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Let’s seize opportunity for disarmament

In a bold new arms control move, Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that Russia and the United States could make drastic cuts in their nuclear arsenals that would go far beyond existing proposals.

“We don’t see reasons that would hamper further deep cuts in strategic offensive weapons,” Putin said. “There should be no pause in nuclear disarmament.’’

Sadly, Washington largely brushed off the Putin initiative because the United States remains committed to maintaining a ceiling of at least 2,500 nuclear warheads.

The United States currently has roughly 7,500 nuclear weapons, while Russia has between 6,000 and 7,000. Arms experts say it is dangerous to continue to believe that deterring Russia, which is poor and no longer a Cold War enemy, requires threatening to drop 2,500 nuclear bombs on Russian soil. Each of these 2,500 weapons can destroy an area much greater than that destroyed with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Further, Washington continues to support the idea of building a “Star Wars” missile shield that our allies do not support and most scientists say will never work. The system will waste billions of dollars and will undermine the bedrock 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

To completely rid the world of nuclear weapons remains a moral imperative. However, U.S. policymakers, satisfied and complacent in the wake of their Cold War victory, do not support this imperative.

Pressure must be brought by moral leaders to force a change in thinking.

Meanwhile, Putin is an opportunist. He knows Russia can no longer afford its bloated military or its expensive arms program. He had supported a 1,500-warhead ceiling, but now is speaking of even lower limits. This provides a remarkable window of opportunity. Already, the balance of military might is heavily tipped toward the United States. Cash-strapped Russia spends about $5.1 billion on defense compared with annual U.S. defense spending of around $290 billion.

It is wrong and terribly shortsighted to use this spending advantage as a bully club to maintain a nuclear missile advantage. All who hold hope of emerging from our decades’ long nightmare during which the nations of the world managed to stave off an intentional or accidental nuclear war should seize this moment to press for further arms reductions on the way to total abolition of nuclear armaments.

We need to understand -- and to keep repeating to policymakers -- that it is in the interest of the entire human family, including all U.S. citizens, to rid the planet of nuclear weapons.

Most experts believe that Russia wants deep nuclear cuts because it can’t afford to keep up its missiles and weapons. Russia has been able to build only a handful of nuclear missiles in recent years, far too few to replace the hundreds of weapons approaching obsolescence.

“They tell us that the situation in the world has considerably changed during the last three decades. ... The situation has indeed changed, but not to a degree allowing us to break the existing system of strategic stability by emasculating the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty, ‘’ Putin said.

He noted that recent attempts by the United States to negotiate with North Korea on limiting its missile program showed threats could be addressed by “political and diplomatic means, without leaving the ABM treaty.’’

The next U.S. president will face a critical crossroad. Risks are involved. In this case, the risk of further reductions will be weighed against the risks of increasingly uncertain deterrence. With aging missiles and questionable nuclear controls, Russia remains dangerous. The fear of accidental nuclear war remains real.

At the heart of the issue is what kind of world leadership the United States will provide in the 21st century. Will we seek shortsighted gains, looking for ways to maintain a nuclear weapons advantage? Or will we become moral leaders and work to put an end to a policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), the terror-driven deterrence policy that has too long undergirded foreign policy?

So far, it seems we have not found the courage to take the moral path. Last September, President Clinton postponed a decision on whether to deploy the $60 billion “Star Wars” system, saying his successor would make that call.

Vice President Gore supports the missile shield. Texas Gov. George W. Bush argues for a nuclear shield system that will protect the United States and its allies as well.

To continue indefinitely to stockpile nuclear weapons is morally untenable, a point made forcefully by the U.S. bishops in their 1983 pastoral on nuclear weapons policy matters. The bishops, in that letter, barely justified the U.S. nuclear arsenal, saying it could be morally supported temporarily as a deterrent -- as long as the United States was moving toward the abolition of all its nuclear weapons. The bishops offered a “strictly conditioned moral acceptance” of nuclear deterrence, noting it is not a “long-term basis for peace,” but only useful “as a step on the way toward progressive disarmament.”

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2000