scholars and rogues

How much credit does the U.S. disarmament community deserve for Obama's Prague pledge?

deproliferatorThe Deproliferator

President Obama’s speech in Prague “represents a fundamental and important transformation in U.S. thinking about nuclear weapons,” said Arms Control Association executive director Darryl Kimball in a press release. “Obama is not just pledging to ‘pursue’ nuclear disarmament — as past U.S. presidents have done — but to make it the strategic goal of U.S. policy to eliminate all the world’s nuclear weapons.”

Taking advantage of the occasion to go on the offensive, Kimball added:

“The cynics and supporters of the nuclear status quo believe action toward a nuclear weapons-free world is an exercise in wishful thinking. … The real fantasy is to expect nuclear restraint and greater commitment to nonproliferation from other states in the absence of bold U.S. action on disarmament.”

The last sentence was, of course, directed at the previous administration and those hawks who place the burden of nonproliferation on states thought to aspire to nuclear weapons, like Iran. Not to mention those which have developed them independent of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, such as North Korea and Pakistan. (Not Israel and India, though. They may be rogue states, but they’re our rogues.)

The Wall Street Journal’s response to the Prague speech is typical:

Rarely has a Presidential speech been so immediately and transparently divorced from reality. … The President delivered a stirring call to banish nuclear weapons at the very moment that North Korea and Iran are bidding to trigger the greatest proliferation breakout in the nuclear age. [When, in fact] any serious effort at nonproliferation has to begin with North Korea and Iran.

Then, rubbing it in:

Meanwhile, the world’s most conspicuous antiproliferation victories in recent decades were the Israeli strike against Saddam Hussein’s nuclear plant at Osirak, and the U.S. toppling of Saddam and the way it impressed Libya’s Moammar Ghadafi.

Left to their own devices, hawks are likely to opt for the immediate gratification of bombing bombs over the protracted process of attempting to talk states out of crossing the nuclear threshold.

At Slate magazine, neocon sympathizer Anne Applebaum makes it more personal. The title of her piece drips with condescension: No Nukes? No Thanks. Obama’s odd obsession with universal nuclear disarmament. Ms. Applebaum writes:

Clearly, the “no nukes” policy is one close to the president’s heart. … Look at his record: One of the few foreign-policy initiatives to which Obama stuck his name during his brief Senate term was an increase in funding for nuclear nonproliferation. One of the few senatorial trips he managed was a nuclear inspection tour of Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan.

After the obligatory barbs at Obama, she writes about his nuclear pledge [emphasis added]:

This is all very nice — but as the central plank in an American president’s foreign policy, a call for universal nuclear disarmament seems rather beside the point. … there is no evidence that U.S. nuclear arms reductions have ever inspired others to do the same. …

More to the point, nuclear weapons, while terrifying in the abstract, are not an immediate strategic threat to Europe or the United States — even from Iran. [Surprising concession. — Ed.] … Ridding the world of nuclear weapons would be very nice, in other words, but on its own, it won’t alter the international balance of power, stop al-Qaida, or prevent large authoritarian states from invading their smaller neighbors.

Ms. Applebaum may patronize those who work toward ridding the world of nuclear weapons with the phrase “very nice.” But her tone only dilutes her argument by invoking suspicions that, in fact, she favors their possession by the United States. Apparently, in the current political climate, she’s reluctant to admit it.

In a Boston Globe oped, defense analyst Adam Lowther is more direct:

. . . if the United States moves toward disarmament, it will be the only nuclear power to do so. Every other nuclear power is modernizing its nuclear arsenal. Thus, the United States may soon reach a point where it can be held hostage by other states.

(Independent nuclear scholar Ward Wilson, who alerted us to Lowther’s piece, debunks his fear-based argument in a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe.)

At the Christian Science Monitor, Richard Harknett is even more up-front about his advocacy of nuclear weapons:

It may seem counter-intuitive, but [only] by stabilizing nuclear capabilities, not by eliminating them, will the world be safe from the threat of nuclear weapon use. … A world with no nuclear weapons creates an unstable environment in which the first country to redeploy even one gains an extraordinary advantage.

Like Ms. Applebaum, Harknett has no qualms about stooping to the supercilious:

We need not idealize global politics to make the world more secure.

Though hawks are trying to remain on the offensive, they’re obviously back on their heels. How much credit does the American arms control community deserve for this? In other words, how much did it influence Obama to make nonproliferation and disarmament a priority?

