The Nukes: They're Still Out There

JONATHAN POWER

May 08, 1992|By JONATHAN POWER

London. -- Areport from the Russian Secret Service to the CIA, leaked to The European, confirms that Kazakhstan has sold at least two nuclear weapons to Iran.

Last month the Bush administration formally certified to Congress that three of the four former Soviet nuclear-weapons states are now eligible to receive aid apportioned for dismantling their nuclear weapons. This up-beat announcement suggests, by omission, that the U.S. has effectively given up on Kazakhstan, a country with enough long-range nuclear-armed missiles and planes to destroy all Europe, or China, or India, if it chose.

And it does not speak to the growing tension between the two Slav states, Ukraine and Russia, that leads President Leonid Kravchuk to insist on hanging on to 46 intercontinental missiles with 10 warheads each, even if the Start Treaty is ratified and fully implemented.

A horse and cart has been effectively wheeled right through the Non-Proliferation Treaty. What argument remains for persuading any other country that feels vulnerable from continuing to renounce the manufacture of nuclear weapons?

It seems rather late for the U.S. at last to be implementing legislation passed more than 10 years ago to deny Pakistan aid if it went ahead with its nuclear-bomb program. It is even later to be opening this month the first talks between the U.S. and India on how to make a nuclear peace with Pakistan. What drove India into the nuclear business, after all, was President Nixon saying that now that China had the bomb, the U.S. must treat Beijing with new respect. With Islamic Iran and Kazakhstan nuclear-armed as well as Pakistan, the likelihood of Hindu India striking a deal just with Pakistan is somewhere between remote and impossible.

This is the conundrum the nuclear disarmers now face. Every problem is a three- or even four-sided complex that makes one long for the good old days of straightforward superpower balance.

In the main Western capitals there appear to be three schools of thought on how to deal with the nuclear genie, none of them very coherent or practical.

The first is for the U.S. to build a ''protective shield,'' a space-based anti-missile system, which the U.S. would extend to its friends. Not only is this likely to be extraordinarily expensive, it will take decades to perfect. Even then it would offer no protection to low-flying submarine-launched missiles or ''suitcase'' bombs.

The second option is for the U.S. and its main European allies, in the event of any rogue nation judged to have a threatening nuclear capability, to do what the Israelis did in 1981 when they sent in warplanes to cripple Iraq's reactor. This is all right when there is only Iraq to think about, but what if six or seven countries occupy this always uncertain category?

The third school of thought is to be ultra-sophisticated and defy orthodoxy, arguing that the more nuclear-weapons states there are, the safer the world becomes. If ''deterrence'' produced stability during the Cold War it can do the same for other antagonists.

This ignores that second-strike capability (the ability to retaliate with nuclear weapons after being hit) is one prerequisite for stable deterrence; it will be years before the new nuclear states have either money or know-how to reach that level of nuclear sophistication. Secondly, unlike the U.S. and the Soviet Union, who never had a territorial dispute, many of the new generation of nuclear would-be states live cheek by jowl, arguing over shared borders and shared peoples. The reflexes in a time of tension would be hair-trigger, in a way they never were between the superpowers.

The more one examines the problem, the more one returns to that most unusual of all East-West summit meetings in Iceland in 1986, when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev alarmed their expert staffs with serious talk about eliminating all ballistic missiles. This discussion, often derided by the cognoscenti, is the only time common sense got near to prevailing over military strategy.

What we need today from George Bush, John Major and Francois Mitterrand is a joint announcement that together they are taking unilateral steps toward deep cuts in their nuclear forces and that they expect everyone else to follow them. This is the only way to break the looming nuclear psychosis. Anything less leaves us on the road to nuclear war within the next 10 years.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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