New York Times
October 28, 1999

A Threat Mostly To Ourselves

By Paul H. Nitze

The Senate's failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty set off a contentious debate on American leadership and led President Clinton to decry a "new isolationism" in the Republican majority. However, this is purely a discussion of political preferences rather than a debate affecting our basic and intrinsic security.

The fact is, I see no compelling reason why we should not unilaterally get rid of our nuclear weapons. To maintain them is costly and adds nothing to our security.

I can think of no circumstances under which it would be wise for the United States to use nuclear weapons, even in retaliation for their prior use against us. What, for example, would our targets be? It is impossible to conceive of a target that could be hit without large-scale destruction of many innocent people.

The technology of our conventional weapons is such that we can achieve accuracies of less than three feet from the expected point of impact. The modern equivalent of a stick of dynamite exploded within three feet of an object on or near the earth's surface is more than enough to destroy the target.

In view of the fact that we can achieve our objectives with conventional weapons, there is no purpose to be gained through the use of our nuclear arsenal.

To use it would merely guarantee the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of people, none of whom would have been responsible for the decision invoked in bringing about the weapons' use, not to mention incalculable damage to our natural environment.

As for the so-called rogue states that are not inhibited in their actions by the consensus of world opinion, the United States would be wise to eliminate their nuclear capabilities with the preemptive use of our conventional weapons -- when necessary, and when we have unambiguous indication of these countries' intent to use their nuclear capability for purposes of aggrandizement.

The same principle should apply to any threat emanating from unstable states with nuclear arsenals. By simply having our intelligence services "read their mail," we can tell if there is compelling reason to take preemptive action.

Why would someone who spent so many years negotiating with the Soviet Union about the size of our nuclear arsenal now say we no longer need it? I know that the simplest and most direct answer to the problem of nuclear weapons has always been their complete elimination. My "walk in the woods" in 1982 with the Soviet arms negotiator Yuli Kvitsinsky at least addressed this possibility on a bilateral basis. Destruction of the arms did not prove feasible then, but there is no good reason why it should not be carried out now.

For now, the rejection of the test-ban treaty will undoubtedly bring up the question of whether the United States should resume testing, and there may be short-term political considerations in favor of forgoing testing or even making a declaration that we do not intend to test.

But in the long term, the treaty does not address the survival or existence of states. It is the presence of nuclear weapons that threatens our existence.

Paul H. Nitze is a former arms control negotiator and was an ambassador-at-large in the Reagan Administration.