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Obama at the UN: Another Step on the Long Road to Nuclear Disarmament

On the face of it, nuclear disarmament seems pretty straightforward--we have a bunch of things that we don't need anymore, and let's get rid of them.

But, we can't just donate our old nuclear weapons to the Salvation Army for a tax write-off, or hand them down to our little sister like an old sweater set. Yep, it is a little more complicated than that. After signing the START treaty with the Soviets in 1991, the United States lined up hundreds of B-52 bombers in an Arizona airfield, cut them into five pieces with a giant saw and left them there for three months so that Soviet satellites could see that the bombers would never fly again.

What is that phrase? The devil's in the details. Right. Signing an arms control treaty is one thing. There is fan-fare, special pens and lots of reporters in the room. Cutting your B-52 bombers up into pieces so that they will never be loaded with a nuclear payload again and then leaving the scraps there so the other side will know you've done it... that takes time and patience, political will, coordination amongst many different agencies-- to say nothing of sharp saws-- and is not the kind of thing you want on the front page of the papers.

Today, even though Russia and the United States have made a mutual commitment to "achieving a nuclear free world," there are many bedeviling details and hurdles ahead.

WHEN IS ZERO NOT ZERO? Turns out nuclear weapons--big and bold though they are-- are notoriously hard to count.

Russian and U.S. negotiators are racing the clock to construct a new treaty to replace the expiring START before the end of the year. START--the Reagan era treaty--and SORT, which was signed by George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in 2002--have different emphases and different counting rules, making an extension of those existing agreements into the future unworkable.

The START I treaty, negotiated under President Ronald Reagan, emphasized the delivery vehicles for nuclear warheads-- like intercontinental ballistic missiles and bombers--and brought that number down to 1,600, with a total of 6,000 warheads amongst them. "As a result," notes arms control expert Tom Z. Collina, "START counting rules report hundreds more 'deployed' warheads and delivery vehicles than each side actually has."

Writing in Arms Control Today, Collina explains: "Each Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile is counted as eight warheads, its maximum loading when the treaty was signed, but in fact the United States now loads Tridents with only four warheads on average. Similarly, Minuteman III ICBMs are counted as having three warheads under START, but in fact carry only one or two. Nuclear delivery systems that have been converted for use on conventional missions are still counted as well."

The SORT treaty, which was negotiated under George W. Bush-- cut the number of warheads to 2,200--which sounds like a big cut from 6,000--but concerned itself only with "operationally deployed warheads" not all warheads. So when the United States met their obligations three and a half years early under SORT, it was not the result of the Bush administration's ardent embrace of arms control; rather it suggested that the initial numbers were inflated and that it is easier to take weapons offline than it is to dismantle them.

Now, the negotiators have to contend with decades of confounding counting and the politics thereof, even as they deal with everything else and keep one eye on the ticking clock. Nikita Perfilyev, a research assistant with Center for Nonproliferation Studies, notes that "while Moscow would like to count warheads in storage, the U.S. position is that the first post-START agreement continues to count only delivery systems." This might be okay in the context of these rushed negotiations, but in the long term-- without satisfactory resolution-- we could run the serious risk of reaching global zero without actually dismantling any more U.S. or Russian nuclear weapons.

TACTICAL NUKES Another issue that will not be dealt with in this round of treaty negotiations is tactical (or short range) nuclear weapons like those deployed by the United States in countries like Turkey, Italy and Holland. In a lengthy 2005 report, the Natural Resources Defense Fund looked at U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe, suggesting that "to end Cold War nuclear planning in Europe, the United States should immediately withdraw the remaining nuclear weapons from Europe." Analysts Claudine Lamond and Paul Ingram make a similar point in a more recent (January 2009) paper for BASIC: "The sustained presence of US nuclear weapons in Europe is a legacy from an outdated security agenda a no longer serves a credible purpose with NATO's nuclear posture."

In the context of President Obama's revival of serious arms control initiatives, it is time to revisit this recommendation.

Amid all of these complex issues, there is also the opposition to any form of arms control or disarmament--those who are holding out from the growing global consensus that nuclear weapons are an impediment--rather than a guarantor--of security.

THE OPPOSITION There are a couple strands of this recalcitrance--the cadre of Cold Warriors locked into the old frameworks, the new generation of hyper power ideologues who turn their noses up at treaties and love nuclear weapons... the John Boltons of the world. Add into the mix the opportunist operators who run the nuclear laboratories and are always on the make for more billions for nuclear weapons "research and development."

The nuclear disarmament naysayers have already declared that they are going to oppose--together and separately--any efforts by the Obama administration to move forward on the disarmament agenda. That opposition will take different forms. John Bolton and others hammer away (in far too many widely circulated and mainstream media outlets) on the idea that the White House is undermining U.S. security by pursuing disarmament, ignoring but unable to refute the assertions that strong verifiable treaties and concrete steps towards disarmament is the only path to security in a post-superpower world.

The labs and their consorts on Congress may try to exploit the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty coming to the Senate for ratification to wring another round of money and another shot at relevance for their multi-billion work.

ONE MORE STEP It is against this backdrop--this swirl of complications (and many more)-- that Obama went to the East Side of Manhattan with his rousing rhetoric of cooperation and appealing attitude of engagement--first in addressing the General Assembly and then by chairing a special session of the Security Council on nuclear weapons the next morning.

Just showing up at the UN is a huge departure from--and improvement over--the Bush administration's attitude towards the UN in general and arms control specifically. And, in the context of all his struggling domestic priorities--from passing a health care plan to shoring up the economy--his focus on this is extra-impressive.

But Obama is doing more than just showing up. He is doing some leading.

In his UN speech, President Barack Obama said one of the pillars in building "the future we want for our children" is "we must stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and seek the goal of a world without them." He committed that the United States "will keep our end of the bargain." And he was able to make all of his points (organized around four pillars) in about a third of the time taken by the next speaker, Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.

At the UN Security Council meeting the next day--the first chaired by a U.S. President--the body resolved to "seek a safer world for all and to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons" as part of a declaration brought by the United States. This meeting--attended by Security Council members and witnesses by arms control luminaries like Sam Nunn and Queen Noor--was followed up by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's participation in meetings on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (which the U.S. Senate failed to ratify a decade ago). The U.S. has not attended these bi-annual meetings since 1999.

Of course, this one meeting--two hours out of everyone's busy schedules--is not nuclear disarmament, but it-- along with all of this other work-- brings us one small step closer and builds the trust needed to tackle the devils camped out in the details of this historic and urgent work.

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Frida Berrigan

Frida Berrigan

Frida Berrigan, a columnist for, serves on the board of the War Resisters League and organizes with Witness Against Torture.

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