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Back to Prague one year later: more symbol than substance

April 2, 2010

The signing of the new START agreement next week in Prague is heavy with symbolism, coming almost a year to the day after President Obama pledged his leadership toward “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” The choice of Prague for the signing ceremony was meant to remind us of that commitment and to provide a context for the Treaty within that broader vision. From that perspective, START comes as welcome news, and President Obama and President Medvedev deserve credit for seeing a difficult series of negotiations through to a conclusion.

But that’s also the underside of the story, because these negotiations should not have been as difficult as they were, and they could have resulted in a much larger “down payment” toward zero, which the US and Russian leaders said was their intention when they met in early 2009.

START limits each country to 1,550 nuclear warheads and 800 delivery systems – the triad of missiles, bombers, and submarines poised to incinerate millions of people at a moment’s notice on the baddest of bad days. That’s about a 30% cut, but it leaves 3,100 nuclear warheads too many, and doesn’t even count the thousands of strategic weapons in storage, or the huge arsenal of tactical weapons the Russians still own, not to mention hundreds more held by China, France, the UK, Israel, India, and Pakistan (and maybe one or two in the DPRK). Strictly by the numbers, this is only a small improvement over the reductions made in the Moscow Treaty (SORT) negotiated by Presidents Bush and Putin. SORT was so deeply flawed in so many ways, however, that it was pilloried by abolitionists and pragmatic arms controllers alike; START gets much higher grades for credibility because it takes compliance and verification seriously.

The fact that the US and Russia are making so much of so modest an outcome at least means that they want to portray themselves to the world as starting down a new, more promising path. Obama has talked about a next round of talks to make even deeper cuts, and we need to encourage him and Medvedev to identify a more ambitious set of goals before the ink even dries on START. IPPNW, ICAN, and other abolition NGOs have suggested that reductions to 500 warheads each might be the tipping point that could bring the other nuclear-weapon states into negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Convention. There would be nothing equivocal about our response to an objective like that.

Unfortunately, the issues around which the START negotiations stalled and stumbled for many months will carry over into the ratification process in both countries, and call the whole incremental approach favored by arms controllers into question. Each country apparently had its own reasons for resisting deeper cuts now. The US military looked at the numbers and realized that anything lower might force them to give up one leg of their triad. The Russians were happy to stop at 1,500 or so, because that preserves their status as a nuclear superpower at a time when they are feeling threatened by the massive conventional militaries of the US and a NATO alliance pressing up against the border. As long as nuclear weapons remain central to that kind of security calculus – rather than being seen as unacceptably dangerous on their own terms – the more significant cuts Obama has hinted at will be extremely hard to achieve.

The obstacles to further progress, however, run deeper than squabbles over numbers. The US, even with Obama at the helm, adheres religiously to the doctrine of deterrence, has only been willing to budge a little on missile defenses, and has said in so many words that nuclear weapons will have to be replaced by something else before they can be completely abandoned. The Russians see their nuclear force as the only thing that corrects a highly disadvantageous military imbalance and ensures their status as a global power.

All of the nuclear weapon states are modernizing their forces, sending a contradictory and provocative message to the rest of the world. Russia uses modernization for political leverage; China is reportedly engaged in a significant upgrade of its heavily veiled arsenal; the UK is still stubbornly (I’ve heard the word “stupidly” used) pressing ahead with Trident replacement despite the compelling arguments against doing so; and France, which has always marched to the beat of its own drum, is adding new nuclear capabilities across the board. India and Pakistan, if not exactly in an arms race, are busily adding to their own nuclear capabilities.

The US insists it is not modernizing. Hawkish politicians and advocates for modernization in the Pentagon and in right-wing think tanks complain that it ought to be; the Clinton State Department says that none of the investments in nuclear infrastructure intended to keep the US force “safe, secure, and effective” count as “modernization,” because there are no new warhead designs involved. But if $7 billion to ramp up plutonium pit production and to give the weapons labs a 21st century makeover with up-to-date facilities and technology is not “modernization,” what is it?

Part of the reason the Obama administration is embracing the modernization agenda – Vice President Biden and others, for example, have called the weapons labs a neglected national treasure – is that ratification of START and the CTBT will be impossible without the votes of US Senators from both parties who are demanding a nuclear quid pro quo.  Earlier this month, Montana Senators Baucus and Tester demanded that all 450 land-based ICBMs be retained, because they are part of a “robust national defense” and, come to think of it, they provide jobs. Both are Democrats.

Of course, that’s only part of the reason. Almost from day one there has been a fight for the soul of the Obama administration between those who fully embrace the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world and those who see the primary task as stopping proliferation and preventing nuclear terrorism while keeping a permanent US arsenal, trimmed back to what they consider a more reasonable and manageable size. The latter group, which tends to populate the US negotiating team, appears to have more clout, both with the administration and with Congress.

During the next two months, nuclear weapons are going to be in the headlines more than they have been in the past 10 years. START, the long-awaited and long-deferred US Nuclear Posture Review, the Obama conference on nuclear security (how about one on the impossibility of nuclear security?), and the five-year review of the NPT are all bringing the nuclear issue – and particularly the prospects for global nuclear disarmament – into sharper focus. On the other hand, anxiety about Iran’s nuclear intentions and Israel’s possible response, uncertainties about Pakistan’s ability to prevent the spread of nuclear materials to other countries or to terror groups, the unresolved status of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and the proliferation dangers inherent in the global expansion of nuclear energy are fogging up the landscape. Not to mention the fact that not one nuclear weapon state has yet stepped up to acknowledge that its own weapons are part of the problem and have to go.

So where do we stand one year after President Obama inspired the world with his call for abolition? In terms of measurable progress, I would have to say a tiny bit further along, but far short of where we could be. The progress that can’t be measured yet is actually a lot more interesting. The rest of the world has let Obama know in countless ways that we were, in fact, inspired by his Prague speech. The notion that a nuclear-weapons-free world is achievable – and that a Nuclear Weapons Convention is the way to achieve it – is catching on in high places. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged the United Nations to take the Convention seriously as part of his five-point disarmament action plan. The President of Austria recommended the NWC to the special session of the Security Council chaired by President Obama; state supporters of the NWC, at the urging of civil society groups, are even now considering ways to bring it up for discussion at the month-long NPT Review Conference when it convenes in New York on May 3. With the exception of India (which has nothing to lose by voicing support for the Convention in principle, as long as someone else takes the lead) only the nuclear-weapon states are wholly allergic to nuclear disarmament as a practical matter.

That won’t change until the decision makers get it that deterrence is an obscene tautology, not a security policy.

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