Nuclear Strategy and Diplomacy - Loose nukes, successor states, rogues, and friends

Throughout the tenure of Democratic President William Jefferson Clinton, Europe was experiencing a political reordering of a magnitude not witnessed since the signing of the Versailles Treaty in 1919. As a component of the continental reconfiguration, Clinton inherited from George H. W. Bush a wide array of unresolved nuclear issues. Some of them dated well back into the Cold War. Others were of recent vintage, the by-products of the disappearance of one of the Cold War's two principal protagonists and the global hegemonic ambitions of the self-proclaimed "one remaining superpower." Foremost among these dark bequests was the precipitous proliferation of nuclear weapons.

When the Soviet Union broke up, U.S. strategists were appalled to see the largest foreign nuclear arsenal suddenly scattered among four unstable, economically weak, and potentially antagonistic successor states: Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus. Simply by declaring their independence, Ukraine and Kazakhstan became the third-and fourth-largest nuclear powers in the world. Russia, with U.S. concurrence, quickly declared itself the legal heir to the Soviet Union and the inheritor of its treaty obligations. Russia therefore became the only legitimate nuclear weapons power among the four successor states, according to the provisions of the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, and it joined the United States in insisting that the other three disarm as soon as possible. Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan took the first hesitant step in this direction in May 1992 when they signed the Lisbon Protocol to the START I Treaty. This action made them parties to what was originally a bilateral agreement. They further pledged to adhere to the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty as nonnuclear weapons states, a move that would codify their acquiescence to the global nuclear order and put their civilian nuclear assets under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Clinton administration and Congress provided some monetary assistance to the Soviet Union's successor states for their transition to nonnuclear status. One means of aid, the Cooperative Threat Reduction Act (CTR)—also known as Nunn-Lugar—advanced $1.5 billion to the four struggling nations. With this aid, Russia would bring its strategic weapons inventory into compliance with START I limitations; the other three states would dismantle their segments of the former Soviet nuclear arsenal and sequester all weapons materials in Russia for indefinite safekeeping. Under CTR, President Clinton promised to purchase 500 metric tons of highly enriched Russian uranium for $12 billion over a twenty-year period. More immediately, in 1994 American technicians mounted a top-secret operation, code-named "Sapphire," which spirited 600 tons of weapons-grade uranium out of Kazakhstan. The objective was to keep this unprotected stockpile beyond the reach of Iran's nuclear weapons fabricators.

CTR attracted sharp criticism from some members of Congress for failing to focus narrowly on disarmament and for not adequately verifying destruction of nuclear weapons in Russia. Moscow, for its part, complained that most of the CTR money went to pay American contractors rather than to helping Russian firms develop the expertise to eliminate nuclear weapons. However, as one of the act's sponsors, Senator Richard G. Lugar, pointed out, the fact that most of the CTR appropriations remained in the United States was an essential selling point for the American people and Congress: "Eighty-four percent of Nunn-Lugar funds have been awarded to American firms to carry out dismantlement operations in the former Soviet Union. There are no blank checks to Moscow." As with the early Cold War's Marshall Plan, U.S. industry stood to profit from critical European instability.

Clinton supplemented the monetary inducements with diplomacy, but each of the three non-Russian nuclear-armed descendants of the Soviet Union presented unique impediments to the negotiation of nuclear disarmament. Belarus, highly Russified and sporadically ambivalent about independence, was the most readily compliant of the three; it also was the most lightly armed of them. Ukraine and Kazakhstan were tougher nuts to crack.

Bitterness against the former Soviet regime ran deep in Ukraine. Despite repeated assurances to George H. W. Bush's secretary of state, James A. Baker III, and to others concerning their intention to give up their nuclear arsenal, Ukraine's leaders stalled negotiations on assistance and delayed ratification of the Lisbon Protocol. By 1993 it was clear that Ukraine was working to establish positive control—the ability to launch—over its strategic arsenal. Ukrainian technicians already had gained negative control, which meant that President Leonid Kravchuk could prevent a missile launch by Moscow from Ukrainian soil if Russian President Boris Yeltsin should neglect to consult Kiev beforehand. Kiev's negotiators sought three main benefits from any agreement to disarm: attention and respect from the international community, money, and security guarantees from the remaining nuclear weapons states. Their intransigence delayed the Supreme Rada's ratification of START I until February 1994, and of the NPT until December of that year. Ultimately, Kiev simply had to acknowledge that it could not afford, either financially or politically, to maintain a nuclear arsenal in the face of intense international pressure.

