The timing couldn't have been better for the new movie from DreamWorks SKG, the movie studio co-founded by Stephen Spielberg. "The Peacemaker," starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, opens Friday.
The plot involves the theft of a backpack-sized Russian nuke by a disgruntled Bosnia diplomat who takes the device to New York where he plans to blow up the US and, one surmises, take a good chunk of New York with it.
Sound ridiculous? Just, three weeks before "The Peacemaker" premier, Alexander Lebed - decorated Soviet war hero, erstwhile candidate for the Russian presidency and a former national security chief under Boris Yeltsin - told the world, via "60 Minutes," that there are about 100 suitcase-sized Russian nukes missing and unaccounted for.
Is Lebed working for DreamWorks? If only it were a PR ploy.
Ever since the breakup of the former Soviet Union, the problem of so-called "loose nukes" has lurked and it grows more serious every day as the Russian military deteriorates under the weight of neglect, poverty, inadequate civilian control, and poor morale.
How much damage could be done by a terrorist who gets his hands on a loose nuke? Massive casualties, on a scale unseen since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would result from a nuclear explosion in a major city. Hundreds of thousands would be killed or seriously injured. Large parts of the urban infrastructure would be destroyed. Water and food supplies would be poisoned. Panic would likely ensue, especially as the public learned that casualties would continue for years as the long-term effects of radiation exposure took hold.
The growing threat of nuclear terrorism is only one of several distressing trends related to nuclear weapons in recent months. When the cold war ended, the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. It seemed that the threat of a large- scale nuclear war, one that threatened the continued existence of life on earth, had disappeared. After several years of encouraging developments, including increased US-Russian cooperation in nuclear disarmament and the negotiation (but not yet ratification) of a comprehensive nuclear test treaty, there have been some missteps.
First, the START 2 Treaty signed by Presidents Bush and Gorbachev back in 1991, which promised dramatic reductions in strategic nuclear arsenals, has still not been ratified by the Russian parliament and likely will not be as long as plans for NATO expansion in eastern Europe move forward. Whatever benefits of NATO expansion, it's clear the prospect has rekindled some of the historic tensions between Moscow and the West.
Second, the US, and perhaps Russia as well, is engaged in so-called "sub-critical" testing, a means to test new warhead designs without a nuclear explosion. Such tests may not violate the letter of the comprehensive test ban treaty, but they certainly compromise its spirit.
Third, the Pentagon's plan to fire a laser and destroy a multi-million-dollar satellite in Earth orbit is reminiscent of Star Wars, and seems an oddly provocative maneuver at a time when the START 2 Treaty is in jeopardy and the Clinton Administration is talking about START 3 negotiations. If this test is a precursor to another attempt to revive an antiballistic missile (ABM) defense system, it threatens the future of the existing ABM Treaty, a cornerstone of US-Soviet (now Russian) arms control efforts.
Fourth, a mysterious seismic event in Russia in August raised the question of the renewal of nuclear tests in Russia. Such a test would be yet another clear indication that as Russia's military deteriorates, it's reliance on nuclear weapons is increasing. Indeed, during the cold war the Soviet Union had a declared policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons, a policy reversed since the end of the cold war.
Americans would do well to see "The Peacemaker," not as a bad dream from a movie executive at DreamWorks, but as a possible vision of the future.
Having made nuclear weapons the coin of the realm in global politics for nearly half a century, the nuclear powers may find that it's only a matter of time until some of that loose change falls into the wrong hands.
Ending public complacency about the ongoing nuclear threat is essential. Hopefully "The Peacemaker" will open some eyes.
* John O. Pastore is secretary of the Cambridge, Mass.-based International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. Peter A. Zheutlin is a consultant to IPPNW.