Taking the Right Road on Nukes

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Foreign Policy In Focus

Taking the Right Road on Nukes

Longtime New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, at a 1992 Peace Action national conference, spoke about "the roads not taken" on nuclear arms control and disarmament. His remarks made the gathered peace activists wistful about the many near-misses or forks in the road when more public pressure or bolder presidential leadership might have led us down a path toward ridding the planet of the scourge of nuclear weapons. One story in particular was very poignant and remains relevant today.

President John F. Kennedy embarked on a tour of the United States shortly after the successful 1963 negotiations with the Soviet Union and United Kingdom on the Limited (Nuclear) Test Ban Treaty (LTBT). The treaty outlawed nuclear weapons test explosions in the atmosphere, under water, and in outer space.

On his speaking tour, Kennedy was surprised by the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response he received from grateful Americans, so much so that he wished he had pushed harder for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to outlaw all nuclear tests. The LTBT didn't stop the arms race; it just pushed nuclear testing underground. Although world leaders, including President Bill Clinton, signed the CTBT in 1996, the U.S. Senate has yet to ratify it, and the treaty hasn't gone into effect. We are still paying for the road not taken by Kennedy in 1963 and by successive presidents, though the world has far fewer nuclear weapons than in 1963.

President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry have stated, consistently and to their credit, that they will seek Senate ratification of the test ban treaty. But at present, it remains uncertain whether 67 senators support ratification (the Constitution requires a 2/3 majority in the Senate for treaty ratifications). The administration, wisely, isn't putting all its eggs in the CTBT basket. Instead, it's pursuing a treaty for further nuclear arms cuts with Russia and strengthened nuclear nonproliferation policies.

We're on the verge of retracing our steps to that critical fork in the road. Will the United States lead the world down the road not taken?

RevCon Coming Up

In April and May 2010, over 180 countries will send representatives to the United Nations in New York City for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference (RevCon in United Nations parlance), a gathering that convenes every five years. Since the treaty, which entered into force in 1970, was made permanent at the 1995 Review Conference, non-nuclear states have been justifiably frustrated by the lack of progress by the United States and other nuclear weapons states toward the elimination of their nuclear arsenals, as the treaty's Article VI requires. The last two review conferences in 2000 and 2005 have affirmed a series of 13 steps toward nuclear disarmament, on which almost no progress has been made.

Many arms control and disarmament advocates hoped the Senate would ratify the CTBT before the NPT Review Conference, and thereby help speed its entry into force, the first of the 13 key steps. Since that appears uncertain, Obama needs an arms reduction treaty with Russia so that the United States doesn't come to the review conference empty-handed. A pledge to seek Senate ratification of the test-ban treaty before the end of his first term would also help.

Another significant and hopeful sign is the recent statement by Obama and Russian President Dimitry Medvedev on their intent to achieve a treaty cutting nuclear weapons to no more than 1,500 for each side before the end of this year. Their statement explicitly mentioned the Article VI obligation to pursue nuclear disarmament.

However, the NPT Review Conference presents an opportunity to go beyond incremental arms control and nonproliferation steps. The goal shouldn't just be to mollify non-nuclear states' concerns, but rather to take the road toward abolishing all nuclear weapons worldwide. Obama should announce, at the NPT Review Conference or even before, the initiation of multi-lateral negotiations for a treaty or convention to abolish nuclear weapons, similar to the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions.

Given the ambitious nature of eliminating all nuclear weapons worldwide, the negotiations might take several years, so why not get started as soon as possible? There is no good reason to delay initiating these negotiations, and they could be done in any of a number of international forums. The UN Conference on Disarmament, the NPT review process, an ad hoc negotiating process - the forum doesn't particularly matter.

Bold vs. Incremental

According to the incrementalists, abolition should come later. Other, more incremental arms control measures should come first - the test-ban treaty ratification, the arms reduction treaty with Russia, a treaty to ban the production of fissionable materials (enriched uranium and plutonium for nuclear warheads), or others.

But there is a danger that such an incremental path will throw up innumerable hurdles that must be cleared before negotiations on nuclear weapons abolition can even begin. Given serious concerns about nuclear proliferation and even nuclear terrorism, it would be imprudent to wait. Embarking on nuclear weapons elimination talks now could also help detour around a host of potentially thorny issues that could consume much time, energy and money, such as an increase in funding for nuclear research by U.S. weapons laboratories, the question of extending the lifetime of our existing nuclear stockpile, possibly developing new nuclear warheads, and others.

We can create the necessary institutions and negotiate the necessary treaties - such as a fissile materials ban or an International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) - within the larger framework of arms elimination talks. As a veteran of the nuclear disarmament community once said to me about nuclear weapons, "I just want to get rid of the damned things. All the rest of it bores me." Indeed, most people have no interest in the nitty-gritty of nuclear weapons policy and technology, and would just be happy to be rid of them.

We have a president committed to the goal of getting rid of nuclear weapons and the opportunity of the NPT review process. We shouldn't make the same mistake that Kennedy did by going down the incremental path. Instead, let's seize on "the fierce urgency of now" as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a passionate advocate of abolishing nuclear weapons, urged us in a different context in 1967. We don't want to look back in another 30 years and regret, once again, the road not taken.

Kevin Martin

Kevin Martin is Executive Director of Peace Action, the country’s largest peace and disarmament organization with 100,000 members and over 70,000 on-line supporters.

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