm and clear adherence to law.

1 Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in conversation with the Soviet submarine commanders. (“Apocalypse Soon,” Foreign Policy, May/June 2005).

2 We have had the same problem with missiles. About 1 million shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles have been produced. They are the perfect weapon against helicopters and relatively low flying aircraft. In the 1980s, the CIA provided about 2,000 to the anti-Russian mujahidin militants in Afghanistan. Thousands more were sold to other countries. Thousands are missing. See US Congress Government Accountability Office. http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04519.pdf

3 Jaswant Singh in the September 1991 issue of Foreign Affairs,

4 Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, “Bin Laden’s Nuclear Connection,” (The Nation, April 25, 2005).

5 Peter Peterson, “Riding for a Fall,” (Foreign Affairs, September/October 2004).

6 As I mentioned in the previous article, when it announced a partial reduction of its 5,300 “operationally deployed nuclear warheads,” it merely moved these to a “reserve category” rather than destroying them.

7 In an unprecedented move, an Italian judge has ordered the arrest of 13 American intelligence agents and is investigating 6 others for kidnapping and transporting a Muslim cleric to a country where he would presumably be tortured. Stephen Grey and Don Van Natta, Jr., “ Italy judge orders the arrest of 13 CIA agents,” (The International Herald Tribune, June 25, 2005. )

8 Lt. Commander Charles Swift, a military lawyer, testified in the Senate (and provided written proof) that he was ordered “to represent one of the prisoners [as his defense attorney] for the sole purpose of extracting a guilty plea.” (The International Herald Tribune editorial, June 20, 2005.) As Swift memorably commented, a trial “says as much about the society that holds the trial as it does about the individual before it…[it illustrates] who we are.”

9 Not for the first time. I identify 5 periods in American history when government played fast and loose with law: the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts; President Lincoln’s 1863 suspension of habeas corpus and the right of trial by jury. In 1917, Congress passed a new espionage and sedition act enabling the “Palmer raids.” In 1942, ordered by President Roosevelt, the US Army rounded up 120,000 Japanese-Americans, most of whom were American citizens, and placed them in concentration camps. Then, McCarthyism swept America in the 1950s. After each period of wrongful government action and public clamor, Americans were horrified by what they had done. They recognized, as Justice Davis wrote for the Supreme Court in 1866, “By the protection of law human rights are secured; withdraw that protection, and they are at the mercy of wicked rulers, or the clamor of an excited people.” Hopefully, they will again soon.


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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Consistent with the earlier installment of this series, this article is long on theory and short on practice (see comment #65476) ).

The essential bargain of the non-proliferation treaties is that (a) the nuclear haves agree to gradual disarmament, while (b) have-nots agree not to acquire those nasty weapons at all. Polk is right that America could do more to set a better example of following (a), but that does not address the question of what to do about violaters of (b) or how to handle (c) those countries whose governments refuse to even sign up for non-proliferation.

The history here is, however, quite well done, and the emphasis on the need to "restore" normal American traditions, after their trashing by the current administration, is overdue.