Kazakhstan trod a path somewhere between the acquiescence of Belarus and the hard line of Ukraine. Security guarantees figured prominently in the negotiations of Alma-Ata (Almaty) with Russia and the West over disarmament. Located at the juncture of Russia, China, India, and the Middle East, Kazakhstan feared losing its nuclear deterrent without acquiring the compensating umbrella of a powerful ally. While the United States stopped short of giving positive guarantees that it would intervene if Kazakhstan were attacked, it did help to alleviate the Kazakhstani parliament's apprehensions when it joined Russia and the other weapons states in guaranteeing Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus that they would never be attacked with nuclear weapons. After holding out along with Ukraine as long as possible, Kazakhstan reluctantly faced up to the realization that it had neither the fiscal resources nor the expertise to maintain, much less use, its weapons. The Supreme Council of Kazakhstan ratified START I and the Lisbon Protocol on 23 July 1992 and, finally, the Nonproliferation Treaty as a nonnuclear state on 13 December 1993.

With Russia, nuclear matters were more complicated. When Clinton entered office in January 1993, the implementation of START I was under way and ratification of START II seemed imminent, but serious obstacles soon arose on both sides of the Atlantic. American opponents to START II raised the fear that swift action on arms reductions could leave the United States vulnerable if political instability in Russia should lead to a breakdown in bilateral arms control cooperation. An attempted parliamentary coup against President Yeltsin in October 1993 and the gradual deterioration of Yeltsin's ability to govern reinforced these concerns. Aside from the geostrategic relationship, domestic political maneuvering between the Republican-led Congress and the Democratic White House kept START II off the Senate's agenda for the better part of a year, until a quid pro quo on legislative priorities could be worked out between them. The U.S. Senate finally ratified START II by a large margin on 26 January 1996.

Strong opposition to key provisions of the treaty arose in the Russian Duma, whose members were sensitive to the changes in the U.S.–Russian strategic relationship and distressed over Russia's uncertain status as a world power. If Russia were to give up its MIRVed warheads, opponents to START II argued, it would be forced to invest in the creation of a new single-warhead ICBM force, an expenditure it could not afford, or lose its superpower status. Others believed that START II already was outdated and that negotiations should move directly to START III, as a means of bringing the U.S. arsenal down to the level at which Russian strategic forces probably would find themselves anyway. START III, it also was hoped, would eliminate objectionable features of START II, such as the provision that the United States would keep half its MIRVed SLBMs while Russia would have to eliminate all its MIRVed ICBMs.

The increase in NATO's membership, first proposed by Clinton in 1994, dealt another serious blow to prospects for the Duma's ratification of START II. Enlargement of the pact would be "the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post–Cold War era," according to George F. Kennan, the "father" of the 1947 containment policy who was still alive and writing in the 1990s. The grand master of American political-strategic thinking predicted that such a move would inflame hard-line nationalism within Russia, damage Russia's nascent democracy, and shift bilateral relations back to a Cold War status. Within Russia, analysts argued that expansion of NATO, juxtaposed with the downsizing of Russia's conventional forces, would force Moscow to rely even more heavily on its strategic arsenal. To calm this apprehension, the Russian Federation and NATO signed the 1997 Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security. They promised to build "a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area on the principles of democracy and cooperative security," and they proclaimed "the beginning of a fundamentally new relationship between NATO and Russia." While it did not satisfy the concerns of many who opposed expansion, the Founding Act did mitigate the damage enough for Moscow and Washington to continue cooperation on other issues. In 1997 Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton agreed to coordinate the START II and START III processes, with implementation of both to be complete by 31 December 2007.

