By Jonathan Power
In the year 2000 President Vladimir Putin made his own contribution to solving the nuclear weapons imbroglio. Moscow, he said in a speech, was prepared to drastically reduce its stockpile of nuclear missiles. Putin’s call was not just for further cuts than the U.S. suggested ceiling of 2,500 for each side but for reductions far below Moscow’s previous target of 1,500. (At present Russia has around 6,000 warheads, and the U.S. has 5,400.)
Indeed, from the way Putin put it and terms and phrases he used, commentators at the time suggested that Putin may well have had in mind the same kind of deal that Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan hatched at their summit in Reykjavik back in 1986—a stockpile approaching zero.
That momentous unconsummated plan at Reykjavik was Reagan’s—he foresaw a world with perfect missile defences (the so-called Star Wars concept), side by side with the abolition of nuclear weapons by the superpowers. But the moment Reagan’s advisors got wind of what he was spontaneously hatching with Gorbachev, they moved to squelch it, arguing its lack of feasibility and rubbishing its practicality, as they did—and still do—regularly with any creative proposal that has wound its way through the labyrinth of inter-agency review.
The only time a major initiative of a unilateral nature did win through was when President George Bush, very strongly placed after the demise of the Cold War, secretly hatched a plan to take U.S. nuclear bombers off alert and remove tactical nuclear weapons from service. No one in the bureaucracy or the Senate had time to try and outmanoeuvre him.
According to George Perkovich, writing in an issue of Foreign Affairs, 1961 was the last time that the U.S. government—led then by John F. Kennedy—took nuclear disarmament seriously enough to explore how to make it feasible. Although the Clinton Administration called for a “fundamental re-examination” of nuclear doctrine, the initiative suffered from presidential inattention and Clinton’s “reluctance to challenge Washington’s odd couple of Pentagon bureaucrats and myopic and doctrinaire senators”. Indeed, Clinton went the other way by provocatively initiating the expansion of NATO towards Russia’s boundaries.
It is not entirely the Pentagon’s fault. The web of civilian experts that stretches from inside the bureaucracy to the Senate to the universities to the specialist think tanks to the arms manufacturers to the leading news media produces a hardened force of opinion, almost immune to any counterstrike.
As General Eugene Habiger, a retired commander in chief of all U.S. strategic nuclear forces, put it, “We have reached the point where the senior military generals responsible for nuclear forces are advocating more vocally, more vehemently, than our politicians to get down to lower and lower weapons.” His predecessor General George Lee Butler has gone even further both in wanting to eliminate nuclear weapons totally and in highlighting the savage tactics used by the pro-nuclear lobby to publicly destroy the image and credibility of any high-profile anti-nuclear campaigner.
Public opinion throughout the western world appears to be in a state of serendipity when it comes to nuclear weapons. Something will come along from somewhere and make the world safe from nuclear war. But reality is far different. Russian nuclear weapons are being flaunted by Putin. There is always the chance of an unauthorized or mistaken launch. There have been well-documented, unchallenged cases of near launches.
The Chinese-Taiwan situation could sometime in the next few years erupt into a major military crisis, pushing the U.S. to confront China, a situation that could lead to two nuclear-armed powers firing missiles at each other. Nuclear proliferation is becoming more and more likely, and Kashmir and the Middle East remain nuclear tinderboxes.
Beyond that is the creeping hostility that much of the rest of the world feels as Washington presses its superfluous nuclear advantage. By making no effort to deliver on what it has publicly and solemnly promised a number of times, initiating serious nuclear disarmament, it encourages other states to resist American foreign policy goals, given half a chance.
Even good friends such as Canada, France, Germany, and Sweden get gripped with this anti-American angst from time to time. It doesn’t augur well for long-term American interests if the country’s leadership is regarded as arrogant and needlessly militaristic.
In 2000 President Putin rightly seized his moment. Tragically, the U.S. did not respond. At Reykjavik, it was Soviet reticence (as well as the pushing of Reagan’s advisors) that took what looked like a real deal that would have got rid of all superpower nuclear weapons off the table. It would be a welcome sign that the Russians are still in touch with reality if Putin stopped talking about their possible use and returned to the language of his speech in 2000. It would be more than an olive branch if President Joe Biden interrupted the Ukraine militaristic chatter with a major speech containing an offer to Moscow to re-engage in nuclear disarmament.
During every minute of 2021, the world spent $156,841 on nuclear weapons, according to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). In just one year, nine nuclear-armed nations—China, the US, Russia, the UK, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Israel and France—spent a total of $82.4 billion on upgrading and maintaining their estimated total of around 13,000 nuclear weapons. (90% are held by Russia and the U.S.)
The world, by and large, is not short of money. It is a question of how to spend it. With a different outlook, money could easily be found to fund what is needed for climate control, aid for Africa’s development, malaria eradication, medical research for cancer, diabetes and dementia and poverty elimination wherever it be needed. Why should we be investing in weapons too dangerous to use?
There is no rational argument for their possession apart from some vaguely thought-out military philosophy about the benign usefulness of deterrence. Frankly we don’t know if deterrence works. It only works until the moment it doesn’t. As Putin, the erstwhile nuclear bomb cutter, has reminded us, they can be used by Russia if NATO missteps in Ukraine. Moreover, we are as much beholden to mistakes and accidents as we have always been, and the longer things go on the likelier it is that a mistake or accident will happen.
Somewhere, deep in Putin’s brain, he knows this. So does Biden, who knows he could not avoid the testing teachings of his Catholic faith if his military and national security staff were putting him on the spot by advising him to use them.
So, what is the point of pushing things to that point?
Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump did a terrible job in pulling the U.S. out of important nuclear arms control agreements. Putin, when Biden was elected, quickly moved his and the now more forward-thinking American side to renew the big arms-cutting initiative of the Obama and Medvedev years. The cuts took the two sides’ long-range intercontinental warheads down to 1,550 each.
Maybe the messy Ukrainian war will go on for months more, even years. But there is nothing to stop the two biggest nuclear powers from initiating some bold steps towards the elimination of nuclear weapons right now. Otherwise, the unthinkable might happen because we have not been thinking.
About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com