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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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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