Ratification of START II, and the START III talks themselves, unfortunately were soon paralyzed by the brouhaha over U.S. national missile defenses and the status of the ABM Treaty. This controversy, in turn, stemmed from the serious setbacks to nonproliferation that characterized the 1990s. The United States and Russia had been working feverishly to contain the threat of uncontrolled nuclear arsenals in the former Soviet Union at the same time that North Korea, Pakistan, and India were demonstrating their intention to crash the five-member Nonproliferation Treaty nuclear club at all costs.

The first eruption occurred in early 1993, when North Korea violated its signatory obligations to the treaty by refusing to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of nuclear waste sites. Agency inspectors had found radioactive evidence suggesting that North Korea was separating plutonium from reactor waste in direct violation of the Nonproliferation Treaty. North Korean President Kim Il Sung accused the United States and South Korea of using the inspectors to spy on North Korea's military facilities and of planning to launch a "nuclear war" against the North as part of a joint military exercise, "Team Spirit." Tensions mounted throughout the spring of 1993. In March, Pyongyang threatened to withdraw from the Nonproliferation Treaty, while the United States sought sanctions through the United Nations to force North Korea to back down. At one point, the Pentagon raised the possibility of a preventive strike against the suspected facilities. Fearing an attack upon themselves as the U.S. allies geographically closest to North Korea, Tokyo and Seoul were urging Washington to consider diplomatic solutions that would avoid "cornering" Pyongyang. China and Russia also refused to support U.S. efforts to force North Korean compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency regime. A second war on the Korean peninsula, perhaps employing nuclear weapons, began to seem possible.

Pyongyang began to moderate its position eighteen months later, however, after Kim Il Sung's son, Kim Jong Il, succeeded his father as president. In October 1994 the Clinton administration and North Korea signed an accord known as the Agreed Framework pledging that North Korea would receive light-water reactors, which do not produce plutonium, and economic aid in exchange for free and full inspections of its declared nuclear facilities. Under the accord both sides agreed to make efforts to normalize their economic and political relations. As a further concession, Secretary of Defense William J. Perry canceled Exercise Team Spirit. U.S. public opinion, however, remained strongly opposed to providing any economic support for the "rogue nation," so financing for the assistance was arranged through an international consortium of private and governmental agencies from Japan, South Korea, and the United States. These imposed inhibitions on North Korea's nuclear aspirations did not last.

On 31 August 1998, North Korea rocketed a three-stage Taep'o-dong ballistic missile over Japan's main island of Honshu. Western intelligence attributed to the missile a surprising range of between 3,800 and 5,900 kilometers. This extended reach constituted remarkable progress in five years for the North Korean missile program, from the 500 kilometer-range Nodong-1 in 1993. It sparked American fears that North Korea might be working on an intercontinental ballistic missile to bring the western United States under threat of nuclear attack. More likely, North Korea's motives for unveiling the Taep'o-dong in such a dramatic fashion had as much to do with political posturing as with aggressive concepts of national security. Just before the test, North Korea's leaders indicated that they would halt the missile program if the United States lifted economic sanctions and compensated them for lost missile sales. There also were solid indications that North Korea's nuclear weapons program, halted under the Agreed Framework, had been put back on track in reaction to U.S. failure to provide the light-water reactors it promised in 1994.

The Taep'o-dong missile launch was not the only setback to Clinton's hopes for halting the diffusion of nuclear weapons in 1998. In May of that year India announced that it had detonated five nuclear devices at its testing range in the Thar Desert near Pakistan's border. The subcontinent had been problematic for the international nonproliferation regime ever since India's refusal to sign the Nonproliferation Treaty in 1968. India had become a de facto, but undeclared, nuclear power in 1974, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi authorized what Indian officials characterized as a "peaceful nuclear explosion." Governance of India's nuclear program was tightly held by its civilian leaders, to the almost complete exclusion of the Indian military. Since 1974, India had chosen to rely on an ambiguous "existential deterrent" policy toward its declared enemy, Pakistan, and toward its arch-rival, China. Although India clearly possessed the capability to deploy warheads, none were placed on delivery vehicles or deployed at launch sites; nor was their existence officially conceded.

