Bush and Gorbachev
Bush and Gorbachev; drawing by David Levine

The deliberations of arms control negotiators are usually made to appear so esoteric that as talks drag on, public interest in what is happening, or assumed to be happening, is apt to lag, and then die. That certainly happened to the so-called Mutual Balanced Force Reduction (MBFR) talks that were quietly and formally ended this year. The new Vienna negotiations on conventional forces that have begun their second session are unlikely to share that fate. In May President Bush set a year’s deadline for agreement. If it seems by next May that an agreement is still far off, there is bound to be widespread public concern. Too much political capital has been committed, too much has been promised, not only by the President but also by Mr. Gorbachev and Chancellor Kohl, for it to be otherwise.

One salient lesson that can be drawn from the history of arms control talks in the postwar years is that it is a waste of time to negotiate on major arms control issues unless the leaders of the two sides are determined to reach the same goal, and begin by instructing their officials to discuss matters to a solution rather than arguing them to an impasse. As I have said in an earlier article,1 only President Bush and Mr. Gorbachev can resolve any significant differences that exist between the US and USSR negotiating positions not only in the Vienna talks but also in the Geneva talks on Strategic Nuclear Forces (START). This is not something that can be left to their officials. If both leaders want to reduce the chances of war, they, not their subordinates, have to be in charge.

This is the only conclusion that can be drawn when one contrasts the INF negotiations with those that were concerned with the banning of nuclear tests. Instead of the INF negotiations, the same point could equally well be illustrated by referring to the successful ABM negotiations of the late Sixties and early Seventies, but that is a longer story. It is all too easy to forget the facts about these three series of negotiations.


The INF Treaty

In 1981 President Reagan offered the USSR what was then called the zero-zero option—an undertaking that the US would not introduce Pershing IIs and land-based Cruise missiles into Europe (missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers) if the USSR removed the scores of recently deployed SS-20s that already covered NATO “targets”—and more of which were still being deployed. The USSR was then competing with the US in an arms race that was unrealistically based on the assumption that wars can be fought with nuclear weapons, whether big or small, and whether of battlefield or intercontinental range. This proposition was rejected by the USSR, by whom it was regarded as being highly lopsided when viewed within the prevailing “nuclear numbers game.” The USSR was being asked to surrender a weapon that it had already deployed in exchange for an undertaking that the US would not deploy two that were still, as it were, in store.

Nothing came a year later of the famous “walk-in-the-woods” compromise formula that each side should be allowed to deploy seventy-five intermediate-range launchers, with the US agreeing that their package would not include Pershing II missiles (which were of particular concern to the USSR since their range meant that they could reach targets in Soviet territory). With stalemate persisting, the US went ahead at the end of 1983 with the deployment of the missiles to which it had committed itself, but with several of its NATO partners who were, while in agreement, unhappy at the outcome.

From the point of view of the US and NATO, nothing changed during the next two and a half years—except that in several NATO countries public protests against the introduction of the new US nuclear weaponry continued, and indeed increased. Moscow, however, had quietly started to prepare far more radical proposals than Reagan’s original zero-zero option. Some say that this happened because of the firm stand that the US had already taken on the INF issue—in the jargon of our day, that “bargaining from strength” had paid off.

In any case, at Reykjavík in October of 1986 Gorbachev not only offered to destroy all the USSR’s intermediate- and shorter-range missiles if the US got rid of the smaller number which it was then deploying in Europe; he went one step further and proposed that the two sides should destroy their smaller “battlefield” nuclear weapons as well, including, for example, nuclear artillery and nuclear mines. He wanted the US and USSR to achieve the goal of a nuclear-free world by the year 2000.

In a single stroke the USSR thus appeared to break with “nuclear accountancy,” by making it clear that from the political point of view all that matters in the East-West nuclear world is a mutual determination that neither side should be destroyed by the atom, and an understanding that if the goal of a nuclear-free world is unobtainable then the maintenance of a state of mutual deterrence demands only the deployment of no more nuclear weapons than would be needed to pose a reciprocal and minimal threat of unacceptable destruction. Since the armories of strategic weapons of the US and USSR are vastly in excess of what any such criterion implies—say the certain elimination of each other’s six largest cities—the two could accordingly reduce their intercontinental (i.e., strategic) forces immediately by at least a half—a goal to which both Reagan and Gorbachev were in fact already committed, and one that remains the overt purpose of the START talks which began well over a decade ago, and which have just been reanimated.


