The Nuclear Threat in the Post Cold War World

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Echoing pronouncements from the administration, editorial writers and beat reporters across the country declared Congress' rejection of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty as a step in the direction of a "new isolationism" and global instability. If the commercial Al Gore taped minutes after the vote is a sign, this is surely going to be an issue in next year's campaign.

One question these advocates don't answer though is if the treaty was so important to worldwide security, why did so many former joint chiefs, secretaries of defense and national security advisors recommend against it?

The answer is simple. The world is not as simple as it was twenty years ago.

During the cold war, our nuclear threat came from the Soviet Union. We were like two gunslingers staring each other down, knowing that if either moved, we'd both get shot. In fact, our foreign policy was based on the concept of "mutually assured destruction" (MAD). MAD theorized, if we both had nuclear arsenals large enough to annihilate the other, than neither side would initiate an attack. Peace was to be guaranteed by both superpowers' agreeing to leave themselves entirely vulnerable to destruction by the other. This logic led to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972, which outlawed all but token missile defenses on both sides, and to the "nuclear freeze" movement of the 1980s.

President Reagan, by contrast, saw MAD as an insane policy developed by intellectuals so immersed in the jargon of arms control, that they lost touch with reality. Reagan posed the question: "Is there either logic or morality in believing that if one side threatens to kill tens of millions of our people, our only recourse is to threaten killing tens of millions of theirs? Wouldn't it be better to save lives than to avenge them?" Thus, Reagan sought to develop a missile defense system, which combined with other factors, ultimately led to the Soviet Union's implosion.

The post-cold war world comes with a new foreign policy reality. The nuclear threat is no longer a rival superpower, but new nuclear powers and rogue states often armed by nuclear theft. How bad is the threat? The Energy Department warns that our estimates of Russian nuclear stockpiles could be off by more than 30 percent, meaning a great deal of Russian nuclear material cannot be accounted for.

We know that nuclear material has found its way into the hands of those without America's security interests at heart. We know that China has at least 13 long-range nuclear missiles with the capability of reaching any city in the U.S, and is developing a nuclear submarine. We also know that both India and Pakistan have gone nuclear and have begun testing to assert their position in the region and intimidate their neighbor. Most troubling however, there's so much that we don't know.

In this unstable and insecure world, the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty is not the answer. President Reagan used to quote an old Russian saying, "dovorey no provorey," which means "Trust, but verify." The test ban treaty, on the other hand, trusts but cannot verify. Therefore, it would do nothing to stop proliferation, especially to rogue regimes, which by their very nature care little about international opinion.

Furthermore, China, India and Pakistan already have nuclear weapons. For them, useful testing would have to do with delivery systems, which are not banned by the treaty. India and Pakistan would probably not find it any more difficult to proceed with tests than they had in developing the nuclear weapons they exploded last year, which were in defiance of international understandings.

If a rogue state such as Iran found itself short of a nuclear weapon, pending an actual test, is it conceivable that they would be restrained by a treaty commitment? And does anyone seriously believe North Korea would be deterred by a treaty that they haven't signed? Or the Vietnamese from one whose ultimate sanction is nothing more than a wag of the finger from the U.N. Security Council?

Instead, the U.S. should forget about putting our trust in pieces of paper, and begin the process of developing and deploying a missile defense system. The first step in this process should be to either alter the 1972 ABM treaty to make room for missile defenses or to withdraw ourselves from it, so we can adequately protect ourselves.

If we do, we will have accomplished what the test ban treaty fails to do: cut off the demand for nuclear weapons by diminishing the evil attraction of these weapons for rogue states by fulfilling Reagan's promise to, "make them obsolete."



The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues. The NCPA is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, with an office in Washington, D.C.