James Carroll

Fallout from a US treaty failure

By James Carroll
November 29, 2010

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LAST WEEK the Energy Department’s inspector general cited 16 incidents in which agents driving trucks carrying nuclear weapons were intoxicated. Two were arrested at a bar. The astounding revelation that convoys carrying the world’s most lethal material could be so carelessly handled came in the week that Senator Jon Kyl dug in his heels to prevent a Senate vote on the New Start Treaty between the United States and Russia. Kyl’s refusal makes real the prospect that the nuclear reduction accord will not be ratified. Only one Republican is on record as ready to vote yes.

The dread consequences of this treaty failure are described by the commentariat in relation to discrete problems with Russia (no inspections, no reset), Iran (an affronted Russia won’t help pressure Tehran), or Obama’s broader foreign policy (mortally wounded), but the true stakes are far higher — a final defeat of the hard-won international consensus that nuclear weapons are in a category apart, requiring a steady movement, however incremental, from limitation to reduction to an ultimate abolition. Once the recognition occurs that, as Ronald Reagan put it, a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, the logic of nuclear elimination follows, even allowing for a long diplomatic process. That’s why the hawkish Reagan himself became abolition’s fiercest advocate.

The international consensus, reflected in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has never been fully accepted in the United States, where so-called nuclear schizophrenia has been a mark of the national attitude since 1945. On one side, Truman used the atomic bomb against Japan, but then refused to do so in Korea, accepting stalemate and establishing a saving taboo that still exists. Eisenhower proposed “atoms for peace,’’ while promulgating the doctrine of “massive retaliation.’’ Kennedy launched arms control with the first test ban treaty, but also sparked a burst of missile escalation. Nixon capped that with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, but opened the dangerous era of multiple warheads. Carter came into office aiming to cut the nuclear arsenal, but left having expanded it. It took Ronald Reagan to finally break through the schizophrenia and, with Mikhail Gorbachev, get sane. The Republicans were all at once the party of nuclear reduction. Under Reagan and George H.W. Bush, one arms treaty followed another, and the US nuclear arsenal was cut in half.

With Bill Clinton, America had a schizophrenia relapse, as he both represented the values of peace in his own biography and squandered the rare arms reduction opportunity he inherited. His 1994 Nuclear Posture Review affirmed the nuclear status quo as a “hedge’’ against a Russian paranoia relapse, which never came. Clinton failed to advance the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (still unratified), or even to continue the Reagan-Bush legacy of significant arsenal reductions. Russia did not want to resume an arms race, and China did not want to start one — but the United States, the self-proclaimed “lone superpower,’’ did not lead. The clock had run out on the nuclear age everywhere but in Washington.

Today it is said that nukes pose a lesser threat — the odd terrorist blowing up a mere city, or a brief local war, say, on the subcontinent of Asia. Armageddon no longer looms. But that is nonsense. Once nuclear weapons are accepted as normal armaments, their accumulation will skyrocket everywhere. Once the international covenant toward abolition is abandoned, dozens of nations will join the nuclear club. Inter-state war will be inevitably genocidal, and outbreaks of non-state mass violence will invariably launch irrational escalations. Once more, the self-extinction of the human species will be at issue.

Reagan would be ashamed of Senate Republicans. He would be appalled by the ignorance of men and women who regard nuclear arms as just another occasion for partisan advantage. He would shake his head, that Reagan mystification: What don’t you understand about this treaty’s historic urgency? How crazy are you?

Schizophrenia, as the word suggests, assumes a kind of split, disorder co-existing with health. But Republican nuclear madness now is total. Americans should be clear about what has happened. The Senate naysayers are drivers of trucks in a convoy whose cargo is the future of the planet. They are careening down a midnight mountain road, without headlights. And they are drunk.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.