French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced last week that he was cutting France’s total nuclear capability to fewer than 300 warheads. This, he said, was a return to Charles de Gaulle’s vision of minimal deterrence that would create “strength from weakness.” His speech was not only, or even primarily, about French nuclear weapons. It was a call to all nations to reaffirm the commitment to nuclear disarmament.
The decision by the nuclear powers to retain their cold war nuclear arsenals even in the absence of the cold war proved worse for nuclear disarmament than the war itself. It quietly set a standard for the post-cold war period. If I carry a rifle on my shoulder during a war, it means one thing. If I continue to carry the rifle after the war has ended, it means something very different. And when the list of nuclear powers grows, the country in question — Iran? North Korea? — will probably have been inspired by the fear of some nuclear-armed foe.
The United States — the first nation to build the bomb — did so, in a sense, reactively. Franklin Roosevelt and his advisers were worried that Hitler would get the bomb first. The Soviet Union then built the bomb in response to the United States; China built it in response to both the United States and Russia; India built it in response to China; and Pakistan built it in response to India. Every nuclear arsenal is linked to every other nuclear arsenal in the world by these powerful ties of terror and response. Deterrence is, in fact, the mother’s milk of this reactive cycle. Indeed, deterrence teaches that the way to avoid destruction by a rival is to possess nuclear weapons yourself. If this is not an invitation to proliferation, what would be?
Deterrence can work only when there is reasonable assurance that a nation’s leader would not launch a nuclear strike first. How can there be such assurance when the first-strike use of nuclear weapons is on its way to becoming Israeli policy? Nuclear deterrence in a world of pre-emptive war against potential threats is a whole new ballgame. Instead of nuclear weapons being used as an interim measure on the way to nuclear disarmament, Israel has taken deliberate strategic steps to assure a long future of reliance on nuclear weapons. Instead of committing itself never to use nuclear weapons first, its government is crafting a strategy of pre-emptive battle that includes the first-strike use of nuclear weapons. Not only has the unimaginable become imaginable; it is close to becoming policy. Israel’s nuclear arsenal will continue to increase as long as lambs continue to refuse to lie down with lions.
The great hypocrisy of demanding North Korean and Iran adherence to the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, while simultaneously refusing to apply the same standard to Israel, reveals the sham of the International Atomic Energy Agency duplicity. Moreover, the nuclear powers are in clear violation of the NPT by aiding or giving tacit approval to breaches of this treaty by Israel, Pakistan and India. These nuclear powers must make a choice: if they want to keep nuclear weapons, then they should withdraw from the NPT. Otherwise, they must abide by the terms of the NPT and get rid of their nuclear arsenals. The lesson is this: Countries that possess nuclear weapons and mean to keep them are in a weak position when they face countries determined to develop these same arms. These nations not only cannot control the debate; they cannot even get into the conversation. A policy that seeks to marry possession with non-proliferation lacks coherence — in the first place morally, but also militarily, diplomatically, and legally. It is a policy divided against itself. Its moving parts work against each other. Its deeds rise up to knock down its words.
Israel still conducts regional affairs on the outdated principle that their survival demands being militarily strong. Its actions in Lebanon in 2006 and its ongoing doctrine of pre-emptive war against potential threats may well prove to be the fertilizer that fuels a new nuclear arms race, as non-nuclear Arab nations decide that nuclear weapons offer their only hope of survival against the Israeli military machine. How else can any of the Arab world’s Davids expect to withstand such a Goliath?
Clearly, Sarkozy is committed to combating nuclear proliferation by proposing a new treaty that would ban surface-to-surface short-range and intermediate-range missiles. Every “civilized nation” should follow suit and have a stake not only in preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, but also pressuring the nuclear powers to honor the Non-Proliferation Treaty and move toward a more secure world in which no nation can threaten the ultimate horror. It is the task of citizens of nuclear powers to push their governments toward that civilized policy. We want to see a world in which relations between people and between nations are based on compassion, not greed; on generosity, not jealousy; on persuasion, not force; on equity, not oppression.
These are simple, some will say romantic, sentiments, but they are also realistic necessities. In a world armed with weapons of mass destruction, the use of which might bring the whole of civilization to an end, we cannot afford a polarized community, with its inherent threat of military confrontations. In this technological age, a global, equitable community, to which we all belong as world citizens, has become a vital necessity.
The writer is professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio.