Will Nuclear Disarmament Be on Obama's Agenda?

Jacqueline Cabasso at a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty preparatory committee meeting in Geneva in May 2008. (Credit:Steven Starr)

Will Nuclear Disarmament Be on Obama's Agenda?

Thalif Deen Interviews Jacqueline Cabasso

President-elect Barack Obama marshals his transition team before he
takes office on Jan. 20, some of his political supporters are wondering
how much of his campaign promises will receive priority during his
first hundred days in the White House.

With a recession-hit
U.S. economy ranking high on the domestic political agenda, he will
also have to gradually deal with a slew of international issues,
including climate change, multilateralism, human rights, free trade,
weapons of mass destruction, and war and peace.

Will Obama, who was once quoted as saying that "America seeks a world
in which there are no nuclear weapons," place a higher priority on
nuclear disarmament than previous U.S. administrations?

"Obama has repeatedly stated that he will set and pursue the
goal of a world without nuclear weapons," says Jacqueline Cabasso, a
U.S. advocate of nuclear disarmament who was recently awarded the
annual 2008 Sean MacBride Peace Prize by the Geneva-based International
Peace Bureau, a former Nobel Peace laureate.

"But that statement is immediately followed by a disclaimer
that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the U.S. will maintain a strong
nuclear deterrent," she said.

"Packed into that short sentence is a massive and
extraordinarily powerful military-industrial complex which has
successfully perpetuated the central role of nuclear weapons as the
'cornerstone' of U.S. national security policy since 1945 -- despite
the end of the Cold War nearly 20 years ago," said Cabasso, in an
interview with IPS U.N Bureau Chief Thalif Deen. Excerpts from the
interview follow.

IPS: Will nuclear disarmament, under an Obama administration, be another good try in a lost cause?

JC: Plans are well underway to invest tens of billions of
dollars in modernisation of the U.S. nuclear weapons research and
production complex. With or without the "reliable replacement warhead,"
every weapon type in the U.S. nuclear arsenal is being revamped under
the ongoing "stockpile life extension" programme, and just two weeks
before the election, the Air Force released a detailed "roadmap" for
"reinvigorating the Air Force nuclear enterprise."

Obama has made encouraging sounding promises: to keep the U.S.
commitment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); to work
with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off
hair-trigger alert; to dramatically reduce the stockpiles of U.S.
nuclear weapons; and to seek a global ban on the production of fissile
material for weapons.

But it's not clear where he stands on the provocative U.S.
missile defence programme, and both he and Vice-President-elect
[Joseph] Biden recently voted for the proliferation-provocative
U.S.-India nuclear sharing deal.

I also find it worrying that Obama is surrounding himself with advisors
who served in the [Bill] Clinton administration. It was the Clinton
administration that turned its back on the historical opportunity that
appeared at the end of the Cold War to take decisive steps towards the
elimination of nuclear weapons.

I'd like to give President Obama the benefit of the doubt, but if he's
serious about getting rid of nuclear weapons, he's going to have to
make a major break with the policies of both the [George W.] Bush and
the Clinton administrations, and take on some of the most powerful and
entrenched forces on earth.

IPS: What is your reaction to sceptics who say that nuclear
disarmament is an unreachable goal -- considering also the fact that
the world meekly accepted three more nuclear powers, India, Pakistan
and Israel -- and perhaps North Korea -- in the last three decades?

JC: I'm not sure I agree that the world meekly accepted India,
Pakistan, Israel and North Korea as nuclear powers. Beyond the limited
sanctions imposed on India, Pakistan and North Korea, I think that
governments didn't know what to do. They didn't want to do provoke deep
strategic divides, and in the case of North Korea, a devastating
military conflict that could lead to a possible nuclear weapons use.

The nuclear weapon states and their strategic allies couldn't
effectively demand that these new nuclear weapon states unilaterally
disarm. After all, it is the original five nuclear weapon states that,
by virtue of their permanent seats on the Security Council, have made
nuclear weapons the currency of global power.

But civil society and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) knew what
to do. We understood that the global elimination of nuclear weapons is
an imperative for our collective survival. And we know that the
"ultimate" elimination of nuclear weapons will never happen unless we
demand it now.

I am proud to be a "founding mother" of the Abolition 2000 Global
Network to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons, which came together at the 1995
NPT Review and Extension Conference to demand the immediate
commencement of negotiations for the elimination of nuclear weapons,
within a time-bound framework. We even drafted a Model Nuclear Weapons
Convention that has been circulated as an official United Nations
document. The call has now been taken up by the "Mayors for Peace 2020
Vision Campaign".

IPS: Do you think the five declared nuclear powers -- the United
States, Britain, France, China and Russia -- have a moral or legitimate
right to call for the abolition of nuclear weapons when they arrogate
to themselves the right to retain their own weapons?

JC: It is both immoral and illegal for the original nuclear weapon
states to call for the selective abolition of nuclear weapons while
retaining and threatening to use their own nuclear arsenals. It makes
me crazy when I hear U.S. officials declare that we need to keep
nuclear weapons from falling into the "wrong" hands. Whose hands are
the "right" hands? The only hands that have, so far, dropped atomic
bombs on civilian populations, for which no apology has yet been made?
No one should have nuclear weapons.

The NPT was one of the central bargains of the 20th century, but it is
in jeopardy now, in large part due to the lack of good faith evidenced
by the nuclear weapon states regarding their compliance with the
disarmament obligation embedded in Article VI and affirmed by the
International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1996. While the term "good
faith" may sound vague, the nuclear weapon states' good faith
obligation to disarm has a precise meaning in law.

If the most powerful military force that has ever existed on the face
of the Earth premises its national security on the threatened first use
of nuclear weapons, why shouldn't we expect less powerful countries to
follow suit? This is simply an unsustainable situation. It is time to
throw away the outdated notion of "national" security premised on
overwhelming military might, and replace it with a new concept of
universal "human" and ecologically sustainable security.

With the global economy in collapse and the worldwide surge of hope in
response to the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president, the time is
ripe for another massive surge of public opinion -- from the bottom up
-- calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. But this time, we must
understand that demanding nuclear disarmament is not enough, and that
we can't achieve it alone. This time we must insist that nuclear
disarmament serve as the leading edge of a global trend towards
demilitarisation and redirection of military expenditures to meet human
needs and save the environment.

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