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Obama, Nuclear Weapons and Abolition

On May 19, as nuclear disarmament negotiations between the United States and Russia began in Moscow, President Obama welcomed a Gang of Four to the White House to provide him political reinforcement for his disarmament efforts. Beginning with a February, 2007 article in the Wall Street Journal, George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn - three of whom prepared and threatened to initiate apocalyptic wars during wars and international crises[1] --had warned of the dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation and urged the nuclear powers, led by the United States, to make deeper reductions of their nuclear arsenals and to recommit their nations to their Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligation to negotiate the elimination of their nuclear arsenals. They had finally come to understand Nobel Laureate Joseph Rotblatt's warning that because "No nation will long tolerate what it perceives to be an unjust imbalance of power" humanity faces the "stark choice" of abolishing nuclear weapons or suffering their global proliferation and the catastrophes to follow.

It was the combination of the Gang of Four's articles and pressure from nuclear weapons abolition advocates during the New Hampshire presidential primary that led Candidate, and now President, Obama to commit himself and the Democratic Party to the complete elmination of the world's nuclear arsenals, a pledge he reiterated most recently in Prague.

With the economic crisis, President Obama's disastrous escalation of the Central Asia wars, and the looming debate over health care, nuclear weapons, nuclear war and the imperative of abolition are not the mainstay of our daily headlines. However, decisions taken in Washington between now and next May when negotiators gather aat the U.N. for the Nuclear Nonprolifeartion Treaty Review Conference could well determine whether our species and many others survive.

Most people in the U.S. who are at all aware of the NPT think of it only in terms of other preventing other nations from joining the club of nations, that like the United States can threaten nuclear annihilation. In fact, along with the Versailles Treaty and the Yalta Agreement, the NPT was one of the three most important deals of the 20th century, and its future is in jeopardy.

The NPT is composed of three primary elements: With the exceptions of Israel, India and Pakistan, the non-nuclear nations foreswore ever becoming nuclear powers. In exchange, the nuclear powers made two binding commitments. First, they guaranteed non-nuclear nations (including Iran) the right to develop and use nuclear power plants for the peaceful production of energy, and in Article VI they committed to engage in "good faith" negotiations to achieve the complete elimination of all their nuclear weapons.

There are obvious problems with the Treaty. Nuclear power is not the safe source of energy that Treaty negotiators believed it to be forty years ago when the treaty was first negotiated. More, as we have learned with India, Pakistan and North Korea, nuclear power production can serve as a stepping stone to the development of genocidal and omnicidal weapons. Finally, as U.N. General Assembly resolutions, the International Court of Justice, and previous NPT Review conferences have reiterated, the nuclear powers have hypocritically refused to implement Article VI while insisting that other nations remain non-nuclear. This is not a formulae that can endure.

During recent NGO meetings in New York in early May to prepare for next year's NPT Review Conference, President Obama's speech in Prague was much discussed. Mayor Akiba of Hiroshima and others celebrated the hopeful change in U.S. policy from that of the Bush Administration, whose romance of ruthlessness led to its denigration of international treaties and to the failure of the 2005 NPT Review Conference.

Others, including myself and Jonathan Schell are looking hard and connecting dots that we would rather not see. We understand that leading figures in the U.S. elite led by George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn and Bill Perry have concluded that sixty-four years after Hiroshima, nuclear hypocrisy no longer serves U.S. interests. They fear that unless the U.S. engages in significant nuclear disarmament and acknowledges its Article VI obligations, the NPT will lose its perceived legitimacy and collapse. A deluge of proliferation would likely follow, leaving the U.S. far more vulnerable to nuclear attacks by so-called "rogue" states and by non-state terrorists.

