President Bush's call for changes in international rules on the sale of nuclear equipment would effectively revoke the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty's provision allowing countries to pursue atomic energy if they pledge not to build nuclear weapons.
Bush argued for the change by saying that the world's consensus against proliferation "means little unless it is translated into action. Every civilized nation has a stake in preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction."
But there is another important aspect of that international consensus, also written into the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which the United States signed:
"Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control."
That is, the treaty directs those states already possessing nuclear weapons to engage in honest attempts at reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons.
The old "arms race" between the former Soviet Union and the United States may be over, but has the United States -- the nuclear giant of the world, and hence the nation in the strongest position to take a leadership role -- acted in "good faith" to eliminate its own nuclear weapons and encourage others to do the same? Do the actions of the United States since that treaty went into effect in 1970 indicate any intention to honor its provisions?
Sadly, the answer is no. Instead, the United States -- with its overwhelming military advantage in the world, conventional and nuclear -- seems bent on continuing to create, and threaten the use of, nuclear weapons.
Jacqueline Cabasso, executive director of the Western States Legal Foundation (a public-interest organization that monitors and analyzes U.S. nuclear-weapons programs) sums it up this way: "The U.S. is spending more money on nuclear-weapons research and development than ever before, giving its nuclear arsenal new military capabilities and elevating the role of nuclear weapons in its aggressive and unilateral 'national security' policy." Cabasso cites ongoing work on such weapons as a "Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator" as clear evidence of U.S. intentions to pursue nuclear weaponry, not work toward its elimination.
Perhaps more frightening, the Bush administration's January 2002 Nuclear Posture Review laid out a nuclear policy that calls for the development of low-yield or so-called "mini-nukes" and integrates nuclear weapons with conventional strike options. The review discusses possible first-use of nuclear weapons, even against non-nuclear countries if the United States believes a country may use chemical or biological weapons against the United States or its allies. The review's language -- "U.S. nuclear forces will continue to provide assurance to security partners, particularly in the presence of known or suspected threats of nuclear, biological, or chemical attacks or in the event of surprising military developments" -- not surprisingly makes the world nervous.
Bush would do well to listen to his own words, such as this comment on "Meet the Press" last weekend: "See, free societies are societies that don't develop weapons of mass terror and don't blackmail the world."
On the heels of a U.S. invasion of Iraq that virtually the whole world opposed and which had no legal authority, U.S. citizens should face the unpleasant fact that we have the most extensive arsenal of weapons of mass terror, and that much of the world is frightened of how they might be used.
Though U.S. citizens typically have a self-indulgent belief that their country can be trusted with such weapons (despite the painful reality that the United States is the only country to have ever dropped an atomic bomb), the world's fears are not irrational. Again, Bush's own words, from his 2002 speech at West Point, make the point: "We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign non-proliferation treaties, and then systemically break them."
Every "civilized nation" has a stake not only in preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, but also pressuring the nuclear powers to honor the Non-Proliferation Treaty and move toward a more secure world in which no nation can threaten the ultimate horror. It is the task of U.S. citizens to push our own government toward that civilized policy.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity.