The National Catholic Review

One might hope that 10 years after the end of the cold war, a policy of mutual assured destruction would have been relegated to the dustbin of history. But cold war mental habits die hard. The United States and Russia still square off against each other with tons of chemical weapons and thousands of nuclear missiles timed for hair-trigger response. Can nothing be done to remedy this madness?

With a new U.S. president in place and Russian President Vladimir Putin in power only a year, U.S.-Russian relations stand at a critical juncture. Two new reports by blue ribbon foreign policy panels address many of the ticklish issues. The first, An Agenda for Renewal, released last December by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, urges President Bush to act boldly to repair frayed ties with Moscow, including unilateral cuts in nuclear arms and a halt in NATO’s expansion into former Soviet territory until 2005.

The second report, issued in mid-January by a special Energy Department task force co-chaired by Howard Baker, former Senate majority leader and Reagan chief of staff, and Lloyd Cutler, counsel to both President Carter and President Clinton, warns that Russia’s weakness, along with its poorly controlled stockpile of 40,000 nuclear weapons and vast quantities of biological and chemical weapons, constitutes the most serious unmet security threat facing the United States today.

Russia’s economy today is about the size of Switzerland’s, the entire national budget this year being less than 2 percent of the American budget. One consequence of this is that the doomsday scientists who design and produce weapons of mass destruction, and the security guards who protect them, are on sale to the highest bidder. And what if that high bidder happens to be a rogue nation or a terrorist group on a shopping spree for, say, five grams of purified botulinum (enough to kill a million people) or a lump of enriched uranium from which to construct a nuclear device small enough to fit inside a suitcase but big enough to flatten lower Manhattan?

Thus far, cooperative U.S.-Russian nonproliferation programs have deactivated almost 5,000 nuclear weapons, denuclearized three former Soviet republics, improved security over hundreds of tons of nuclear materials and employed thousands of underemployed former weapons scientists at a cost of one quarter of 1 percent of the U.S. defense budget. But the programs, says the Baker-Cutler report, remain underfunded and loosely managed, leaving an unacceptable risk of failure and the potential for catastrophic consequences.

If the United States is prepared to spend tens of billions of dollars over the next 10 to 20 years to construct a national missile defense system to counter a threat that does not yet exist, says the Carnegie report, the United States should be more than ready to spend a fraction of that to contain the most dangerous threat already in existence.

The cold war, we must recognize, is truly over, and a posture of hair-trigger deterrence must be put behind us. The United States should not unilaterally defect from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which has served the cause of strategic stability for over 30 years. If Secretary of State Colin Powell wishes to pursue a truly constructive Russian policy, the Carnegie report insists, he should keep in mind the long-term goal of the full integration of Russia into Western economic, political and security structures.

It would be a mistake, then, to view Russia as little more than a bundle of security problems. Though its economy has shrunk, Russia remains the partner in our most important bilateral relationship. The new administration, argues the Carnegie panel, should revise and strengthen its support for Russia’s domestic transformation. The recommendations: reduce dependence on I.M.F. loans, but enlarge U.S. democracy assistance to the nongovernmental sectorsupporting the development of political parties, civic organizations, business associations and trade unions; increase trade and direct investment (including sponsoring Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization); and revitalize rule-of-law assistance by efforts to secure freedom of the press, a reasonable tax system, property rights and a stable, fair and effective legal framework. Finally, a natural long-term U.S. strategy would be to support one full-fledged, high-quality university in each of the post-Soviet states. The Carnegie panel estimates 15 such elite universities, with 1,000 students in each, would cost about $75 million a year and would be worth every penny.

In brief, U.S. foreign policy must involve itself in realistic, well-targeted programs of nation building in Russia. What we can do along this line is strictly limited; but, like it or not, nation-building is the international challenge of the hour.

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