Two years ago this Tuesday, President Barack Obama vowed in his Prague speech to improve U.S. relations with the rest of the world and to strengthen international security by striving for a world without nuclear weapons. Since then, President Obama has proceeded with a flurry of nuclear weapons policy-related activities: securing Senate ratification of a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to reduce, verifiably, the number of U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons; bringing together 47 countries in Washington, DC for a Nuclear Security Summit with the goal of eliminating all loose nuclear materials in four years; aiming to reduce the role of U.S. nuclear weapons through his Nuclear Posture Review; and helping to produce a consensus final document at the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. Most recently, his Administration commenced an educational campaign in support of U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) – a global treaty that, once in force, would ban nuclear test explosions.
However, the Obama Administration has also overseen policies that could halt or potentially reverse his aspirations. The President promised to invest billion in the nuclear weapons complex – a step that Administration officials say will ultimately enable more reductions. But the timing of the commitment signaled a concession to Republicans who might have otherwise blocked passage of New START, and may ultimately reinforce and prolong the nuclear weapons enterprise. The President’s non-proliferation agenda has also been questioned because of his willingness to continue the pursuit of civilian nuclear agreements with India and other countries. Moreover, there is no breakthrough in sight over the Iran or North Korea nuclear crises.
Critics of President Obama’s nuclear weapons-free agenda argue that it is naïve and even dangerous. Richard Perle has compared the vision with the Kellogg-Briand Pact, contending that they are similar in their idealistic beliefs and that when nations follow such thinking, “…they may help bring about the very evils they are trying to eliminate” (“Yes, Nukes,” World Affairs, March/April 2011, p. 48). At last week’s Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference in Washington, DC, Republican Whip Senator Jon Kyl (Arizona) said focusing on nuclear disarmament is flawed because, “it is not the weapons that are the cause of the problem, but rather the fundamental reality of the international system.” Most pointedly, he said that the United States should still refrain from ratifying the CTBT because the treaty is not verifiable or enforceable, and that enemies of the United States do not care whether it ratifies the treaty. He also added that the U.S. nuclear deterrent could not be sustained indefinitely without nuclear test explosions.
Last Thursday, BASIC and the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (VERTIC) held a private briefing on Capitol Hill, which reviewed prospects for next steps after New START and the relevance of the CTBT. During the session, experts acknowledged that the Obama Administration’s next steps with Russia, including addressing tactical nuclear weapons and missile defense, would be difficult and that building trust will be vital for improving threat perceptions. They raised doubts about Senator Kyl’s claims that the CTBT lacks utility and reminded the group that the National Academies of Science study on the treaty, to be released in the near future, will have the most authoritative word to date on the CTBT’s associated verification system and the ability of the United States to maintain its nuclear arsenal without breaching the treaty.
Understandably, critics who argue that the United States should forego the CTBT cite the danger of other countries violating or never joining the treaty. However, Administration officials never claimed that their only policy of dealing with these holdouts would be CTBT isolation. Moreover, it should also be asked: what opportunities would be lost if the United States drops support for the treaty, when 153 countries have already ratified it? More broadly, what would be the consequences of not pursuing new arms control measures with Russia, or not working with other countries to verify nuclear non-proliferation?
Messrs. Kyl and Perle are right to warn that U.S. and allied security will suffer if the conflicts and threat perceptions that underlie the retention or acquisition of nuclear weapons are ignored, and also that some moves to reduce nuclear weapons could have negative and unintended consequences. Both the Obama Administration and Congress should keep grappling with U.S.-led non-proliferation and disarmament steps, and other means of addressing threats and conflict, to ensure that they have positive and mutually-reinforcing effects.
These are the personal views of the author.
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