Upon India's announcement of the tests in 1998, the United States and the United Nations immediately launched efforts to persuade Pakistan, long suspected of having a rudimentary nuclear capability, not to test in reaction to India. All threats and pleas failed, and Pakistan conducted six tests of its own within a month. With tensions between the two adversaries already soaring due to a chronic Islamic insurgency in Kashmir, world attention swung to the subcontinent as the next possible site for a nuclear war. In this quarter, the United States and United Nations faced a dilemma quite different from that posed by North Korea. The largest democracy in the world and a challenger to China for hegemony in South Asia, India was not constrained by the nonproliferation or safeguards conventions. Moreover, India's people and their political leaders had in the past proved remarkably resistant to threats or attempts at coercion regarding their nuclear status. Pakistan for its part was able to depend upon a close relationship with China to sustain its nuclear defense program in the face of international opprobrium.

UN Security Council Resolution 1172 of 6 June 1998, which had been sponsored by the five permanent members of the Security Council, demanded an immediate end to testing by New Delhi and Islamabad and called on the two countries to reopen negotiations over disputed territories. It enjoined them to sign the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 as nonnuclear weapons states. In the United States, the Glenn Resolution to the Arms Export Control Act of 1998 legally required President Clinton to impose sanctions on both countries in response to the tests. Military and financial aid was restricted, but commercial intercourse continued without impediment.

International opinion was divided on the utility of sanctions as a means to coerce India or Pakistan. Many analysts thought such attempts were more likely to harden than soften the resolve of the two countries' leaders, given the over-whelming domestic approval of the tests. There was the additional risk of intensifying Pakistan's political instability by disrupting an already unsteady economy and strengthening the hand of its military in political affairs. Finally, vigorous anti-American factions in both countries resented what they regarded as Washington's interference in their bilateral affairs, while each state was highly suspicious of the other's relations with the United States. This atmosphere limited Washington's ability to influence either government, particularly in the area of arms control. Clinton and the U.S. Congress therefore gradually eased or waived many of the Glenn Resolution's prohibitions, and the administration's diplomats continued to encourage nuclear prudence on the part of India and Pakistan. Unfortunately, the Nonproliferation Treaty and International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards regimes made no provision for admitting new weapons states or for safeguarding the nuclear facilities of states that lacked official treaty nonweapon status. This hiatus left Pakistan and India in a nonproliferation limbo, and their civilian nuclear assets remained beyond international oversight.

The dramatic proliferation of nuclear weapons technology and missile arsenals, together with the bombing of the World Trade Center by a group of international terrorists in 1993, the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and simultaneous car bomb attacks on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in August 1998, left Americans feeling uncomfortably vulnerable in an increasingly hostile and unpredictable world. Interest was revived in a total ban on testing nuclear weapons. First broached during the Kennedy presidency, the idea remained moribund until the 1990s, when it again gained currency as the most obvious means to halt nuclear weapons proliferation and arms races. In 1996 the UN General Assembly had formulated the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and disseminated it for signature. President Clinton, one of the first heads of state to sign, characterized the treaty as the "longest sought, hardest fought prize in arms control history." He submitted the treaty to the Senate for approval, confident he would be able to cite its ratification as one of the chief foreign policy victories of his presidency. His confidence was premature. Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jesse Helms, a Republican from North Carolina, with the full support of Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott, saw the treaty as a golden opportunity to thwart Clinton. They let it die in committee without a single hearing. In light of U.S. senatorial obstinacy, other governments began to question the wisdom of forgoing their right to test. By 1998 few countries had ratified the pact, and hope for a comprehensive test ban faded.

In retrospect, the monumental dangers of the Cold War's bipolar nuclear standoff had been manageable, and decades of arms control negotiations had made the likelihood of war between the two superpowers appear increasingly remote. In the afterglow of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, Americans were faced with a world full of apparent enemies against whom the tremendous U.S. nuclear deterrent was impotent. The threat of massive retaliation simply could not be used to deter terrorists, not only because their provenance usually was unclear, but also because it was politically untenable and morally unjustifiable to carry out such a lopsided exchange.

