Thu, 27 Apr 2000

Disarmament debate flares up again

By Stefan Kornelius

MUNICH (DPA): A ghost the world thought it had buried at the end of the Cold War has returned -- the specter of the resurrected threat of nuclear attacks.

Foreign ministers and secretaries of defense are once more debating nuclear warheads, strategic potentials, ranges and a mysterious American shield that's supposed to free the world of the vicious circle of threat and counter-threat once and for all.

The problem is, the debate is a sham. It has precious little relevance to the bloodletting in the Caucasus, the Near East, the Middle East or any of the other hotspots of the world.

Fact one: Last week Russia's parliament ratified a disarmament treaty limiting the number of nuclear warheads that Russia and the United States may have to between 3,000 and 3,500 per country.

The American Congress has yet to ratify the treaty and its passage there is by no means a sure thing. Even if it does, under the limits provided in the treaty, the two countries will still have enough nuclear firepower to leave the Earth a glowing, radioactive wasteland if they use it.

That means that the numbers being bandied about in the treaty are really only theoretical numbers. Another reason that they're theoretical is the hard fact that Russia just can't afford to support a nuclear arsenal, even one reduced to the levels specified in the treaty.

That means the two old Cold Warriors will have to resume negotiating, working on a new strategic arms reduction treaty called START III.

Fact two: In New York, a month-long conference on the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) began on Monday.

Under the treaty, only five countries -- the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China -- are permitted to have nuclear arms.

The other 182 parties to the treaty have to renounce nuclear weapons for good. Signatories to the treaty, the cornerstone of arms-reductions agreements, meet every five years to review performance and progress and to set new goals.

Five years ago, the main nuclear states convinced the rest of the signatories to extend the treaty indefinitely. The spirit of the treaty demands adhering to and preserving the attitude toward disarmament that prevailed in the late 1980s and prevents further stockpiling of nuclear weapons.

The conference can, at best, only partially succeed because countries like Pakistan and India have not signed the treaty and are busy testing their new nuclear weapons.

Others, countries like North Korea and Iraq, have signed but refuse to permit inspections. Many well-informed observers suspect that they are hard at work trying to develop and deploy their own nuclear weapons.

Fact three: In the United States, where the presidential election campaign is heating up, public backing is growing for the ultimate defensive wonder-weapon -- a defense against incoming nuclear-tipped missiles.

A weapon like that would satisfy America's deep-seated desire for superiority and invulnerability and it would feed the ego of a country revelling in its status as the world's only remaining superpower.

The strategic advantage of an anti-missile defense lies in having the ability to stop a terrorist missile attack on the part of erratic, unpredictable, suicidal regimes like those in Iraq or North Korea.

Several arguments speak for developing such a system, but the strategic risks are great.

An effective anti-missile defense would shatter the balance of power between the nuclear powers, giving the United States a clear upper hand.

China, Russia and the two European nuclear powers, Britain and France, would suddenly find themselves in the nuclear second- class coach.

But all the lessons of the old Cold War arms race shows that strategic superiority is an evanescent will-o'-the-wisp, here one moment and gone the next, that spawns a never-ending armaments spiral.

All these facts, even if they seem contradictory, are basically bad news that all point toward one even-worse conclusion: the carefully built, interwoven mesh of disarmament controls seems to be threatening to come unraveled.

Nuclear weapons have begun regaining their strategic importance. What once looked like solid determination on the part of the nuclear powers to de-escalate and co-operate seems to be evaporating.

This nuclear renaissance has a variety of immediate causes, but like so many things in international relations in the last decade, it all basically goes back to the collapse of the system of Eastern and Western Blocs and the fall of the Iron Curtain between them.

The balance of terror is gone, replaced by nations vying for power and regional influence. Nukes are suddenly valuable political bargaining chips again -- just look at Russia.

At first glance Russia's decision to ratify START II, thereby nearly halving its nuclear arsenal, may seem generous. The fact is, necessity and pure self-interest are the driving forces behind it.

Knowing it can no longer afford the cost of its nuclear arsenal, Moscow has decided to use its ratification of the treaty to seize the moral high ground and exercise political pressure. "Look here," the Russians can crow, "We're scrapping our warheads and proving our readiness to disarm. But if America develops its anti-missile system, we'll withdraw from the treaty."

Be it bluff or cover for darker intentions, Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to use the decision to scrap the rockets he can no longer pay for as a new chip in the big international game of power and influence. Russia has suddenly returned as a serious power in the simultaneous chess games of international politics.

China will certainly use the New York conference to show its muscles too. Beijing's current nuclear formula involves staying on its best behavior within the framework of the NPT and not increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal in exchange for the United States not pursuing an anti-missile defense.

In western Europe, more and more voices have begun clamoring to open an independent European strategic dialogue with Russia -- without the United States. America's anti-missile plans have even begun to help drive a wedge between the traditional Atlantic allies.

The big players on the planet -- and some of the small ones too -- have started symbolically arm-wrestling again -- apparently humanity is so thick-headed that it will once again rely on nuclear arms to enforce its claims of strength, influence and sovereignty. But right now things have not gone too far to turn our backs on that temptation once again.