Once the two political leaders had formally agreed that it was to their mutual advantage to eliminate nuclear missiles in the range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers—and despite the failure to agree about shorter-range or “battlefield” nuclear weapons—the rest was easy. In barely a year officials had produced the draft of an INF treaty that laid out its objectives in the most amazing detail, spelling out the way in which the inspection teams of the two sides were to verify each other’s compliance with the treaty, even down to the understanding that teams would be provided with “sewage facilities” if, in accordance with the terms of the agreement, one or the other side decided to build a permanent monitoring station at a particular site. In the first year after the treaty came into force, a combined total of 1,269 US and Soviet missiles were destroyed. US inspectors have witnessed the destruction of 945 Soviet missiles, and Soviet inspectors of 324 US missiles.2 They have been going about their work without any fuss, without disturbing our sleep, and almost unnoticed by the press.

The USSR’s agreement to on-site inspection did not come about as a consequence of discussions between officials about what measures of verification would provide a guarantee that the obligations of an INF treaty were being strictly observed. That kind of discussion could have been dragged out endlessly by either side, or indeed by both. The agreement to allow on-site inspection in the USSR was a political decision taken at the highest level. What the INF story has also shown is that the state of nuclear deterrence does not depend on the deployment of precise numbers or particular classes of nuclear weapons. East and West were deterred from taking military action against each other long before any INF weapons were ever deployed, and neither side is less “deterred” now that this class of weapon, having been deployed, is being destroyed.


The Test Ban Talks

The successful INF story needs to be compared with the abortive negotiations to achieve a test ban treaty. The story, which many will say fully justifies Alva Myrdal’s charge that under the banner of arms control the superpowers were merely indulging in subterfuges and half-truths, began in 1955 with the appeal that was made by Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian prime minister, for an end to all nuclear testing because the radio-active fallout from atmospheric nuclear explosions was a danger to the whole world.

Three years passed before the offending countries—the US, the USSR, and the UK—agreed to open technical talks to see whether, given a treaty to ban tests, they could satisfy each other that evasions could not go undetected, given that any one of them tried to steal a march by improving an old or by designing a new warhead. The first set of talks between technical representatives of the three nuclear weapons powers went well. They had no problem about nuclear explosions in the atmosphere or the seas—those could easily be detected—but there were difficulties about underground explosions. Nonetheless, the three teams soon agreed on a report in which they stated that given a worldwide network of seismological stations, the signals produced by an earthquake could be distinguished from those of an underground explosion down to a level of a one- to five-kiloton nuclear device, that is to say, an explosive nuclear charge far less powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

The moment the technical report was circulated in the US, the critics got to work, with a host of arguments based on the proposition that whatever was agreed to, the USSR was bound to cheat, and could do so easily.3 Even if one assumed no cheating, other objections were raised against the idea of a comprehensive test ban. An adequately arranged global network of seismometers could indicate the general location of an underground disturbance. But if the dividing line on whatever scale by which the severity of earthquakes was measured was set low enough, the network would not be able to differentiate between a small explosion and a minor natural underground disturbance. How small was small became a contentious issue. The critics insisted that any underground movement that registered less than 4.85 on the Richter earthquake scale might have some military significance. To uncover possible cheating it would therefore be necessary to investigate on the spot the large number of natural underground disturbances registering less than 4.85 which could be expected to occur every year in Soviet territory. It is worth nothing that this was the first time that the issue of verification became an overriding consideration in arms control negotiations. Up to as many as twenty annual on-site inspections were first called for.4


The USSR refused. Negotiations reduced the number, but broke down by the time it had fallen to seven, the lowest figure that President Kennedy was able to accept. Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, believed that it was worth risking the possibility of a few evasions to secure the prize of a comprehensive test ban. The strong possibility of detection of even small explosions, he thought, made violations most unlikely. Moreover, single small explosions might go undetected, but an entire series of explosions, which in those days weapons designers inevitably demanded when working on a new warhead, would certainly raise suspicions. Khrushchev had already agreed with Macmillan that he would accept three inspections a year, a figure that he assumed had been secretly agreed on with the US. He was no more prepared to narrow the gap between three and seven, both arbitrary figures, than was Kennedy. That was the finish of hopes of a comprehensive test ban and of an end to the nuclear arms race. The result was a treaty that did not even limit underground testing.

