Prospects for Reducing Nuclear Dangers

in Program

There have been only two Democratic presidents since Franklin Delano Roosevelt who have been elected to serve two full terms. On nuclear issues, Barack Obama seems to be following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, whose disarmament successes in his first term unfortunately failed to translate into success in his second.

President Clinton accomplished much to reduce nuclear dangers in his first four years in office. He midwifed the denuclearization of three nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union – Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus. As a result, he strengthened the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and jump-started the implementation of two Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START) negotiated by his predecessor, George H.W. Bush.

Clinton also expanded the scope of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reductions Program, which was designed to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction and their infrastructure in the former Soviet Union. In addition, he completed negotiations on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Not bad for four years of hard work.

In contrast, Clinton’s record on nuclear matters was very spotty during his second term. He successfully defused a nuclear-tinged crisis between India and Pakistan, and he succeeded in securing the Senate’s consent to ratifying a treaty banning chemical weapons negotiated by President Bush. Clinton focused briefly on ratifying the Test Ban Treaty, as well, but Senate Republicans stymied him.  

President Obama also attended to nuclear issues during his first term, but significant efforts in this domain now yield smaller returns. His first term’s nuclear agenda was dominated by calendar-driven events – the expiration of verifiable strategic arms reduction arrangements with Moscow and the need for a successful Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference – along with the initiation of summitry on nuclear security.

New START was modest because the Kremlin balked at deeper cuts. The United States has now essentially joined Russia in meeting New START’s mandated reductions five years ahead of the treaty’s timetable. These reductions were accompanied by pricey commitments to refurbish what is now known as the nuclear enterprise.

New START’s most important accomplishment has been to put back in place a process of verifiable U.S.-Russian arms reductions. Its monitoring provisions are good for 10 years and can be extended for another five. Another treaty is not required during this timeframe, if the parties can agree to employ New START’s monitoring provisions for deeper cuts in nuclear weapons, and if the Congress affirms force reductions in appropriation bills.

Obama recently proposed up to one-third reductions to approximately 1,000 warheads on deployed strategic forces. While the number 1,000 is neither hard nor fast, since warheads can be uploaded on launchers if the necessity arises, it is still meaningful: the last time the U.S. nuclear arsenal had fewer than 1,000 warheads was 1953.     

Obama faces great difficulties in reducing nuclear arsenals and nuclear dangers during his second term. He does not have a forward-looking partner in Vladimir Putin and no Republican leader on Capitol Hill has championed further cuts in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

Much smaller nuclear arsenals are growing in China, India and Pakistan. The Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs are stubbornly resistant to sanctions. The next Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference could become very fractious because of Israeli and Iranian nuclear capabilities. And promises made to Congress in conjunction with New START ratification can’t be kept with ballooning costs, questionable rationales and budget constraints.

Under these circumstances, the White House has proposed parallel steps to maintain momentum for strategic arms reductions. In doing so, the Obama administration risks getting stiffed by the Kremlin, making the option of unilateral reductions subject to even sharper criticism on Capitol Hill. 

Domestic American critics of nuclear arms reductions have the power to block treaties and brake momentum, but not to reverse course. Deeper cuts may well be mandated by budget cuts and the Pentagon’s preferences, if not by treaty provisions.

The George W. Bush administration was notably disinterested in treaties, preferring instead to size the U.S. nuclear arsenal as needed. Democrats may well be headed in the same direction.  

Other issues have risen to the top of President Obama’s agenda – items that offer either a greater return on diplomatic investment, or hellish problems that are growing and refuse to be set aside. One example: His speech in Berlin devoted more time and a greater sense of urgency to climate change than to nuclear arms reductions.

Unlike his proposed nuclear arms reductions, Obama intends to address reductions in carbon emissions by unilateral measures and without further delay. Nuclear danger was the quintessential threat of the 20th century. Is climate change the quintessential threat of the 21st?  At present, killer storms figure more in the public’s consciousness than mushroom clouds from a thermonuclear war that could kill most living things on our planet.


Photo by troubadour1 via flickr

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