The Nuclear Threat: A Proposal


For decades the United States and its allies have maintained nuclear forces designed for one overriding objective: to deter Soviet military action, particularly an attack against Western Europe. In addition, the United States has sought to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but this goal was never considered as important as the first.

Now the crumbling of Soviet power and the war in the Gulf have shattered the assumptions that underlie Western nuclear policies. An entirely new danger has arisen: that a disintegrating Soviet Union might lose control over its immense nuclear arsenal. Among the causes of the war in the Gulf, moreover, was the fear that Saddam Hussein would acquire nuclear weapons capable of hitting distant targets and drawing the Great Powers into a nuclear conflict. New policies controlling nuclear weapons must be adopted to reduce as quickly as possible risks of both kinds.

The crucial first step, we shall argue, would be a very deep and swift cut in US and Soviet nuclear forces, which should be reduced from their present total of approximately 50,000 warheads to something on the order of two thousand. To do so would, at one stroke, force the US and the USSR to adopt far less dangerous nuclear strategies and strengthen the global effort to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.

These changes in nuclear policy would be a major step toward a world in which relations among nations would be based on the rule of law, supported by a system of collective security, with the United Nations and regional organizations able to resolve conflicts and keep the peace.

That the peaceful period between the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the arrival of tanks in Kuwait and Vilnius was so brief should dispel any illusions that such a goal is within easy reach. Nevertheless, at least it is clear that no regime in Moscow will be able to recreate the threat of the cold war years. This brutal century, in our view, has taught some lessons that should be applied as we plan for the next: that war between major industrialized states can no longer be perceived as the continuation of politics by other means; that long-term security depends on cooperation, especially with former enemies, as the success of Western policy toward Germany after 1945 demonstrates; and that a more peaceful and civilized international life will depend on the emergence of institutions with the resources and authority to encourage cooperation and to mediate conflict.

Deciding the role of nuclear weapons in a new system of international security is the easier part of the problem. Whether or not one believes that the numbers and disposition of the US and Soviet nuclear forces were appropriate before 1989, it should be clear they are incompatible with the new political realities. Compared to conventional forces, moreover, nuclear forces are designed to be used in extreme and highly unlikely circumstances; they have little impact on domestic life, and no connection with day-to-day international affairs. Presumably…

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