The truth was that whatever number of on-site inspections the President himself might have been ready to agree to, the all-powerful “military-industrial complex,” of whose influence Eisenhower warned in his valedictory speech—the warhead designers and military chiefs, their friends in Congress, in industry, and in the press—was wholly opposed to the idea of any treaty that inhibited the further development of nuclear weapons. They had yielded all they were prepared to do when they agreed to stop atmospheric testing. Harold Macmillan understood this. During a visit in 1959 to Eisenhower, in which he tried to persuade the President that a total ban on tests would benefit all parties, he noted in his diary that “the Atomic Commission and the Pentagon are very keen to go on indefinitely with experiments (large and small) so as to keep refining upon and perfecting the art of nuclear weapons.”5 The Soviet Union decided to do likewise. As Macmillan’s chief scientific adviser, I had come to realize that once it was assumed that cheating was to be the name of the game, it would never be possible to satisfy the critics, whatever verification standards were proposed.

Negotiations that had begun in 1958 with the ostensible aim of putting a stop to the nuclear arms race thus ended in 1963 in a treaty that allowed it to continue. With no ban on underground testing, the average annual rate of tests on both sides became far greater than it was before above-ground tests were stopped. The Limited Test Ban Treaty required no formal clauses about intrusive inspection, and cynics were later to describe it as the first international agreement to limit environmental pollution.

It certainly did nothing to stop the nuclear arms race. Nor, for all the provisions for verification that it includes, does the later (still unratified) 1974 agreement between the US and the USSR to limit underground nuclear weapons tests to the level of 150 kilotons. The Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 has also had no effect on the nuclear arms race between the superpowers. The US, the USSR, and the UK were the only recognized “nuclear weapons powers” when the treaty was signed. Extolling as they did the virtues of nonproliferation made little or no difference to the work that was going on in their nuclear weapons laboratories. Even less did the treaty affect those countries—France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and South Africa, among others—that had refused to adhere to either the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty or to the NPT.

The story took an even more bizarre turn in 1977 when Jimmy Carter was president, and called for an interagency study of the pros and cons of transforming the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty into a comprehensive ban on all tests (CTB). Most of those who were drawn into this exercise, starting with the technical people in the two US weapons laboratories of Los Alamos and Livermore, and ending with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were against the idea of a CTB. In their eyes, designing and producing new nuclear devices were always in the national interest. A CTB also meant that jobs would be lost in the nuclear weapons laboratories. The final objection to a total ban was that warheads in stockpile had to be tested from time to time for reliability, a claim which is now acknowledged to be spurious—and has at times been made in ways that have been deliberately fraudulent.6 In my many years as full-time chief scientific adviser to the British government, I never heard of any such test. If a dud bomb were found, I would ask, what would we do next? Test the lot?

One of the main arguments of those who were urging the merits of a CTB was that if the US and the USSR went on testing, they would be defying the commitment they had made to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a treaty of which they were both sponsors. Continued proliferation by the superpowers themselves was not compatible with the prevention of the “horizontal proliferation” which was the purpose of the NPT. This, clearly, was also President Carter’s view. About a year after he had formally launched the CTB negotiations, he appointed Herbert York as his chief negotiator. The story that York has told of his mission is truly remarkable,7 and is borne out by the account that David Owen, at the time the British foreign secretary, has placed on record.8 The UK was a junior partner in 1978 as it had been when the Limited Test Ban Treaty was negotiated in 1963.

As chief negotiator, York represented the President, but his team also included representatives of agencies, such as the Joint Chiefs, which were opposed to the President’s objective. The British delegation was then headed by John Edmonds, a senior official of the UK’s Foreign Office. His technical adviser was a scientific civil servant who took his instructions from Victor Macklen, a British Ministry of Defense scientist who, York writes, “was adamantly opposed to a test-ban,” and who coordinated his spoiling tactics with those of the American officials who also “were determined to stop any progress towards a test-ban, no matter what their top national leaders might think or want.”9 The scientific and technical people had taken it upon themselves to determine national policy. Any objections that the USSR might have had to what Carter and the British government had proposed was irrelevant. There was enough opposition within the Western delegations without it.10

Progress in the negotiations came to an end in 1979, the year in which Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s prime minister. According to York, before she took office she had been briefed by both British and American officials who were opposed to the idea of a comprehensive test ban, and had accepted their story. From then on, he writes, “whenever difficulties arose in the negotiations…she did nothing to help overcome them.”11 The end to this most recent attempt to agree on a comprehensive test ban treaty came in 1981, when Ronald Reagan became president and allowed the negotiations that his predecessor had started to grind to a halt. Nearly thirty years of costly negotiations had come to nothing because the two sides were never in step in wanting them to succeed.

