Countdown to Doomsday

Seven minutes to midnight. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently moved the hands on their Doomsday Clock down to seven minutes signifying the increasingly dangerous and unstable nuclear world in which we live. It has been one month now since the Los Angeles and New York Times first published leaked sections of the Bush administration’s classified Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), and since then we have witnessed a backslide into global nuclear posturing on a scale unthinkable only a few short weeks ago.


The revelations from the NPR, written under the guidance of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, sent shock waves around the world and have turned the threat of nuclear war from a slowly fading cold war memory into a topic discussed almost casually by the world’s military powers.


Following America’s lead, Britain directly threatened the use of nuclear weapons against four non-nuclear states, Pakistani leader General Musharraf warned India that his country might be provoked into using their atomic bombs if the current crisis escalates, and an influential Japanese government official cautioned China to either scale back its military modernization program or face the potential of his country producing several thousand warheads.


The policy review that began this spiral contains three highly controversial suggestions that have provoked a sharp international response.


First was America‘s plan to store rather than destroy most of the 4,000 warheads President Bush plans to cut from the U.S. stockpile in an anticipated deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin. An undefined number of these are planned to be kept in a state ready for re-deployment within days to months. Moscow has expressed strong, but weakening, opposition to this idea and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said that “Russia does not see in this any sort of cutback.”


Second, was the proposal that America be ready to use nuclear weapons (even potentially in a first strike) against China, Russia, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Libya. Of these, only Russia and China possess nuclear weapons, and all seven have signed the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty. By openly abandoning their promise not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, many analysts fear that the U.S. is in danger of undermining the motivation for countries to not develop nuclear weapons and of lowering the threshold for the use of such weapons.


This threat provoked widespread condemnation from the countries on the so called nuclear hit-list. Sun Yuxi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said China was “deeply shocked” by the review, the Tehran Times said the Bush administration “is going to wreak havoc on the whole world,” the Korean Central News Agency warned that a nuclear war imposed by the U.S. would “mean their ruin in nuclear disaster,” and a member of the Russian parliament simply questioned whether American officials had “somewhat lost touch with the reality in which they live.”


Third, and finally, was the plan to develop a new generation of “earth- penetrating” low-yield nuclear weapons to defeat the more than 1,400 underground or hardened facilities worldwide thought to contain weapons of mass destruction, ballistic missiles, or top level military command posts. According to experts, no such weapon could penetrate deep enough to entirely contain its blast and would thus produce a particularly dangerous type of fallout in the form of a radioactive dust cloud.


The review also states that to create these new devices and to maintain the condition of the nuclear stockpile, weapons testing may have to be resumed in violation of the 1992 Nuclear Testing Moratorium. Already, the administration commissioned a study last year to determine how quickly mothballed test sites in Nevada could be put back into use, and in March, John Foster, a senior American nuclear scientist, asked Congress to allow nuclear tests to begin 3 months after a request instead of the current 3 years.


Many experts fear that other countries would soon follow suit if American went ahead with nuclear tests. Already Iran and China have withdrawn their contributions to the (as yet unofficial) Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization in protest of Washington‘s nuclear stance and its withholding $800,000 from the office earmarked to help fund site inspections. The U.S. Senate failed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999 and Bush has said he has no intention of sending it back to them for re-consideration.


The release of the NPR brought into sharp focus the accelerating U.S. trend of violating major international security agreements and international law. A July 8, 1996 World Court of Justice ruling clearly stated that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law.”


In a 188 page report released this week, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and the Lawyer’s Committee on Nuclear Policy found that Washington has “violated, compromised, or acted to undermine in some crucial way” each of the 8 treaties studied, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, according to co- author Nicole Deller. In addition, the U.S. came under fire at a recent disarmament conference organized by the United Nations and the Chinese Foreign Ministry for its nuclear posture and for risking an outer-space arms race with tests of a National Missile Defense.


