There is no question that the Senate ratification of the New START Treaty was a political victory for the Obama presidency, demonstrating that it could override hard core militarism associated with the right wing of the Republican Party that is mindlessly opposed to any international source of restraint on the American nuclear weapons policy, even if the purpose is only, as here, to limit the costs and risks of nuclear weaponry. But was it also a victory for the cause of nuclear disarmament, getting to zero as the guiding new approach to this infernal form of destructive power?
Not long after President Obama moved into the White House he gave a visionary speech in Prague on April 4, 2009 where he declared “..I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Then came some cautionary language, “I am not naïve. This goal will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can.’” And then the reassurance that the vision is not meant after all to be taken seriously as a political project: “Make no mistake: as long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies..”
Many mistakenly read the Prague speech as setting forth a program of action that would move the world toward a comprehensive treaty for nuclear disarmament, what is prescribed in Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, but this is not the case, whatever Barack Obama may privately wish. There was no reason to point out that nuclear weapons could not be eliminated within a decade or so if the necessary political will existed. After all, the present window of opportunity in modern world history is almost uniquely favorable to nuclear disarmament. No war-threatening strategic rivalry exists among leading states at present. At the same time, the menace posed by non-state political extremists acquiring and using nuclear weapons creates a strong incentive to work hard toward the elimination of this weaponry. Beyond this, there are no acceptable ways to prevent further proliferation of these weapons in the years ahead, and the mere effort to do so carries a high price tag, providing a looming pretext for aggressive war as is the case in relation to Iran. Then there are the moral/legal arguments that have always existed since the bombs were first dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945: these weapons are completely indiscriminate and utterly disproportionate, and are massively cruel in their overall effects, particularly for those exposed to radioactive fallout. To possess and threaten the use of such weapons and to create in societies a citizenry ready to rely on such genocidal approaches to national security is to strike at the moral core of political culture, which must rests on respect for the sacredness of innocent lives, which is completely absent from the nuclearist mindset.
Yet why not consider reductions in the number of nuclear warheads on strategic missile launchers and agreed verification procedures to test compliance on the part of Russia and the United States as a step, even if a modest one, in the right direction? There is 30% reduction over the amounts agreed upon in the last US/Russian treaty on nuclear weapons concluded in 2002, bringing the total down to 1,550 warheads, but even here the results are less than meets the eye. Each bomber is now being counted as a single warhead no matter how many nuclear weapons it actually carries. There are also some minor restrictions placed on the number of launchers that each side is permitted to possess. In my view, this treaty is designed to avoid an expensive quantitative nuclear arms rivalry, and to create some favorable publicity to undergird the claim that the leading nuclear weapons states are beginning to live up to their bargain to get rid of the weaponry, as well as to put the relations between Russia and the United States on a friendlier footing. But if you look just a bit deeper, it becomes obvious that this treaty is at best concerned with the management of this weaponry and not with disarmament. To get the necessary Republican votes for ratification the Obama Administration promised $85 billion for the modernization of the nuclear arsenal over the course of the next decade, and insisted that nothing in the treaty would interfere with the development of nuclear missile defense systems, which are widely seen as not primarily defensive, but as making it less likely that any sort of retaliation by a country attacked would produce significant damage in the attacking country. To go further than this New START approach would suggest that the formidable American military-industrial-media complex is ready to let go of the weaponry, and this is not the case, and never has been.
There are two logics at work in relation to nuclear weapons: the realist logic that believes that it is a dangerous illusion to suppose that these weapons can ever be eliminated, and is reinforced by the geopolitical logic that legitimizes the weaponry for the nuclear weapons states while (selectively) criminalizing attempts to acquire the weapons by other states, including those like Iraq, Iran, and North Korea that are surrounded by hostile states and threatened by the United States. Preventing unwanted proliferation is treated by the United States as justifying military threats, and possibly attacks, on the preemptive/preventive war reasoning that was used by the Bush presidency to justify the attack on Iraq in 2003, while neutral or desirable forms of proliferation are indulged (for instance, Israel, India). No domain of international life is more characterized by double standards than is the status of nuclear weapons since 1945. It is an apocalyptic mind game in which the world is supposed to accept the lie that the threat flowing from nuclear weaponry derives primarily from those that do not possess these weapons rather from the nuclear weapons states, above all the United States, that has never even been willing to renounce the option to use nuclear weapons first. In his Prague speech President Obama said that “..as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, we can lead it, we can start it.” We should certainly be asking whether the New START Treaty is any kind of start? It hardly seems so as the side assurances on modernization and missile defense seem like robust commitments to continue to bolster the nuclear arsenal in ways that more than offset the quantitative reductions in warheads and launchers, given their large numbers. The treaty might more accurately be called the New Continuation Treaty.
