In Prague, President Obama signed the modest START 1 Follow On Treaty, or “New START,” between the US and Russia. It helps to stabilize the relationship between the two remaining nuclear superpowers, and extends and updates verification measures, setting the stage for negotiating deeper reductions later.
New START will be praised as an encouraging sign of a renewed commitment to nuclear nonproliferation by both sides. That’s fine as far as it goes. But neither New START nor the Obama administration’s narrowly revised nuclear strategy (the Nuclear Posture Review) seriously begin to eliminate the danger of nuclear apocalypse.
That will require full implementation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It calls for the abolition of nuclear arsenals worldwide. Fulfilling the US NPT obligation is the only way President Obama can achieve his stated commitment for a nuclear-free future.
Note that even with the New START reductions in each country’s nuclear warheads, the US and Russia still will possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons seven years from now. Despite President Obama’s intention to reduce the US nuclear stockpile, the Federation of American Scientists finds that New START “doesn’t force either country to make changes in its nuclear structure.” Nevertheless, the US Senate should ratify it quickly as a positive move to reinforce nonproliferation diplomacy.
The key to a world free of nuclear weapons, however, is the four decade-old NPT. One of the seminal agreements of the 20th century, the NPT is the grand bargain whereby the non-nuclear nations (except Israel, India and Pakistan) forswore becoming nuclear powers. In exchange, they were guaranteed access to resources and technology for nuclear power production for peaceful purposes. The nuclear powers promised in the NPT’s Article VI to engage in “good faith negotiations” to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.
The NPT Review Conference, held at the United Nations every five years and set to start May 3, provides the most important opportunity for the world’s nations to demand that the nuclear powers finally fulfill their Article VI obligations.
The last NPT Review Conference, in 2005, was crippled by the Bush administration’s intransigence, and no agreements were reached. The conference adjourned in failure, putting the NPT in jeopardy. That failure also severely undermined the first priority of US national security policy since 9/11: preventing a nuclear attack by nonstate terrorists. It was this failure that spurred George Shultz, Henry Kissinger and Barack Obama to publicly embrace the vision of a nuclear weapons-free world.
A year ago, when President Obama repeated his pledge to work for nuclear weapons abolition, he followed a familiar political path by committing the US to work toward the fulfillment of its part of the NPT bargain. In fact, this week’s Nuclear Posture Review failed to renounce the US first-strike policy, a point emphasized by Defense Secretary Gates when he reiterated that “all options are on the table” as the US confronts Iran and North Korea. The double standard of insisting that we can possess nuclear weapons and threaten first-strike attacks, while other nations cannot, is rightfully seen as old-fashioned hypocrisy and fuels proliferation.
Even as he signs New START, President Obama is undermining his nonproliferation goal. Despite our economic travails, his budget calls for a $2 billion increase to modernize the US nuclear weapons production infrastructure, additional money to study development of a new nuclear weapon he opposes and $800 million to develop a new nuclear-capable cruise missile.
As the resolutions adopted annually in the UN General Assembly demonstrate, the overwhelming majority of the world’s nations want more than a New START. In May, when the NPT Review Conference convenes, delegates will be welcomed by the urgent demand delivered via tens of millions of petition signatures and tens of thousands of nuclear weapons abolitionists: Begin those “good faith negotiations” to eliminate the world’s nuclear arsenals.