IN THE current chapter in mankind's attempts to deal with nuclear weaponry, a strange -- even a ludicrous -- situation has arisen.
The great bulk of the world's nuclear weapons were deployed to defend the rival sides in a conflict -- the Cold War -- which has evaporated. Now no one on either side has the least idea what to do with its nuclear weapons. They survive -- all 50,000 or so of them -- but without any earthly purpose. What is even more surprising than the end of the Cold War is the fact that one of the contestants in the conflict, the Soviet Union, has itself evaporated -- a result that most people thought only a nuclear war was capable of bringing about.
It turned out, though, that there was in the breasts of men and women a power as great, in its way, as the power that crouches in the heart of matter, and this sufficed, without a shot having to be fired by the United States, to bring the totalitarian Goliath down.
The dissolution of the union caused an immediate crisis in the command and control of nuclear weapons. The republics that hatched out of the debacle had to decide which of them should possess the arsenal.
Recent meetings among the republics, in which all but one of them (Kazakhstan) have agreed to turn all nuclear weapons over to Russia, have pointed the way to a solution. However, the question of command and control, though important in itself, has so far masked the deeper and more enduring question of what the purpose now is of having any nuclear arsenal, whether this is well or poorly controlled, great or small.
At whom are the United States and Russia to aim their nuclear weapons? At each other, still? Do we feel a need to target for annihilation a country whose leader, President Boris Yeltsin, recently jumped on top of a tank at risk of his life to champion the kind of democratic government that the United States says it favors? Does Yeltsin, who has petitioned for Russian membership in NATO, feel a need to aim nuclear warheads at that same NATO?
Lacking enemies, have we decided to target our friends? Or are there perhaps other countries that we should slate for nuclear destruction?
On the Russian side, little has been said on the subject. Here, though, it turns out that the question has penetrated the defense bureaucracy, and an answer of sorts has been offered. It takes the form of a report, obtained recently by R. Jeffrey Smith of the Washington Post, which was written by current and former Pentagon officials at the request of the United States' nuclear targeting director, Air Force Gen. Lee Butler. According to Thomas C. Reed, a former secretary of the Air Force who headed the panel, the reaction among many officials of the Bush administration has been that the report is "a good piece of work."
The panel suggests reducing the American arsenal to 5,000 weapons -- 4,000 fewer than are permitted under the recent START agreements. This much is consistent with mainstream thinking. It is in the matter of targeting that the panel breaks new ground. It suggests partially de-targeting Russia and instead aiming the weapons at "every reasonable enemy" in the world.
"Reasonable" here cannot, of course, refer to the enemy himself -- since that would leave us with the nonsense of targeting reasonable countries for nuclear annihilation. It can only mean countries that it is "reasonable" for someone or other to construe as enemies. To this end, the panel suggests, a Nuclear Expeditionary Force should be established (as if intercontinental ballistic missiles were not expeditionary force enough for nuclear warheads).
It turns out that some "reasonable friends" are in a way targeted, too: One of the reasons for having the arsenal would be to deter countries such as Germany and Japan from developing their own nuclear weapons. In other words, the report appears to reason from the solution back to the problem: We have the bombs; now we'll go out and find "enemies" to match them up to.
Since the contemplated arsenal is 5,000 weapons, and since most countries can be pretty well destroyed with just a dozen or so bombs, this means that a good part of the world is in danger of being discovered to be a "reasonable enemy" of the United States.
No doubt eyebrows are being raised in capitals around the world, and very possibly the first we have heard of this report will prove also to be the last we hear of it.
It seems unlikely, to say the least, that the world will accept being governed by nuclear terror wielded by the United States. In the meantime, though, the panel's authors deserve this much credit: They have posed the central question of the post-Cold War period, and have dared to answer it. So far, this answer, however outlandish it may be, is the only one that anyone now in authority has offered.
Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.