The moral of the story is that the political leaders of the US and the Soviet Union were not in charge of the test ban talks. They were in the hands of military and civilian technocrats, most of whom did not want a test ban.


The Prospects for Vienna

On the face of things this, we hope, should not be the case today. Both Mr. Gorbachev and President Bush appear to be at one in wishing the conventional arms talks to succeed, and to succeed quickly. Nonetheless, as I have suggested, and despite the occasional snippet of encouraging news, the negotiations are likely to prove far more difficult than those that preceded the INF Treaty, which dealt with only one class of weapons system. President Bush may be the US commander in chief, but he does not as yet appear to have imposed his will on his subordinates. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have given their view that Bush’s proposed cut in US service personnel in Europe cannot be justified on military grounds. There are arguments about the numbers and kinds of armament that are to be destroyed, and so far as one knows, the NATO plans about what should go have not yet been coordinated with the President’s proposed 20 percent cut.

That NATO does not speak with one voice may also hinder the progress of the talks. President Bush, who took the lead at the NATO summit, will have his work cut out in presenting a unified Western position to match the consistency of Mr. Gorbachev’s moves over the past two years. McGeorge Bundy is quite right when he writes that “the new direction set in Brussels will not be maintained without continuous attention from the Bush administration.”12 Obviously the West Germans will encourage the USSR all the way in pressing for a reduction in the numbers of short-range nuclear weapons. And on top of this, no one knows what further unilateral offers of disarmament Mr. Gorbachev, with all the domestic trouble with which he is contending, may have up his sleeve. Before long he may well bring the matter of a CTB once more to the fore, particularly if the issue of modernization continues to be pressed.

Here he will be in a strong position. In 1987, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that called for a conference to consider the transformation of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty into a comprehensive ban. One hundred twenty-eight countries, including the USSR, voted in favor, and only the US, the UK, and France were against, while the other NATO nations abstained. Starting at about the time of the Reykjavík summit, the USSR stopped testing, in the hope that its self-imposed moratorium would encourage the US to do the same. When, after nearly two years, this did not happen, the USSR resumed testing, which goes on today—another instance of a kind of unthinking mutuality of action on the part of the two superpowers. If the US insists on testing, the USSR still feels that it has to follow suit.

But the USSR also knows that the US cannot go on indefinitely disregarding the 1987 UN resolution. Influential groups in the US are of the same view. President Bush and Congress have recently been presented with a workmanlike report setting out a three-year plan for the phasing-out of all nuclear tests.13 Most important, the report reminds the President that the Non-Proliferation Treaty expires in 1995, and that the chances of it being renewed as it stands would undoubtedly be increased if by that time the super-powers had agreed to stop testing.

I do not doubt that there will be strong opposition to a CTB not only in the US, but also in the UK and France. In the US there is opposition even to the idea of a 50 percent cut in ICBMs, even though, and regardless of which systems were eliminated, the US would, after such a reduction, still have thousands of warheads with which to strike back at the USSR were it ever to launch a first strike against the US. But the fear that such a first strike could happen is altogether irrational. The USSR—Mr. Gorbachev or no Mr. Gorbachev—would always know that were it to attack, nothing could prevent it from being struck by a sufficient number of US warheads in a retaliatory second strike—to wreak unendurable destruction.

The same is true of the US. A hundred ICBMs one way or the other make no difference when both arsenals contain thousands. There is no defense today against an ICBM attack, and however much money is still going to be spent on trying to devise one, it is impossible that there ever will be. No defensive system could ever be relied upon to prevent a sufficient number of enemy warheads getting through to cause destruction on a scale that has never been experienced before. Talk of an international exchange of ICBMs is as meaningless as the idea that nuclear weapons are usable in field warfare. It is the fear that one or the other side might launch its ICBMs that provides them with what value they have.


What of the Future?

