Interview with Aaron Tovish July 11 1995, New York by phone.
Interviewer — Metta Spencer
Aaron was the executive director of Parliamentarians for Global Action, based in New York. I had known him since 1982, when we had met in Dubrovnik.
AARON TOVISH: I think the French are in a more difficult political situation now because there was an indefinite extension. If there hadn’t been an indefinite extension they could have said, well, we can’t trust the NPT so we’ve got to trust our nuclear weapons. I’m not arguing that the indefinite extension was the better decision. I’m just saying that, given that it is what happened, I think that the French are more vulnerable to criticism.
METTA: In April I talked to Chris Paine, who said that the Pentagon would rather have another threshold test ban treaty than a CTB and that they might talk the Clinton administration into it.
TOVISH: That idea was current for about three weeks after the NPT. Then there was an announcement that they had decided against changing the policy in any way but (I guess as a way of throwing a little bone to the Pentagon) they were going to review the issue further. That could turn into a revival of the idea maybe six months from now. We’ll have to watch out for it, but for now that idea’s been defeated.
METTA: Do you think the possibility of it reviving in the future is very lively?
TOVISH: It’s always a danger. It’s going to depend on how much opposition there is to the French testing, how strong the negotiations from the more independent non-aligned countries are in Geneva about their position. We’re not out of the woods.
METTA: It is astonishing to think that is still a possibility when they made such big promises at the Extension Conference. Wouldn’t it be harder to renege now than it would have been if they hadn’t added all that stuff?
TOVISH: Oh, yeah. Some of the results from the conference were useful, no doubt. The commitment to achieve a comprehensive test ban is as clear as anyone would wish in a document that was not actually a negotiated text. It says very clearly a comprehensive test ban. If they try to define a comprehensive test ban as a half kiloton threshold, they are talking rubbish. There may be some understanding that a device that isn’t actually powered by uncontrolled chain reaction is acceptable. A small four-pound hydro nuclear may get through in the end but that doesn’t concern me. It can’t be used to develop new weapons. It’s not that relevant really to reliability, but it’s not relevant to the development of new weapons. Any country that already has a selection of well-tested weapons would not introduce another one on the basis of hydro-nuclear testing alone. It would be an unnecessary risk. They’ve already got weapons. Better to modify your delivery system to suit the weapons than to come up with a new weapon to suit the delivery system. So in my view it’s not a big problem. Other people say in principle it’s not right because the US and Russia know how to do these things. Others don’t and they might find ways of taking advantage of that, but you know how many weapons the US and Russia already have. It’s mind boggling. They have 70 different well-tested weapons. Why on earth would they go to the trouble to develop one more.
But the half kiloton stuff is outrageous. You can fully test many nukes, which apparently is what the Pentagon is most interested in. We have weapons that could be considered mini-nukes but they are not in the ideal form for that type of deployment. There’s a lingering interest in that in some circles. I don’t think Congress is interested in it, but there are people who haven’t given up yet on that stuff and they need to be read the riot act: It’s over! The days of nuclear weapons development are over. Stewardship, or whatever they call it, is now just keeping your bombs polished, basically.
METTA: Do you think Chirac is surprised by the outcry?
TOVISH: Yeah. I think he’s going to continue to be more and more surprised by it. It’s going to grow. My sense is that this is something that’s going to wake people up to the fact that their leadership hasn’t really taken into account the fact that the Cold War is over. They are still wasting money on paranoid scenarios that have no relationship to the world as we know it. The French testing program is based on the plan to modernize the French nuclear forces that began to be developed about fifteen years ago, carrying it to the year 2005, where they plan to have an entirely new submarine force, and entirely new aircraft, an entirely air delivery force, with new delivery vehicles, new platforms, and new warheads. The testing program is devoted to— the bombs are one of the first things that are done in such a program and the bombs were going to be developed to the year 2000 and they’ve figured out that with 8 tests they can probably do the job in a shorter time scale, so they are trying to fit all of that in. The fact is, there is absolutely no need for it.
METTA: I saw in the paper that the Germans are about 95% opposed to it but I didn’t see anything about it in France.
