Denuclearizing US foreign policy

ONE of the ironies of the recent Reykjavik summit is how close the United States is to achieving the dream of nuclear disarmament and inadvertently demolishing the global balance in the process. President Ronald Reagan may ultimately be successful in achieving the dramatic arms reduction -- perhaps even the elimination of hair-trigger ballistic missiles -- which has eluded all of his nuclear-age predecessors. What we are only beginning to recognize, however, is that nuclear disarmament creates as many problems as it solves.

It may well be that nuclear deterrence has outlived its usefulness. The concept of mutual nuclear devastation was never appealing. But before the US's future is mortgaged to the vision of a nuclear free world, there ought to be a clearer vision of what that new order might be.

In the hyperfocus on the dangers of ballistic weaponry, the larger realities have been lost. The underlying political conflict with the Soviet Union creates the risk of war, not the nuclear weapons themselves. No matter what we do, there will be no escape from a world of Russians and massively destructive weapons of any ilk.

The current arms control approach seems to lack this element of Realpolitik. It embodies two central fallacies.

The first is that the Strategic Defense Initiative will render nuclear weapons obsolete. The US may be successful in removing the threat of one class of weapon -- by bilateral disarmament or defense -- but this does not by itself replace nuclear deterrence. Through a variety of technological countermeasures, new weapons, and new tactics, the superpowers will always ensure that they have an ability to retaliate against each other.

The second fallacy is the blind faith that a nuclear-free world will be conducive to the maintenance of US power and influence. Like it or not, the threat of nuclear escalation is the central pillar of the US's global power position. The US is outnumbered and outgunned by the Eastern bloc in conventional weaponry along the Eurasian continent. It is through this threat of nuclear escalation that the US is able to pose unacceptable risks to the Soviet Union in Western Europe and in other vital regions around the globe.

Let's imagine a world in which the US nuclear arsenal has been sharply constrained. The threat of devastating nuclear retaliation will continue to exist if only through the maintenance of bombers and cruise missiles. While the central balance of terror would remain, the flexibility with which the US can extend deterrence to its allies -- averting possible Soviet encroachment against them -- would be weakened. This may be the worst of both worlds.

Some argue that it would be possible to construct a potent conventional deterrent against the overwhelming superiority of Soviet firepower. Yet, conventional deterrence loses much of its credibility without a direct linkage between aggression and nuclear holocaust. The Soviets must continue to understand that a conventional victory would necessarily be a Pyrrhic one. And, even if it were possible to construct an exclusively nonnuclear deterrent, history offers little comfort that the West has the will to undertake an enormous military expansion.

The central issue US leaders must now confront is whether nuclear disarmament will initiate a retreat from globalism and therefore from Washington's superpower responsibility. In changing the character of the military balance, we will not eliminate superpower conflict, only the means of its expression. What may change is how statesmen measure risk and responsibility. By abruptly altering the balance, we may end up rupturing the entire fabric of the US's relations in ways we do not like and did not anticipate.

Regardless of the types of weapons deployed, the assumption of a global role will always mandate the assumption of global risk. Before wandering into an even more tumultuous future, US leaders must take the time to reconsider their strategic and political goals.

Ideally we may wish that statesmen put away the relics of a nuclear childhood. Prudence may dictate otherwise.

Andrew C. Goldberg and Debra van Opstal are fellows at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University.

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