Progress on nuclear arms should be just a beginning

November 20, 2001|By Karl F. Inderfurth

WASHINGTON - The three-day summit between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin witnessed another step forward in the fundamental transformation of a relationship - from enemies during the Cold War to allies in today's war on terrorism.

In the first era, our relations were defined by nuclear confrontation. Now that is being replaced by nuclear cooperation.

The most dramatic announcement of the summit came when the two presidents stated their intention to make major reductions in nuclear weapons - by as much as two-thirds of the American and Russian long-range arsenals. The world would be a safer place for it.

These weapons are, in Mr. Bush's words, "relics of the Cold War." The elimination of nearly 10,000 nuclear weapons over 10 years would mark a milestone in strategic relations between the two countries. At the earliest opportunity, the two presidents should also agree to take as many nuclear missiles as possible off high-alert status (those that are ready to fire within minutes). This is another "Cold War relic," and one that risks a catastrophic accidental launch.

Perhaps of even greater significance, in light of Sept. 11, is the statement by the two men that their highest priority is to keep terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. They agreed that it is urgent to improve the physical protection and accounting of nuclear materials and prevent illicit nuclear trafficking.

Their statement came as reports circulated that Osama bin Laden was claiming to have nuclear weapons, that his al-Qaida network had detailed plans for nuclear devices and other terrorist bombs in one of its Kabul headquarters and that a senior Russian official had reported a major incident involving the theft of nuclear materials in the past two years.

The United States has been helping to prevent the diversion of Russian nuclear weapons, materials and expertise to hostile hands for the past decade, but it now must be a top priority and pursued vigorously.

A report issued this year by former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker and White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler called for funding for cooperative threat-reduction programs with Russia to be increased up to a total of $30 billion over the next eight to 10 years.

"The national security benefits to U.S. citizens from securing and/or neutralizing the equivalent of more than 80,000 nuclear weapons and potential nuclear weapons would constitute the highest return on investment in any current U.S. national security and defense program," the report said.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration reduced funding for these programs this year from their previous levels, although Congress has attempted to restore some of these funds. The prominence attached to U.S.-Russian nonproliferation by Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin should signal urgency and bode well for future funding.

Some important nuclear differences still remain between the United States and Russia. President Bush wants to replace signed arms control agreements with an expression of trust and a handshake. Mr. Putin wants to see more formal arrangements providing for verification and monitoring. In this, Mr. Bush would do well to recall a famous injunction of one of his predecessors, Ronald Reagan: "Trust, but verify."

The two sides also must come to an understanding about testing and development of a missile defense system - a top priority of the Bush administration - and the continuation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which Mr. Putin says is the "cornerstone of strategic stability." Here a deal is possible, if both sides can demonstrate the same degree of nuclear cooperation on the defensive side of the nuclear ledger as they are showing on the offensive side.

On the first day of his summit with Mr. Putin, Mr. Bush declared it "a new day in the long history of Russian-American relations, a day of progress and a day of hope."

There is no question that some progress was made in Washington and at the president's Texas ranch. There is also hope that more is to come when Mr. Bush travels to St. Petersburg to meet with Mr. Putin in the spring.

Karl F. Inderfurth is a former assistant secretary of state for South Asia and is currently senior adviser to the Nuclear Threat Reduction Campaign.

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