We are also deeply concerned that there appears to be less to Obama's "perhaps not in my lifetime" commitment to nuclear weapons abolition than the adoring press has let on. It is no accident that in his message to the NPT Preparatory Conference earlier this month that he made no reference to abolition. Similarly, the subject did not arise when President Obama and former Secretary of State George Shultz spoke with the press following their meeting at the White House. And Richard Burt, who negotiated  the START I Treaty with the Soviet Union may have given the game away when he told the New York Times that the United States sees the START I follow on negotiations that have begun in "as a first step toward a broader nonproliferation strategy that could eventually curb the spread of weapons to ‘irresponsible nuclear tates' like Pakistan." The United States, which first used nuclear weapons against the innocent people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which drove the nuclear arms race that has led to the expansion of arsenals and proliferation, and which has reinforced its global dominance with terrorizing first-strike nuclear weapons, doctrines and threats is, of course a "responsible nuclear power."[2]

If we are to take our President at his word, we need to ask more of him. His Prague speech provided a remarkable opportunity for him to reinforce his declared commitment to abolition by using his Commander in Chief authority to order the withdrawal of the estimated 400 Cold War nuclear weapons that are still based in Europe and targeted primarily against Russia. He could have announced a no first-strike policy. To satisfy the majority of people in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Europe, he should have declared an end to U.S. plans to base first-strike related "missile defenses" in Central Europe, rather than reserving this possibility as a negotiating chip with Russia. And he should have offered to include the estimated 10,000 U.S. stockpiled nuclear in the disarmament negotiations with Russia.

Instead, Obama made his all too limited commitments to negotiate the elimination of several hundred deployed nuclear weapons from the U.S. and Russian arsenals, to win ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and to begin negotiations of a Fissile Materials Cut Off Treaty. These, of course, should be celebrated and supported, but they need to be seen for the limited steps that they are.

These steps, which were reiterated in the meeting with the Gang of Four, only begin to fulfill the 13 steps agreed to by the Clinton Administration during the 2000 NPT Review. They may, however, prove sufficient for the U.S. to regain the legitimacy needed next year's Review Conference to strengthen the international inspections regime needed to prevent nations from using their nuclear industries to equalize the imbalance of nuclear terror. Actions speak louder than words, and as Richard Burt has signaled, Obama's limited agenda may be all that he seeks to achieve, leaving in place the U.S. first-strike arsenal under the guise of "Deterrence."

So, what is to be done?

We need to help President Obama fulfill his stated commitment to abolition. Meeting in New York in early May, nuclear abolitionists from around the world committed to organize to bring pressure to bear on the world's governments when they convene next May at the U.N. for the NPT Review Conference. The essential elements of our campaign are:


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1) To build the Abolition Flame campaign designed to generate 25,000 letters to Presidents Obama and Medvedev urging them to begin negotiations on a treaty to eliminate all nuclear weapons (See

2) To launch massive international petition campaign urging commencement of negotiations for a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons by 2020. The petition drive will be launched this August, which will be Nuclear Free Future month in the United States. Petitions will be presented to U.N. officials during the Review Conference next year. (The text will soon be posted at

3) Sunday, May 2, 2010 has been designated "International Action Day for a Nuclear Free World" and will feature a mass international demonstration and rally in New York City, including several thousand abolitionists from other countries.

4) Plans are being developed for an international youth presence in New York during he NPT Review.

5) Organizing a major international peace conference in New York City on Saturday, May 1 is being explored. It will include a heavy focus on the NPT Review Conference, but it will also address related issues from the economic crisis to the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

6) A second wave of activities will begin on May 14, when an additional 800 Japanese peace activists arrive in New York aboard the Peace Boat.

Meanwhile, activists in Vermont are preparing another Town Meeting campaign like the one that sparked the nuclear freeze movement a generaton ago. Their Massachusetts counterparts are preparing town and city referenda. And working groups around the world are collaborating to build pressure on all of the nuclear powers as we approach a determinative moment for humanity: whether we will opt for nuclear weapons abolition and survive, or silently give our blessings to a second nuclear age and the apocalyptic wars that will follow.

For additional information see:







[1] Joseph Gerson. Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World. London, Pluto Press, 2007 pp 37-38

[2] Ellen Barry. "U.S. and Russia Begin Arms Talks With a December Deadline", The New York Times, May 20, 2009.

Joseph Gerson

Joseph Gerson

Dr. Joseph Gerson is Executive Director of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security and Vice-President of the International Peace Bureau. His most recent book is Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World. His previous books include The Sun Never Sets and With Hiroshima Eyes.

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