The other logic is one that takes credible steps to explore the prospects for phased nuclear disarmament accompanied by verification. This logic is guided by a commitment to long-term human survival, by strategic prudence, and most of all by acknowledging the inherent immorality and unlawfulness of relying on genocidal instruments of power and security, and of preparing for their use in circumstances subject to neither scrutiny nor accountability. When the most important possible decision a government might ever make is entrusted to a secret set of guidelines that are never exposed to criticism and dissent, it is obvious that democratic forms of governance are being severely compromised. There is every indication that several of the leading nuclear weapons states will never part with these weapons unless there emerges a grassroots global campaign of unprecedented strength, and this seems unlikely without the tragic stimulus of a war fought with nuclear weapons.
We can appreciate that President Obama achieved a domestic political victory, needed at home to counter the perception of his ineffectual presidency, but we also need to keep focused on what is acceptable and what is not with respect to governmental policy. Perhaps, the New START Treaty will make Obama more re-electable, but it will not move us any closer to a world without nuclear weapons, and by substituting illusion for reality, may reduce what momentum had been building for converting the visionary goal embraced at Prague into a genuine political project undertaken belatedly, but with all seriousness, on behalf of the peoples of the world.
This table of nuclear forces provides a snapshot of the nuclear weapons arsenal, and the relative size of various country’s share:
|Status of World Nuclear Forces 2010*|
|* All numbers are estimates and further described in the Nuclear Notebook in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and the nuclear appendix in the SIPRI Yearbook. Additional reports are published on the FAS Strategic Security Blog. Unlike those publications, this table is updated continuously as new information becomes available. Current update: May 26, 2010. a Russia’s estimated total inventory of non-strategic warheads is approximately 5,390 warheads, down from 15,000 in 1991. b The estimate for the size and composition of the total Russian inventory comes with considerable uncertainty but is based on Cold War levels, subsequent dismantlement rates, and official Russian statements. Perhaps as many as a quarter (~3,000) of the weapons listed may be awaiting dismantlement. An estimated average of 1,000 retired warheads are dismantled per year. c Approximately 200, probably including some inactive warheads, are deployed in Europe. d An additional 2,500 warheads are spares and in central storage and not counted as operational. e In addition to the 5,100 warheads in the DOD stockpile, approximately 3,500-4,500 retired warheads are awaiting dismantlement. In addition, nearly 14,000 plutonium cores (pits) and some 5,000 Canned Assemblies (secondaries) are in storage. See here for breakdown of U.S. warhead inventory. f France is thought to have a small inventory of spare warheads but no reserve like the United States and Russia. An additional reduction announced by President Sarkozy in March 2008 will reduced the inventory to slightly less than 300 warheads in 2009. g Many “strategic” warheads are for regional use. The status of a Chinese non-strategic nuclear arsenal is uncertain. Some deployed warheads may not be fully operational. Additional warheads are in storage, for a total stockpile of approximately 240 warheads. h Only 50 missiles are left, for a maximum of 150 warheads. “Less than 160” warheads are said to be “operationally available,” but a small number of spares probably exist too. Forty-eight missiles are needed to arm three SSBNs with a maximum of 144 warheads. One submarine with “up to 48 warheads” is on patrol at any given time. In addition to the 160 operationally available warheads, another 65 or so are in reserve for a total stockpile of 225. i All warheads of the four lesser nuclear powers are considered strategic. Only some of these may be operational. India and Pakistan are increasing their inventories, with Pakistan thought to have a slight lead. j Despite two North Korean nuclear tests, there is no publicly available evidence that North Korea has operationalized its nuclear weapons capability. A 2009 world survey by the U.S. Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) does not credit any of North Korea’s ballistic missiles with nuclear capability. k Numbers may not add up due to rounding and uncertainty about the operational status of the four lesser nuclear weapons states and the uncertainty about the size of the total inventories of three of the five initial nuclear powers.|