Skip to content

Obama Nuclear Weapons Free World: The withering of a vision

June 22, 2010

In his famous  speech in Prague in April 2009, President Barak Obama presented us with his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.  He emphasized that the USA would lead the world towards this goal. He foresaw, however, that this goal would maybe not be reached in his lifetime. Considering that the 48 years old President statistically has a 50% chance of living for 30 more year, adding a few years if he does not relapse into smoking, this was not an optimistic prediction. Can the world survive another three decades with nuclear weapons?

Even more ominous was his statement that ”as long as these weapons exist, we will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies”. Does that mean that the US will be the last to abolish nuclear weapons?

During the year since this inspiring speech the vision of US leadership to a world without nuclear weapons has faded. This is somewhat surprising as such a world would be clearly in the interest of the USA. In that world, without the great equalizer of atomic weapons, US military superiority would be unchallenged.  This was clearly the goal of the proposals from the four elderly statesmen Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn in their article in the Wall Street Journal in January 2008.

I will not here try to analyze the reasons why the USA has given up the leadership on this road. Instead I will show in recent documents that the rhetoric remains but the concrete commitments are missing.

Renewal of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START

The START renewal is encouraging but is not a definitive step to nuclear disarmament. This bilateral agreement between Russia and the USA is the only existing treaty for strategic nuclear weapons with verification measures and a defined timeline. The treaty expired December 2009. In a relatively short time an extensive document was agreed limiting the number of strategic nuclear weapon carriers. It was announced from both sides that the number of weapons would be decreased. However, the document is complicated and gives room for creative bookkeeping. Nevertheless, the treaty is an important document, preventing an arms race and is a sign of good relations between the two nuclear superpowers.

The ratification of the START requires a two thirds majority in the US Senate. At this time it is not clear if that can be achieved. Many senators are concerned that the treaty seems to limit the deployment of a missile defense. Russia interprets the text so that an extensive missile defense directed against Russia could be a cause to terminate the treaty. The ratification by Russia is probably secured once the US ratification seems certain.

Nuclear Posture Review

A Nuclear Posture Review is requested from each US president. President Obama was, in contrast to his predecessors, very involved in the development of the document. The NPR contains two great steps forward compared to the document from President George W. Bush.  First, the nuclear weapons are returned to the role of deterrent only, they are no longer a weapon among others to be used whenever this is considered militarily useful.  Secondly, they are not to be used against any country which does not have nuclear weapons and is in compliance with its obligations under the NPT, Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This Negative Security Agreement does not apply to Iran and North Korea.

There is an important and generally overlooked statement in the NPR:

Continue to posture U.S. forces and enhance command and control arrangements to reduce further the possibility of nuclear weapons launches resulting from accidents, unauthorized actions, or misperceptions and to maximize the time available to the President to consider whether to authorize the use of nuclear weapons.

In this paragraph the president admits that there exists a risk of accidental or unauthorized launch, or in common parlance a nuclear war by mistake. We are grateful that this terrifying possibility, the extermination of mankind by mistake, is not denied. We regret that the president does not draw the obvious conclusion that this threat must be abolished in the only way possible, by urgently abolishing all nuclear weapons.

The NPR preface talks about concrete steps to a nuclear weapons free world. However, there are no such concrete steps to disarmament in the document. On the contrary, NPR again emphasizes that as long as nuclear weapons exist the US “must sustain a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal”.  In order to maintain the competence of the national nuclear laboratories they will receive an additional funding of $ 5 billion over the coming five years.  Moreover, after the NPR was made public the administration put forward to the Senate a plan to maintain nuclear weapon delivery systems; to sustain a “safe, secure, and reliable” US nuclear weapons stockpile; and modernize the nuclear weapons complex—for the price of $180 billion over the next decade.

Indeed, the US leadership to a nuclear weapons free world seems to be forgotten. We should however be grateful for the changes in the doctrine.

The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, NTP, Review May 2010

Every five years there is a review conference for the NPT. In the year 2000 the conference gave great promises for the progress of Article VI of the NPT. In that article the nuclear weapon states commits themselves to completely abolish their nuclear weapons. However, at the next conference in 2005 these commitments were considered “inoperative“  by the nuclear weapon states, led in this retreat by the US and France.  The 2010 Review conference started out in a good atmosphere, with great hopes for substantive progress. The address by the US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was promising.

The great words certainly are there in the final document of the conference:  “The Conference affirms the need for all NWS (Nuclear Weapon States) to reduce and eliminate all type of nuclear weapons and encourages those with largest arsenals to lead such efforts“. The document also includes language reaffirming “the need for all States at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law”. This is a welcome reference to the decision in 1996 by the International Court of Justice which concluded that the nuclear weapons states are obliged to negotiate in good faith and to bring to a conclusion the negotiations for the complete abolition of nuclear weapons.

The words were great and promising, but the actions belied the words. The nuclear weapon states, lead by the USA, resisted at almost every turn any statement regarding their concrete obligations to decrease their nuclear weapons or their role in their strategic doctrines. (China was here the exception). No numbers, no timeline was accepted. However, it was agreed that the nuclear weapon states should report to the NPT in 2014 their progress nuclear disarmament and their adherence to the so called 13 steps in nuclear disarmament which were agreed in 2000. The conference also called upon the nuclear weapon states to “further reducing the operational status of the nuclear weapons system”. If these states will rescind their “right” to exterminate mankind by pressing a button is up to them.

National Security Strategy

In this document of May 2010 the US general security strategy, not only military strategy, is discussed. Nuclear weapons are discussed only briefly. The Presidents vision of a nuclear weapons free world is mentioned. No proposal is presented for how to proceed with nuclear disarmament beyond what is outlined in the NPR.

As in every document on nuclear weapons from the US administration prevention of nuclear proliferation is primary. There is no acceptance of the link with disarmament. How can the US administration continue to believe  that the states that do not have nuclear weapons will not be tempted to obtain them, when the nuclear weapon states themselves insist that they need their nuclear weapons for their security?

Concluding remarks

As mentioned at the beginning, the intention was not to analyze why the President’s vision of a world free of the threat of nuclear weapons has faltered. Maybe we were carried away by his rhetoric, not listening to his reservations. Maybe he has been broken in, or even broken, by the political-military-industry establishment. Politics is the art of the possible. To examine the forces and the process and the prioritizing you must have access to inside information.

Whatever the causes, the disappointment is with us. And the fear that the nuclear weapons will be with us until they end us.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: