Test-Ban Trap

By: Charles Krauthammer
The Washington Post,July 16, 1993

‘When we get to a point where we simply cannot count on our arsenal, we are effectively disarmed.’

On July 3, President Clinton announced that the United States would no longer test nuclear weapons unless some other nation went first. The president acknowledged that "additional nuclear tests could . . . provide for some additional improvements in safety and reliability of our nuclear stockpile. But, he argued, safety and reliability improvements are less important than getting nonnuclear nations to stay nonnuclear. And that would be jeopardized if we went ahead with testing.

In the 50-year history of the nuclear debate, this argument — a test ban in the name of nonproliferation — is quite possibly the most whimsical. Does North Korea pursue the bomb because the United States occasionally tests the safety and reliability of its arsenal underground in Nevada? In fact, as former assistant secretary of defense Frank Gaffney points out, the North Korean nuclear program reached its frantic climactic stage precisely during the current American moratorium on nuclear testing.

Is a cessation of American nuclear testing going to induce Saddam to give up his pursuit of the bomb? How exactly is this logic supposed to work? The New York Times explains. A nuclear test ban "will not assure an end to the peril of proliferation," it boldly concedes. "But it will help stigmatize nuclear weapons and mobilize support for curbing their spread."

Stigmatize nuclear weapons. What does that mean? Make nuclear weapons appear evil? First of all, nuclear weapons, when used (as ours are) for deterrence, are not evil. Second, even if they were evil, the evil nature of a weapon may dissuade some Americans from acquiring it, but it will not dissuade Saddam. In fact, as we have seen with his use of chemical weapons, for the likes of Saddam evil is an inducement.

Perhaps stigmatize means to devalue the currency of a weapon. That seems to be the idea of Bob Must, spokesman for Physicians for Social Responsibility, a major test-ban advocate. Testing, he explains, "makes nuclear weapons look too valuable, and I think we should make nuclear weapons look as little valuable as possible. That’s what is at issue."

This is nonsense on stilts. The value of nuclear weapons is inherent in their power. It has nothing to do with how the United States makes them look. No nation that covets the power conferred by nukes is going to respond to an American test ban with: "Hey, the Americans stopped testing. That must mean that nukes are not that important anymore. No need for us to have them then. Let’s make plowshares."

Nonproliferation is a very good idea. But there is a problem. It is not very fair. It essentially says: Those countries that have nuclear weapons can keep them, but no one else can join the club.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for this problem.

It is absurd to believe that we cure it by pretending nuclear weapons don’t matter and letting ours get rusty and unreliable. Whom do we think we are fooling? Neglecting the maintenance of the arsenal either has no effect, in which case it is a sham. Or it has an effect-degrading the reliability and safety of the arsenal-in which case it is a menace. Then we don’t have nonproliferation. We have denuclearnation.

After all, if the safety and reliability of these weapons are allowed to degrade — how safe and reliable is any complex piece of machinery if left untested for years? — then eventually they cannot be used. This is denuclearization by other means. No need for some dramatic act of Congress. When we get to a point where we simply cannot count on our arsenal, we are effectively disarmed.

For some anti-testers, of course, that is the whole point of a test ban. For these descendants of the old Ban the Bomb and Nuclear Freeze movements, a test ban is not an end but a means. It is a beginning on the road to full nuclear disarmament. They are not so much interested in abolishing the tests as in abolishing the weapons. And the former is a means to the latter.

There are two kinds of countries with the potential to acquire nuclear weapons. First, advanced and generally friendly countries — like Germany, Japan and South Korea — that refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons in part because they trust the American nuclear umbrella to protect them. If they see us denuclearizing, their temptation to acquire their own nuclear weapons will only increase. So much for nonproliferation.

The other category of nations comprises the pariah states like North Korea — hostile, aggressive, sometimes unstable. There is something lunatic about saying that if we devalue and degrade our arsenal, nukes will then have less value for the North Koreas of the world. On the contrary. The most elementary principle of economics is that the value of a commodity increases with its scarcity. The fewer nuclear weapons reliability held by the great powers, the greater the premium — the power — conferred upon the have-not who acquires them. Imagine, for example, that our nuclear arsenal suddenly vanished. That would infinitely multiply the value of any weapon falling into the hands of Kim Jong II.

On July 10 Bill Clinton warned North Korea that if it developed and used a nuclear weapon, North Korea would cease to exist. This is what is known as deterrence. But deterrence only works if we have a safe and reliable deterrent.

The test ban is a trap. It is advertised as a means to nonproliferation. It is not. It is, however, a means to denuclearization. And while nonproliferation is a vital American goal, denuclearization is a simple folly.

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