The function of the nuclear deterrent in the post–Cold War world became a subject of intense concern, and the topical center of gravity within U.S. security and policymaking circles began to shift from nonproliferation to counterproliferation. A search was begun for promising new technologies to defend U.S. territory and citizens against possible attack. As the threat of rogue states armed with weapons of mass destruction became a favorite subject of national security debates within Washington, Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" concept began a relentless comeback.

President Clinton gave missile defenses a lower priority than had George H. W. Bush, but he continued a modest developmental program. The Strategic Defense Initiative Organization metamorphosed into the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, with a much smaller budget than its predecessor had enjoyed. Drawing lessons from the Gulf War of 1991, Clinton shifted the program's concentration from strategic to regional or "theater" defense. Theater missile defenses (TMD) were seen by critics in both the United States and Russia as an attempted end run around the ABM Treaty, even though the treaty did not specifically cover TMD. Some TMD hardware could easily be reconfigured to counter strategic as well as tactical ballistic missiles, opponents argued. They predicted that development of TMD would induce Russia to build up rather than reduce its strategic arsenal, thus undoing the historic achievements of arms control negotiations and agreements. In 1993 the Clinton administration sought to alleviate these concerns by negotiating a "line of demarcation" between strategic and theater defenses based on Article 6 of the ABM Treaty, which forbade giving an ABM "capability" to non-ABM defense systems. This approach met with powerful opposition from the newly elected Senate Republican majority in 1994. The Republicans insisted that the Russians should not have a "veto" over the future of American missile defenses, as they did under the ABM Treaty.

Caught between these conflicting factions, Clinton worked directly with Yeltsin to fashion language that would evade both the legal triggers of the treaty and the political guns of the U.S. Senate. The result was a joint statement by the two presidents issued in May 1995. It paved the way for negotiating a demarcation agreement, recognized the validity of TMD in principle, and reaffirmed the importance of the ABM Treaty to the bilateral relationship. The negotiations themselves were complex. The current parties to the ABM Treaty—the United States, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan—had to hammer out a common interpretation of interceptor range and velocity, flight-testing, space-and land-based sensors, and other arcane technical issues within the parameters of the treaty before they could reach agreement on what any signatory actually was allowed to do with its missile defenses.

Meanwhile, the controversy in the United States over a national missile defense continued to evoke strong reactions from powerful international friends and potential adversaries. China and Russia were the most vociferous in their condemnation of what they viewed as a unilaterally destabilizing course of action. European and Asian allies asked whether the United States was attempting to withdraw behind a "Fortress America" defensive bulwark that would leave them facing potential threats without a credible deterrent. Having gotten itself entangled in some future overseas adventure, their argument went, the United States could retreat without fear of reprisal, leaving its allies exposed as defenseless targets for the missiles of disgruntled adversaries. The Clinton administration disingenuously countered that, on the contrary, a United States free from the fear of retaliation would be more willing, not less, to come to the aid of its allies in a nuclear emergency. This was a ghostly reprise of the American assertions that in the early 1960s had led a skeptical Charles de Gaulle to form a French nuclear force de frappe and to withdraw from NATO strategic planning. De Gaulle knew in the 1960s, as European leaders knew in the 1990s, that there was only a negative answer to the question, "Would the Americans really be willing to trade Washington for, say, Paris?"

To appease a dubious Russia, the Clinton administration in 1999 proposed that the two countries cooperate in the development of national missile defense systems. Before any real progress could be made, in December 2000, Yeltsin abdicated and was succeeded by the former secret police (KGB) officer Vladimir Putin. The new Russian president warned Clinton that abrogation of the ABM Treaty would force Russia to reconsider all of its treaty obligations with the United States, including the pending ratification of START II. Clinton vacillated. He had signed the 1999 National Missile Defense Act calling for an effective missile defense system as soon as one was technologically feasible, but he deferred a final decision to deploy one and passed that hot potato to his successor. Putin in the meantime was doing his best to keep the United States committed to bilateral strategic arms control and to salvage the ABM Treaty. Strong lobbying by the Russian president persuaded the Duma to ratify START II in April 2000. The desperate gesture's futility would be demonstrated soon after President Clinton left office.

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