Neither Kimball nor, according to a couple of friends who attended the recent Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference, any of the attendees attempt to take credit on behalf of the disarmament community. On the other hand, there was much apparent gratification over another indication of how seriously the administration takes arms control — the nomination of Rose Gottemoeller, former director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, to be assistant secretary of state for verification and compliance. She’ll be assigned the task of negotiating the follow-up treaty to START I.

It’s likely, though, that to some extent, Obama’s pledge reflects the influence of the American arms control movement. After all, during the presidential campaign, arms controllers were consulted by Obama’s people when formulating nuclear weapons policy. Thus, it would seem that not only is American arms control community’s existence validated, but its methodology.

The co-chair of the International Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Commission, Gareth Evans, provides his perspective in the current Arms Control Today. Australia’s colorful former foreign minister was interviewed by Miles Pomper and Peter Crails.

First he lauds the Global Zero initiative, “which is basically getting the long-term objective up there in the lights, very clearly articulated, and reasonably noisily articulated. . . a highly useful contribution to energizing. . . a global constituency.”

Then Evans remarks:

At the other end of the spectrum, you have a much more cautious step-by-step approach: “let’s identify the first few foothills as we work our way up the mountain but we will not be too ambitious about giant strides because it is all a complex universe out there.” That is a useful combination of the idealism and the pragmatism, and has an important constituency in the United States in particular.

While the American arms control movement is by no means homogenous, Evans described one of its more significant components. But, at Foreign Policy in Focus, Kevin Martin warns about the dangers of slow-and-steady-wins-the-race:

[The upcoming] NPT Review Conference presents an opportunity to go beyond incremental arms control and nonproliferation steps. … Obama should announce. . . the initiation of multi-lateral negotiations for a treaty or convention to abolish nuclear weapons. … According to the incrementalists [other] more incremental arms control measures should come first — the test-ban treaty ratification, the arms reduction treaty with Russia, a treaty to ban the production of fissionable materials. …

But there is a danger that such an incremental path will [allow] innumerable hurdles [to arise such as] funding for nuclear research by U.S. weapons laboratories, the question of extending the lifetime of our existing nuclear stockpile [and] developing new nuclear warhead. … We shouldn’t make the same mistake that Kennedy did by going down the incremental path.

The American arms control community aside, leave us not forget the latter-day Gang of Four (Henry Kissinger, William Perry, George Schultz, and Sam Nunn). Though they only count one true arms controller (Nunn) among them, has any entity been more influential in leading the recent charge toward nonproliferation and disarmament?

Also writing for Arms Control Today, Steve Andreasen seconds that sentiment:

The response in the United States and abroad to the Shultz-Perry-Kissinger-Nunn articles has been remarkable. Mikhail Gorbachev. . . felt it was his duty to support the call for urgent action. … As of today, the initiative by the four has received the support of more than two-thirds of the living former secretaries of state and defense and national security advisers.

As important a factor as Kissinger, et al have been, it’s likely that, to some extent, they too were influenced by the American arms control community. Trying to decide who should take credit for Obama’s arm control initiatives might seem picayune. But it might prove helpful in determining which approach is most effective. Ideally it corresponds to the will of the people.

The Deproliferator (the column’s title, not the author’s nom de plume) covers nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, with an emphasis on treaties, negotiation, and diplomacy. The author is not employed in the arms control field.

A term coined by sociologist and professor of international relations Amitai Etzioni, “deproliferation,” he writes, “calls for removing the access to nuclear arms and the materials from which they can readily be made — first and foremost in unstable and noncompliant states, and only then in all others.”

Whatever the merits of this approach, it lends itself to reinforcing the distinction between the nuclear haves and have-nots. Fond of his phrase, though, we’re appropriating it to our own ends. For the purposes of this column, deproliferation means, simply, disarmament.

1 reply »

  1. Thanks for digging through the hawkish reaction, Russ! Frankly, much of that tends to make my head spin until I realize that it’s just variations on the theme of “we’ve always had them so this is the way the world must be.” And that Boston Globe op-ed takes on unilateral disarmament, which nobody currently in power is advocating, certainly not Barack Obama. Always easier to knock down a straw man.

    The “arms control community” is a complex beast that hasn’t entirely changed with the change from the world of the Cold War. But treaties on arms limitation are better than none at all.

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