Political developments around nuclear weapons and the “butterfly effect”

During the past month or two, getting to zero has seemed to resemble the early phase of the butterfly effect of Chaos Theory. The thinking goes as follows: the movement of air caused by a butterfly flapping his wings could contribute to the formation of a hurricane, or other major weather event. Without that one extra factor of the flapping of the butterfly’s wings, the event may not have occurred. Of course, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings alone cannot cause a weather event. Similarly, recent arms control negotiations and political developments, when taken alone, will clearly not create a world without nuclear weapons, but they could become part of a chain of events that lead toward significant progress for getting to zero in the distant future.

*  The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee meeting (NPT PrepCom, May 4-15, New York) went better than NPT conferences of recent memory. Members agreed upon an agenda for the Review Conference (RevCon), which they will hold in May 2010. However, NPT members were unable to agree on a document of recommendations for the RevCon. Reflective of past problems, some representatives felt that the draft document did not do enough to hold nuclear weapons states to their disarmament commitments that they had made under the treaty. Others felt that the emphasis on non-proliferation overshadowed the “right of member states to obtain access to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Still, the United States in particular exuded a more cooperative tone and other member states’ representatives welcomed this development. In addition, for the first time in 10 years, the Conference on Disarmament adopted a work plan. But the question remains, will the rapprochement actually lead to a strong NPT RevCon and movement in the CD on an agreement to ban fissile materials, among other would-be hallmarks of progress?

*  President Obama indicated that he had heard the voices of the NPT PrepCom’s discontents, saying in a speech in Cairo on June 4: I understand those who protest that some countries have weapons that others do not. No single nation should pick and choose which nation holds nuclear weapons. And that’s why I strongly reaffirmed America’s commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons. Although the President has repeatedly stated this goal, will he be able to convince his administration colleagues, and legislative leaders, that they need to work together to bring about the actual policy changes required to reduce nuclear weapons? Or will his support for the vision go the wayside of previous presidents, only to be overwhelmed by a myriad of other urgent concerns?

*  His former opponent, Senator John McCain (Arizona), made a point of highlighting his support for a world without nuclear weapons during a floor speech honoring fellow Republican and former president Ronald Reagan on June 3. Will the Senator’s support for the vision of a world without nuclear weapons lead him to vote for ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)? And will he use his political clout to gain the support of other conservatives for the passage of the CTBT and other arms control initiatives?

*  Russia and the United States have held a series of substantive discussions on the follow-up to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), with the most recent report earlier in May. Although the Commission issued its support for further nuclear reductions, especially as part of the START follow-up negotiations, its members failed to agree on supporting CTBT ratification or the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. How much of an impact will the Commission’s report have on Congress and the Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)? Also of relevance, the Commission’s report included the following philosophical reflection:

We should also recognize the role that US foreign policy more broadly speaking plays in helping to create the conditions that might ultimately enable the global elimination of nuclear weapons. Without a fundamental transformation of international politics there will be no elimination of the conditions that cause some states and terrorists to seek nuclear weapons.(p75)

As with the butterfly effect, whether the abovementioned developments contribute to such a transformation may depend on factors that are unaccounted for now, and also depend on the multitude of decisions that are made next. For example, North Korea’s nuclear test of May 25 could send winds either way. Much will depend on whether leaders choose to use the test as another reason to retain their current nuclear postures, or as a reason to justify the push for the global elimination of these weapons. Surely, the conclusion of a START follow-up treaty and the US ratification of the CTBT could have positive reinforcing effects on the NPT and CD. Despite North Korea’s most recent vie for attention, other winds appear to be blowing in a more encouraging direction.

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