TOVISH: I heard 60 percent are opposed to testing in France. They have shut down the test sites, they have made redundant all the people they had hired, and now they are going back and the people there are pissed off at them. They said this whole program was inflationary, it distorted our economy, and then you burst the bubble and you’re coming back for a year and a half just to make a mess of this place and you’re not even going to employ very many people. To hell with you. So the local politics are highly charged.
METTA: Why wasn’t there a reaction against China?
TOVISH: China tests within its recognized borders.
METTA: Why does that make any difference?
TOVISH: It makes a difference because the people of the South Pacific have taken every conceivable opportunity to express their displeasure at the French coming into their region for this and the French have arrogantly ignored it. There is opposition in E. Turkmenistan to the testing by the Chinese, who are considered to be occupiers by some of the people who live in that area. That’s not something that has developed as an international question. I think that the opposition to the French testing is going to spill over against the Chinese. But I think there was a sense that the Chinese were going to do it their own way but they were going to come into an agreement. But with the French, who helped to initiate the moratorium, having joined Russia before the U.S. or Britain had done anything, there’s a sense that the French are serving to really undermine the process now. Technically, they did reserve the right to return to testing. They made that clear, even under Mitterrand, even though personally said that he himself didn’t think that it would be politically feasible to test, he didn’t take a position as to whether they would test again. But that aside, with regard to the NPT, we’ve written to Chirac on this and what we said was that throughout the NPT conference, France maintained a high standard of restraint on the testing and in the conference, urged that countries show the utmost restraint, agreed, put their name on that, and then literally two or three weeks after, the ink having dried on the document, they are lowering the standard. The “utmost restraint” is being defined unilaterally as something they had demonstrated up to then, so that’s bad faith.
We were quite happy with the fact that they strengthened the review process, beginning in 97. we started advocating that way back in December. Initially people weren’t very interested in it. Eventually it became one of the key elements in the Extension agreement.
Our organization didn’t take a position on how long the treaty should be extended. We thought that was a red herring. Unless some important things are accomplished in the next five, ten, fifteen years, it’s not going to make that much difference how long the treaty’s extended for.
I personally leaned against a treaty of indefinite duration. To me the basic issue was, is this a temporary treaty that needs to be superseded by a more important, fat-reaching agreement or is it part of the final architecture that we’re aiming for. I don’t think it qualifies as a piece of the final architecture. I didn’t really buy the argument that it gave me a lot of leverage, and the way it worked out sort of confirmed that. It was very hard to use the extension decision as leverage because it casts you in the role of bad guy if you try to use it. It was very hard to rally moderate countries to that position, so it came down to a principled argument, and the principled argument was completely steamrollered by some very effective diplomacy by the United States and the people who have the diplomatic resources to go out and do it. The non-aligned were in shambles.
METTA: Yeah, I heard about that. Would you say there is any prospect of getting a better treaty at any foreseeable time?
TOVISH: Yeah. I’m an optimist. I think we can get a treaty that bans the production of nuclear weapons across the board, so that everyone has to submit to the same verification, and nobody is in the business of acquired weapons, either by proliferation or by direct production. Once testing stops, they’ll see they have no use for production. Once you stop production, there’s no point in doing this low-yield testing either because you’re not going to produce it, so I don’t worry about the minor loopholes in the test ban because I think the way to address it is to go after the question of production. And once the cutoff of fissile material is in place, the next thing is production.
METTA: Is that PGA’s next goal?
TOVISH: In that end. There are various goals. We call our overall program “threat reduction,” though part of it is preventing a new arms race — that’s the end to production — and the other part is pulling the weapons back from the brink. There’s some of that going on naturally by bilateral agreement or even unilaterally. It could be much more extensive. Have you heard of the “Zero Alert Option”?
TOVISH: That’s a very very interesting idea that’s been developed most thoroughly by a guy at the Brookings Institution, Bruce Blair. And the basic idea is that there’s no reason why all the weapons can’t be taken off their launch platforms and all the warheads can’t be taken off the delivery vehicles. Make sure they’re stored separately. The weapons are still there but they’re not in a crisis deployment. And then they just start gathering dust and people start questioning why we have these things. We have no reason to want to destroy Russia at a moment’s notice and they have no reason to want to destroy us, so this whole posturing is completely out of whack with political reality. It’s going to take some time to catch on but I think with proper promotion, it could come in the next five years.