By Jennifer Weeks, October 2, 2009
Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 23, President Barack Obama pledged his administration would work with other nations to strengthen world peace and prosperity.
It is an ambitious goal, especially for the United States. Nuclear weapons have been integral to U.S. defense policy since the end of World War II. Even today, nearly 20 years after the Cold War ended, the United States still spends more than $50 billion every year on nuclear armaments and related programs, including weapons systems, missile defenses and environmental and health costs from past nuclear weapons production.
Many civilian and military experts say abolishing nuclear weapons is impossible. Moreover, they argue, doing so would make the world less safe, because rogue states and terrorists would feel freer to threaten other countries.
But in 2007, four men who had shaped U.S. national security policy for decades – both Democrats and Republicans – warned that relying on nuclear weapons to keep the peace was “becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.” The problem, said former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn, was that countries like India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran were seeking the bomb, and a global black market in nuclear materials was expanding. Instead, they argued, the best way to reduce nuclear dangers was to work toward completely eliminating nuclear weapons.
President Obama agrees. His proposed fiscal 2010 budget eliminates funds for designing new nuclear warheads, which his predecessor, George W. Bush, had argued were needed to replace older weapons in the U.S. arsenal. On April 5, in Prague, Czechoslovakia, Obama laid out a broad agenda for moving toward nuclear abolition. First, he said, the U.S. would reduce the role of nuclear weapons in its own security strategy by:
* Negotiating new strategic (long-range) arms reductions with Russia;
* Ratifying a treaty ending nuclear weapons testing; and
* Seeking a new international treaty to end production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons.
Obama also proposed strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), under which 188 nations have pledged not to seek nuclear weapons, by:
* Giving international inspectors more authority;
* Agreeing on consequences when nations break the rules; and
* Creating an international nuclear-fuel bank so countries with nuclear power reactors would not need nuclear technology to produce their own fuel.
Finally, Obama announced new actions to keep nuclear weapons away from terrorists, including measures to secure vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide and stronger programs to detect nuclear smuggling.
“I’m not naïve. This goal will not be reached quickly – perhaps not in my lifetime,” Obama said. “But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change.”
Obama took another important step in mid-September, canceling Bush administration plans to deploy antimissile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. The installations were intended to defend Europe against missile strikes from Iran. But Russian leaders saw them as a provocative intrusion into Eastern Europe and argued that the system might be expanded and reconfigured to threaten Russia. Instead, the Obama administration said it would field shorter-range interceptors, initially based on ships, which could be targeted more easily against Iranian threats.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called Obama’s move a “correct and brave decision.” But conservatives said Obama was undermining U.S. security commitments to European allies. “Given the serious and growing threats posed by Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, now is the time when we should look to strengthen our defenses, and those of our allies,” said Republican senator and former presidential candidate John McCain of Arizona. “I believe the decision to abandon [the land-based system] unilaterally is seriously misguided.”
On Sept. 24 the Security Council unanimously passed a resolution urging all countries to work toward nuclear reductions and disarmament and to put tighter controls on nuclear technologies and materials. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon welcomed the council’s new resolve and urged states to follow through on the resolution. “Together we have dreamed about a nuclear-weapon-free world. Now we must act to achieve it,” he said.
Other heads of state who had long supported faster nuclear reductions echoed the secretary-general. “While we sleep, death is awake. Death keeps watch from the warehouses that store more than 23,000 nuclear warheads, like 23,000 eyes open and waiting for a moment of carelessness,” said Oscar Arias Sanchez, president of Costa Rica.
The world has lived with nuclear threats for more than 60 years, but today’s challenges differ dramatically from those during the Cold War, when the greatest global security risk was war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Under the doctrine of “mutual assured destruction,” each country fielded tens of thousands of nuclear weapons to ensure that it could survive a first strike and still inflict catastrophic damage on its enemy. The policy kept the peace, advocates argued, by making each side afraid to start a war.
But accidents and misread signals nearly caused nuclear explosions more than once, when nations came close to nuclear exchanges or troops mishandled their own nuclear weapons. Many experts still worry that too many nuclear weapons are on high alert, and that U.S. or Russian leaders might misinterpret an accidental launch as a planned strike and respond by launching more missiles and killing millions of people.
Now the threat of terrorism has compounded the danger. “The greatest threat to our security is that al Qaeda will acquire a nuclear weapon from Pakistan’s or Russia’s arsenal, or the material to build one from any of a dozen countries that don’t guard their material adequately,” says Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which supports efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. “Another risk is that nuclear weapons could be used in a regional war – for example, between India and Pakistan.”
The United States and Soviet Union (succeeded by Russia) have always possessed nearly all the nuclear weapons in the world. Together they have about 24,500 nuclear weapons today, down from a peak of roughly 64,000 in 1986. More than half of these weapons are held as spares, in reserve, or are awaiting dismantlement. But advocates say the U.S. and Russia should make further cuts, both to reduce the risk of a nuclear exchange and to build support for strong, global nonproliferation policies.
“The NPT requires the nuclear powers to move toward disarmament,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the nonprofit Arms Control Association. “If we don’t, other countries will be less willing to support tough controls on nuclear bomb material and sanctions on countries that try to develop nuclear weapons. Treading water is not a feasible option. And nuclear weapons aren’t practical tools to deal with terrorist threats or conventional conflicts. Their only defensible purpose is to deter use of nuclear weapons by another country, and only Russia has an arsenal as big as ours.”
Most advocates agree the U.S. should maintain a strong deterrent force as long as other countries have nuclear weapons. Earlier this year, a congressionally appointed bipartisan commission concluded the United States could make more nuclear reductions jointly with Russia, but it recommended retaining bombers, land-based missiles and submarines to deliver them. The report also left open an option for developing new warheads, and commission members disagreed over ending U.S. nuclear testing.
Defense hawks argue that treaties constrain the U.S. but do nothing to reduce threats from countries determined to acquire nuclear weapons. One of their prime examples, Iran, made headlines less than 24 hours after the Security Council’s disarmament resolution, when it was revealed that Iran was building a secret underground plant to enrich uranium.
Obama and his British and French counterparts accused Iran – a member of the NPT – of flouting its non-nuclear pledges. Obama warned that if Iran did not disclose all of its nuclear activities immediately, it would face “sanctions that bite.” But critics said negotiations would not curb Iran’s alleged bomb program.
“In the bitter decades of the Cold War, we learned the hard way that the only countries that abide by disarmament treaties are those that want to be disarmed,” The Wall Street Journal argued in an editorial.
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