As the Soviet Union was spinning apart in September 1991, taking the cold war with it, former President Bush seized the moment for a high-stakes strategic gamble.
In a step toward ending years of atomic brinksmanship and to bolster Russian reformers, he decided to unilaterally ditch thousands of nuclear warheads, deactivate 450 long-range missiles, and take the United States' bomber force off 24-hour alert.
The move paid off. The next month the Kremlin topped him with a string of its own radical moves. These included an offer to begin negotiations aimed at cutting in half the 6,000 warheads the sides could deploy under the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I).
Many experts and some Democratic Party leaders say the time is ripe for President Clinton to launch his own dramatic initiative of unilateral warhead cuts. And support for their view may be coming from an unexpected quarter. Pentagon officials, according to The New York Times, urged Mr. Clinton to consider unilaterally slashing the US stockpile below the START I ceiling.
"Our action would give Russia the confidence to do what the unbearable costs of maintaining nuclear arsenals already dictates she must do," asserted Sen. John Kerry (D) of Nebraska in a Nov. 17 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
The idea of unilateral US cuts is gaining ground in a debate on how to eliminate the lingering threat of nuclear annihilation, posed by thousands of warheads that Russia and the US still keep on hair-trigger alert.
The debate is taking on increasing urgency amid growing evidence that Russia's fiscal crisis is fueling a dangerous erosion in the safety and reliability of its nuclear armory. The cash-strapped Russian military is unable to pay personnel and service its nuclear forces, which are aging beyond their designed lifespans. Many experts and some US officials say there is a growing threat of an inadvertent or unauthorized Russian launch that could spark a retaliatory US strike.
"Our maintenance of a nuclear arsenal larger than we need provokes Russia to maintain one larger than she can control," said Senator Kerry. He urges a unilateral cut in deployed US warheads to no more than 2,500.
But the idea has been rejected by majority Republicans in Congress, who for two years have legislated bans against unilateral US cuts. Amid suspicions that Russia is pursuing new nuclear weapons, Republicans argue reductions must be cemented in treaties with strict verification measures. A GOP staffer says the bans also are meant to "pressure" the Russian parliament to force it to ratify the 1992 START II accord. The US ratified the treaty in 1996.
The Clinton administration is adamant that reductions in the US armory must be part of a verifiable treaty. "We have traditionally approached this in the arms-control context, rather than as a unilateral step in the hope that Russia would do the same," says an administration official.
The White House is now exuding confidence that because of Russia's economic straits, the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, will ratify START II this month. The treaty will reduce deployed warheads to no more than 3,500 on each side by 2007.
"There certainly appears to be optimism that START II may be ratified this year, and if that is the case ... we will move immediately into START III negotiations," says a Clinton administration official. A START III accord would restrict the sides to between 2,500 and 2,000 deployed warheads apiece.
Indeed, Russia's near-bankrupt government appears open to slashing its arsenal to a level on a par with the world's three other declared nuclear powers, China, Britain, and France.
"The state in its present condition does not have the means to maintain the present quantitative level of several thousand warheads," Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Maslyukov said in October. "The maximum we can hope for is a level of several hundred nuclear warheads by the year 2007 to 2010."
Proponents of unilateral US reductions argue that a strong American nuclear deterrent could be maintained with only 2,000 deployed warheads. And, they contend, the US could save tens of millions of dollars through sweeping cuts in its armory, which costs some $25 billion annually to maintain.
They say the Pentagon could use the savings for defenses against new threats, like biological terrorism, and help Russia dispose of excess weapons. "These weapons are militarily useless," says Stephen Schwartz, publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist. "But we have been unwilling to take the next step, which is to get rid of them."
WORLD NUCLEAR STOCKPILE
Number of warheads of the world's five top nuclear powers (1996):
United States *12,937.
* Includes active and retired warheads.
Source: Natural Resources Defense Council Inc.