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The Right Decision on Missile Defenses

September 17, 2009

The Obama administration’s decision to scrap plans for missile defense deployments in the Czech Republic and Poland is the first really substantial indication that changes in US nuclear policy are more than just rhetoric.

Abolitionists have been holding their breaths ever since January, wondering whether Obama would renounce a Bush administration priority that had been forced upon US allies, had met with significant domestic opposition, and had angered Russia to the point of threatening to hold further disarmament negotiations hostage.

Today’s answer comes as a relief, even though it was couched in somewhat ambiguous language about the possible development of a different kind of defensive system sometime in the future. I certainly would have been happier with an unequivocal repudiation of a scheme that traces its lineage back to the Star Wars fantasies of the Reagan years and has already wasted billions of dollars that could have been spent on more effective ways to prevent nuclear war. But I’ll gladly count this as one for our side (if all of humanity is a “side”).

President Obama, for better or worse, is looking down the road toward CTBT and SALT ratification, both of which will need 67 votes in the Senate. He’s going to need enough political capital to win those votes without making nasty concessions on funding for the infrastructure to resume nuclear weapons production. Even a promise to hold the door open for a more limited, less controversial system — probably sea-based — to intercept intermediate-range missiles did not stop the Republican leadership in Congress from condemning one of the more sensible nuclear policy decisions the US has made in almost a decade. So the more support and encouragement Obama can get from within the US and — at least as important — from governments that want to see sustained progress toward nuclear disarmament, the better.

The missile defense decision grabbed the headlines this week, but it wasn’t the only positive development. A working draft of a resolution that Obama will bring to the UN Security Council when he chairs next week’s special session on disarmament made its way onto the internet, providing more evidence of, if not a sea change, at least shifting tides. It’s a mixed bag of disarmanent and arms control rhetoric, incremental steps in the right direction, and reluctance to go too far too fast. But it reiterates the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world in paragraph one, and offers enough concrete recommendations on both disarmament and non-proliferation to have kept Christopher Ford of the Hudson Institute up all night writing a nine-page critique from the right. A lot can change in a week, so I’ll wait until the Security Council actually votes on something before losing any sleep myself.

The third thing that landed in my inbox this week, courtesy of our good friends at ICAN-Australia, was a report from the Joint Standing Committee On Treaties — a multi-party parliamentary body that was tasked earlier this year with evaluating Australia’s compliance with international disarmament agreements and with recommending ways to strengthen compliance. Not only has the Committee endorsed the Nuclear Weapons Convention and urged the government to support its adoption, it has studied the Model NWC thoroughly, has published a concise and very readable synopsis of its elements, and has explained and largely endorsed the arguments in support of the Convention  (it also fairly and respectfully summarized the arguments made by the Convention’s critics). The whole report runs some 200 pages, but this one 12-page chapter [JSCOTReportCh6] can be digested in about 10 minutes and should be required reading for every diplomat preparing for the NPT Review Conference next May.

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