Uphold treaties to help prevent nuclear attack

June 21, 2002|By Douglas B. Shaw

WASHINGTON -- Russia's decision to withdraw from the START II Treaty underlines the real significance of the U.S. pullout from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

International law will not prevent all acts of terrorism, but it is an essential tool to make terrorists' efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction more difficult, time-consuming and likely to be detected.

The greatest threat to our national security -- that terrorists will use a nuclear weapon against an American city -- seems only more plausible after Sept. 11, and international law has proved itself indispensable in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.

While START II never entered into force and was superceded by the recent Moscow treaty, the timing of its termination is unambiguous. It is a measured action demonstrating Russian resolve to match the United States tit-for-tat in disregard of the delicate body of international law restraining the spread of nuclear weapons. Russia has just made clear that the world is watching.

If our withdrawal from the ABM Treaty is coupled with other unwise measures currently under consideration, such as a formal "unsigning" of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) or threats of nuclear first strike against countries unable to respond in kind, then we will have started the dominoes toppling toward an end to the existing treaty structure on which our security depends.

International efforts to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons are embodied by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the improbable agreement among all but five of the world's nations that having more nuclear weapon states is not better. The five holdouts are Israel, India, Pakistan, Cuba and East Timor, although the latter is expected to join.

It balances on the counterintuitive assertion that nuclear weapons are not militarily or politically desirable for most states in the context of imperfect verification and enforcement, which in turn rests on the even more improbable commitment of all states to work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons and to share the peaceful benefits of nuclear technology.

When the NPT was negotiated in the 1960s, it seemed probable that most economically and technically capable nations would in time acquire nuclear weapons. There seemed no end in sight to the arms race. But over three decades, the vast majority of the world's nations have remained bound by the NPT.

However, this commitment is precarious, depending pivotally on related commitments by the nuclear powers, specifically including a ban on nuclear explosive testing and the promise not to use nuclear weapons to attack or threaten states that do not have them. These explicit commitments by the United States and others became inseparably associated with the NPT when the treaty was made permanent in 1995.

If the NPT goes the way of the ABM and START II treaties, it will be at great cost to the national security of the United States. There is every reason to believe that more states will acquire nuclear weapons, and more states with nuclear weapons means more places for terrorists to acquire nuclear weapons or material. As the target of choice of global terrorists -- under explicit threat of "dirty bombs" -- the United States should do everything it can to prevent this outcome.

Two specific steps are of vital importance to the survival of the NPT and the protection of American cities from nuclear devastation.

First, the United States must continue to respect its unilateral moratorium on nuclear explosive testing and take no action that would further undermine the test ban treaty.

Although the Senate unwisely rejected the CTBT in October 1999, this agreement remains an essential underpinning of the NPT.

Second, the United States must not threaten to use nuclear weapons first. Our conventional might is enough to deter any state that cannot respond with nuclear weapons of its own. If the saber-rattling of the Bush administration as it develops its new strategic doctrine is not more carefully considered, there will be long-term consequences for U.S. national security.

French President Charles de Gaulle was absolutely right to observe that "treaties are like young girls and roses: they last while they last." Unfortunately, the same can be said of great powers, civilizations and even species.

The NPT -- however delicate it may be -- is our best defense against rampant nuclear proliferation, and any U.S. national security strategy worthy of the name must preserve it.

Douglas B. Shaw, who served in the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the Department of Energy, is a doctoral student at Georgetown University in Washington.

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