Secretary Rumsfeld and the authors of the NPR have also openly stated that arms control regimes like the ABM treaty, which the U.S pulled out of on December 13, 2001, are little more than cold war relics and that the current arms control process is “incompatible with the flexibility” now required by U.S. military planners. Add to this that just this week, the Bush administration curtailed many new disarmament programs with Russia and cut additional funding to some existing projects as a signal of their “seriousness about [Russian] compliance on arms control” agreements according to a senior White House official.


A concern that has been voiced over and over again about the U.S. policy is that it potentially lowered the bar for considering the use of nuclear weapons. In just four short weeks we have already seen the bar fall away.


Following closely on the heels of the NPR’s release and even echoing Washington’s own words, on March 21 Britain’s Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told the Defense Select Committee that other countries should be “absolutely confident that in the right conditions we would be willing to use our nuclear weapons.” Hoon focused on four so called “states of concern,” Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, although he singled out Iraq as causing the greatest concern. Three days later, in a television interview, he reiterated his warning that they reserved the right to use nuclear weapons if Britain or British troops were threatened with biological or chemical weapons.


In an interview with Germany‘s Der Spiegel magazine on April 7, Pakistan‘s military leader General Musharraf warned that “if pressure on Pakistan becomes too great then as a last resort, the [use of the] atom bomb is also possible.” In the same interview he accused India of having a “superpower obsession” and of “buying up the most modern weapons in a megalomaniac frenzy.” On his tour of a new Indian naval facility, Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes dismissed General Musharraf’s comments as “childish or desperate.”


Neither India or Pakistan have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and both countries have remained on full military alert since mid- December with hundreds of thousands of troops massed along their border. Pakistan, whose conventional forces are much smaller than its rivals, has retained the option of using nuclear bombs first, whereas India has said that it would only use its arsenal for a devastating retaliatory strike. It is estimated that Pakistan could have 25 to 150 warheads compared to India‘s 60 to 250 weapons, and both countries are developing and testing new ballistic missiles capable of reaching any point in the opposing country.


And finally, Ichiro Ozawa, head of the Liberal Party in Japan, told the audience of a lecture in Fukuoka over the weekend that he had warned an intelligence officer from the Chinese Communist Party that if China went ahead with its massive military modernization program, Japan could “produce thousands of nuclear weapons overnight” using the plutonium from their nuclear reactors. He added that China is expanding “in the hope of becoming a superpower,” but that Japan would never lose in a confrontation if it became serious about strengthening its defenses.


Currently Japan adheres to a long-standing ban on processing, producing, or allowing nuclear weapons into the country. However, Japan’s energy program has up to 38 metric tons of plutonium, including material being reprocessed in the U.K. and France, which is capable of making more than 7,000 warheads. In addition to adding fuel to the current nuclear fire, Shaum Burnie of Greenpeace International notes that Ozawa’s statements have “exposed the myths of it being a peaceful energy program for a resource poor country.”


In a clear example of the changing nuclear climate, Ozawa’s threats are in sharp contrast to three years ago when a member of the Liberal Party was forced to resign as a junior defense minister after calling for a parliamentary debate on whether Japan should acquire a nuclear deterrent.


Viewing the last month as a whole, it is clear that the increasingly hawkish nuclear policies of the United States are already reverberating around the world and ushering in a return of the nuclear nightmare the world had thought it was finally escaping . Be it threats of devastation in response to the use of biological or chemical weapons, or threats to a competing regional power that is gaining a military or economic edge, the world is rushing to play the nuclear card at a rate unheard of since the early days of the cold war.


Possessing by far the worlds largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, America‘s posture carries tremendous weight in international military affairs. By its systematic rejection of multilateralism and the rule of law in favor of unilateralism and the rule of force, the U.S. nuclear policy has itself become an undeniable and growing threat to global security.


Seven minutes and counting…


—- Generally speaking things have gone about as far as they can possibly go when things have got about as bad as they can reasonably get – Tom Stoppard

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