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President Obama in Berlin: Why Not Ask for More?

Experts, activists are asking why President Obama settles for so little in nuclear arms control goals.

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Earlier last month, President Obama returned to Berlin and used his highly publicized speech at the Brandenburg Gate to spell out his nuclear arms control goals for the remaining years of his presidency. His words brought to mind the lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire”: Why not ask for more? Obama’s speech in Pariser Platz was a comedown from the vision and soaring hopes loosed by his 2009 speech in Prague, in which he committed the United States, the world’s most powerful and dangerous nuclear power, to work for the creation of a nuclear weapons-free world.

In essence, President Obama reminded his audiences that “so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not safe.” He reiterated his long-standing pledge that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the US will remain the world’s dominant nuclear power. He celebrated the New START Treaty with Russia and raised the possibility of negotiating an agreement to reduce the two great powers’ deployed strategic nuclear arsenals from 1,550 to 1,000. He said that he would work to reduce the number of US and Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. He pledged to “build support” for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), to hold another Nuclear Security Summit in 2016 and to “reject” weaponization of North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear programs.

There was, not surprisingly, less in President Obama’s Berlin speech and the related Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy than meets the eye. The speech was a rehash of long-standing articulated policies, but the US media again played the role of “frictionless conveyer belt” for the White House and Pentagon. The cynicism in the president’s proposed cuts in the US and Russian strategic arsenals is extraordinary and is better understood as public relations and soft power diplomacy than as a serious goal. For many months, senior Russian officials have reiterated that they will participate in multilateral nuclear weapons negotiations only, and the Obama Administration has refused to participate in such forums. With Israel, the US played the lead role in sabotaging the convening of the Middle East WMD Free Zone conference, which was mandated with US approval by the seminally important Final Declaration of the 2010 NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons) Review Conference. This spring, the US boycotted the international conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons in Oslo, attended by 127 other governments, as well the Open Ended Working Group created by the United Nations General Assembly, and it has signaled that it has no intention of participating in the High Level Meeting to be devoted to nuclear disarmament at the United Nations this September.

Obama failed to address why Moscow relies increasingly on its nuclear arsenal and is thus anything but eager for negotiations with the United States to reduce either its strategic or tactical arsenals. Beginning with the Clinton administration, US presidents have constantly violated President George H.W. Bush’s promise to Mikhail Gorbachev not to move NATO a centimeter closer to Moscow in exchange for Russia accepting German reunification on Western terms. NATO has been expanded and now threatens Russia’s borders. Having suffered catastrophic invasions from the West over the past two centuries, Russian leaders are profoundly wary of the newly deployed “missile defenses” in Eastern Europe (seen by Moscow as shields to reinforce US first-strike swords) and the Pentagon’s enormous superiority in high-tech “conventional” weapons and militarization of space.

It is possible that, as promulgated in the Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy, issued on the same day as Obama’s Berlin speech, President Obama wants to reduce the central role of US nuclear weapons in US military policies. But actions speak louder than words. In the fifth year of Obama’s presidency, preparations and threats to initiate nuclear war remain central to enforcing the United States’ empire in decline. How else to understand the simulated B-2 and B-52 nuclear attacks against North Korea this past March and the “all options on the table” threat that still stands against Iran? Along these same lines, not counting the $1.5 trillion to be spent to build the nuclear-capable F-35 fighter/bomber, the United States is in the process of spending just under $200 billion to “modernize” its nuclear arsenal and delivery systems. This comes at the same time that schools in Chicago and Philadelphia, not to mention other cities, are being shuttered at a record pace, that hospitals are being closed, people in subsidized housing are losing their Section 8 certificates and being forced out of their homes, and a host of other essential social services are being slashed.

The president’s words about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) were no less misleading. “Building support” is not the same thing as submitting the treaty to the Senate for ratification. Ratification and entry into force of the CTBT are universally recognized as the most critical steps to stemming nuclear weapons proliferation and for the world to move meaningfully toward the complete elimination of these omnicidal weapons.

Nice words from a politician, but with little real meaning.

The same applies to Nuclear Security conferences ostensibly designed to limit nuclear weapons proliferation. As Joseph Rotblat, the Nobel Peace Laureate and the only senior scientist who quit the Manhattan Project, taught, unless meaningful progress is made for the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons, their proliferation is inevitable. Why? Because no nation will long tolerate what it experiences as an unequal (and unjust) imbalance of terror.

We are, indeed, birds balancing on all-too-fragile nuclear wires. Nuclear war growing out of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the Japanese-Chinese confrontation over disputed ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands or between India and Pakistan could end life on earth as we know it.

To fulfill the promise of Prague there are a host of actions President Obama could initiate: He could spark global nuclear disarmament diplomacy by unilaterally withdrawing US tactical nuclear weapons from Western Europe and reducing the Pentagon’s strategic nuclear arsenal by 1,000 genocidal weapons. The United States would still have more than enough nuclear weapons to end life on the planet and to be used as bargaining chips with Russia and the lesser nuclear powers, including China. He could announce his commitment to participate in September’s High-Level Meeting and the intention to use the United Nations Forum to advance the President’s commitment to a nuclear weapons-free world. The president could reaffirm his commitment to cosponsor the promised Middle East WMD Free Zone conference and to participate in the follow-on conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war scheduled for next year in Mexico. And, he could dare Senate Republicans to stand in the way of nuclear nonproliferation by sending the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to the Senate for ratification.

At root, what we need is less public relations and more meaningful action if the world’s most heavily armed nuclear power is to open the way to fulfilling the promise of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: good faith negotiations for the complete elimination of the world’s nuclear arsenals.

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