Comment: The nuclear world: time to take stock

A terrorist's bomb in a suitcase is probably the greatest nuclear threat to America
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The Independent Culture
It was like a dreary rerun of an old hit show whose plot everyone has virtually forgotten. Senior American and Russian officials were back in Moscow this week, talking about cuts in their respective strategic nuclear arsenals and anti-missile defences, much as they once did 10, 20 or 30 years ago. In those days, the merest shift in nuance would have produced frontpage headlines. But this time, hardly a ripple.

And why should there have been great excitement, one may ask: are not the Cold War and the threat of superpower Armageddon long things of the past? But that is precisely the point - and why these negotiations could prove the most important of their kind since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their relevance lies not in the arms cuts themselves. The US and Russia now have roughly 12,000 warheads between them, compared to the 27,000 at their peak in the late 1980s. Under the START-2 agreement which the Duma has not yet ratified (and will not do so until after this December's elections) the number is due to fall to 3,000/3,500 apiece by 2007. The officials were talking about a START-3 deal, that would then kick in, reducing the respective stockpiles to around 2,000.

But much of this is academic. Without waiting for action by Moscow, Washington continues to reduce its arsenal; and given the decay of the Russian military - even of the elite strategic nuclear weapons force - it is doubtful the heir of the former superpower can muster 3,000 serviceable warheads, let alone the 6,000-odd theoretically still at its disposal.

Even START-3 allows more than enough weapons to preserve the the old doctrine of mutually assured destruction (better known as MAD). Nor do its levels come down to those required to persuade Britain, France and China to renounce their weapons, hastening the advent of the nuclear-free world sought by the increasingly influential abolitionist movement. And in any case, the Doomsday machines of Russia and America are no longer the most likely detonators of nuclear holocaust. Which brings me to the the second item on the agenda and the one which truly matters - the fate of the 1972 ABM treaty.

The Anti Ballistic Missile treaty made sense of MAD. By barring the deployment of anti-missile defences, it ensured that an aggressor would still be vulnerable to a devastating retaliatory strike. Both sides chafed against it - Ronald Reagan with his "Star Wars" dream, the Soviet Union with its sophisticated anti-missile radar defences at Krasnoyarsk in Siberia - but the treaty held, and so guaranteed the balance of terror which kept nuclear peace for a quarter of a century.

But the narrow oligopoly of such weapons is breaking up. The club of declared states has expanded to include India and Pakistan, neither of whom will relinquish their expensively acquired tickets to the top table unless the established powers do so as well. Then there is Israel, an undeclared but universally acknowledged nuclear power. The biggest threat of all, however, is posed by so-called "rogue states", the Irans, Iraqs and North Koreas of this world, developing missiles which could carry nuclear warheads.

To counter this danger, America would like precisely the kind of ABM system banned by the treaty: not the SDI shield which could never have coped with an all-out Soviet attack, but a more attainable system capable of dealing with a smaller attack - for argument's sake by North Korea, which any day now could test its Taepo-Dong II long-range missile, capable of hitting Alaska, Hawaii, and conceivably California. And not only America feels the need.

Facing fresh intimidation from the mainland, Taiwan wants American help in setting up a system protecting most of its territory from shorter range Chinese missiles. Europe too is getting twitchy. "Sooner or later", predicts Bruce George, Chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Defence, the UK will sign up to some such system. Nor would the precaution be unwise, given the perception of Britain in parts as junior partner of the great Satan.

America meanwhile presses ahead. Over the next four years the Pentagon will spend $16bn on an array of missile defence programmes. Although none have yet come close to deployment, and thus to formal violation of the ABM treaty, pressure in Congress is growing for Washington to withdraw from it unilaterally.

And so back to those little trumpeted talks in Moscow. The Americans want to "modify" the treaty, but the Russians cling to it for the same reason the Soviet Union opposed SDI in the 1980s: they simply don't have the money to match Washington in an anti-missile programme. And that leads to an even deeper fear, shared by the Chinese, that whatever its claims to the contrary, the US will use an anti-missile defence system to seal its global domination. There is something to that objection - but more to the argument that the fanciest anti-missile defences offer no protection against a terrorist's bomb in a suitcase, probably the greatest nuclear threat to America of all.

Even so, the odds are that a faded old beauty will be discarded. Treaties are like girls and roses, General de Gaulle famously observed, ca dure ce que ca dure - they last while they last. As the non-proliferation dam crumbles, so does the logic behind the 1972 agreement. An unpredictable new nuclear world is upon us, which makes the era of MAD appear sane. The ABM treaty has done noble service, but its time is past.