The East-West military confrontation is all but becoming an anachronism in the face of the vast political, ethnic, and economic problems that are now plaguing the USSR and its allies, of the difficulties with which the countries of Western Europe contend as they move toward economic and, as some hope, a form of political union, and of the upheavals and disasters that are occurring in China and the third world. The US and the USSR now have far less to fear from each other than they have to fear not only from their internal problems, but from events over which they can have little control—from the repercussions of the unrestrained growth of population in large parts of the world, from the changing age and ethnic structure of their own populations, from the global environmental changes that have become so serious a threat, from the likely emergence of new nuclear weapons states, and from the fact that chemical and biological weapons are being used or proposed for use in regional disputes.14

Equally, neither the USSR nor the US can afford to go on spending on defense what it is now doing. Other and vast social, political, and economic problems press on both. It is the supreme irony of our times that the best that has so far been achieved in forty years of an immensely costly technological nuclear arms race is the treaty to agree on the reciprocal destruction of INF weapons, weapons that added nothing to the security of either side. The hawks may not yet realize this, any more than many, on both sides of the Atlantic, recognize that the USSR of today, while it could change under another leader, cannot simply revert to the USSR of Stalin or Brezhnev. The Warsaw Pact countries have enough domestic problems with which to contend without worrying about the destruction of capitalism.

Mr. Gorbachev has said that it is time that cooperation took the place of confrontation. He is right. The world will never become manageable unless the US and the USSR cooperate to bring that state about. Together, as the Palme commission’s final report, A World at Peace: Common Security in the Twenty-first Century, makes plain, they could make a reality of the United Nations’ peacekeeping responsibilities. Why, one may well ask, should the UN not participate now in the successful INF verification procedures, and go on from there to have a part, even if a silent one, in the conventional arms and START negotiations and, if these succeed, participate in the vast program of verification that would follow?

At the 1988 UN General Assembly Mr. Shevardnadze said that verification is more than a technical check of compliance with treaty obligations. It is, he declared, “a national expression of sincerity and honesty.” Stated differently, verification procedures by themselves will never be a substitute for good faith in assuring compliance with arms control agreements. The fear of being caught out in a breach of an agreement does not prevent transgressions. Today it can be asked whether there is any point to the 1925 Geneva Chemical Weapons Protocol if, having defied it by initiating the use of chemical weapons in its war with Iran, all that Iraq,15 one of the convention’s original signatories, now suffers is the moral condemnation of the Western world and the USSR.

If, as the Palme commission hopes, the UN is to play an effective part in keeping the peace of the world, it will have to be provided not only with additional military forces to keep warring sides apart in regional conflicts, but also with a new agency that has a power of enforcement that all the members will in principle accept, that is to say the means with which to deal with those who transgress international arms control treaties and conventions. The UN’s present peacekeeping forces were awarded the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize for the valiant work they have done in regional disputes. Were the rapprochement between the US and the USSR to grow faster and closer, there is much more that the UN could do. But if it turns out that the broad agreement that would be necessary for enforcement within the UN is not possible, the US and the USSR could still take the mutual verification processes that have been smoothly working so far as the basis for more extensive binational and international agreements.

It is interesting when one talks of enforcement to look back to the early days of the UN. In 1946 the US formally proposed that the UN should control the exploitation of nuclear power. This initiative was based on a carefully formulated plan that had been prepared by a committee under Dean Acheson, the undersecretary of state, aided by consultants under the leadership of David Lilienthal, the head of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Truman accepted the plan and entrusted Bernard Baruch with the task of putting it to the UN. Baruch embellished it in a way that would have empowered the UN to bring force to bear against any country which, being a signatory to a treaty that had vested control of the atom in the international organization, nonetheless secretly pursued a nuclear program of its own. Since the UN then had no military arm, and since the US was at the time the only nuclear weapons power, the implication was that the UN would have to turn to the US to act as its military agent in bringing force to bear against a transgressor.16 Not surprisingly, the plan was vetoed by the USSR, busy as it was developing its own nuclear weapon. The changes introduced by Baruch into the original plan were clearly disruptive at the time, but in retrospect we can now see that there was merit in bringing the issue of enforcement into the open.

Both the US and the USSR must certainly appreciate what the Palme commission’s final report emphasized: that the forces that are shaping the future of our species are not under the control of individual governments; that no single state can solve the global environmental problems that threaten us all; and, equally, that no single state, however powerful, can make itself responsible for the world’s economy or for global security. Even if they worked together, the US and the USSR could not do all these things on their own. The major and only task that they might still be able to accomplish bilaterally, is to eliminate the one global danger that is solely under human control—the risk that our world could be destroyed by the force of the atom.

September 14, 1989

This is the second of two articles.

This Issue

October 12, 1989