by John Isaacs
Prepared remarks delivered by John Isaacs to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs on December 1, 2009
I would like to talk about one of science’s greatest, and most deadly, inventions – the nuclear bomb.
While interest in nuclear weapons issues has faded since the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, the problem remains. Not just one problem, but 23,000 problems, the estimated total of these highly destructive weapons that exist on this planet. 23,000 weapons, most of which are substantially larger than those that destroyed two Japanese cities at the end of World War II.
It is important to remember that while the world is concerned over the impact of global warming, starvation in too many countries, worldwide pandemics and the threats of terrorism or biological weapons attacks, only nuclear weapons have the capacity to obliterate entire cities with one bomb and entire countries in massive nuclear exchanges and perhaps destroy most life on this earth.
To repeat, only nuclear weapons have the capacity to obliterate entire cities with one bomb and entire countries in massive nuclear exchanges and perhaps destroy most life on this earth.
A NEW BEGINNING IN WASHINGTON
We have entered an era of great change on nuclear weapons issues. The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States has provided an opportunity for unprecedented progress on nuclear weapons.
However you feel about the role of the United States in initiating the atomic age, whatever you think of the long American and Soviet arms race, it is my firm belief that the United States must provide leadership to end the nuclear arms race – and move toward a world free of nuclear weapons.
But other countries must play an important role as well.
On April 5 of this year, President Barack Obama delivered one of the most significant speeches of the nuclear age.
At that time, he said:
“I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
He pointed out:
“As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.”
President Obama’s forthrightness about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the need to take immediate action to avoid a nuclear holocaust constitute the most significant remarks by an American President on nuclear disarmament in the last half century.
Obama follows two American Presidents who were disappointments on nuclear issues:
President Bill Clinton, who failed to reduce significantly nuclear weapons despite the historic opportunity presented by the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union; and
President George W. Bush, who promoted a policy that made nuclear weapons a central tenet of American national security and acted not only to preseve thousands of nuclear warheads, but would have built a new generation of nuclear weapons. Fortunately, Congress denied funding for this.
The problem that President Obama is addressing is serious.
Almost 65 years after the dawn of the atomic age and despite many international negotiations to deal with the problem of nuclear weapons, there remain an estimated 23,000 nuclear weapons held by nine nuclear powers.
Over ninety percent of those weapons are in the hands of the United States and Russia.
Plus, there is sufficient nuclear material across the globe that could be fashioned into hundreds of thousands of additional nuclear weapons.
These weapons present the risk of catastrophic accidents, errors or unauthorized use.
We have been fortunate not to have had nuclear bombs explode in populated areas since 1945, but this luck may not last forever.
North Korea has twice tested nuclear bombs in recent years and Iran threatens to develop their own in the volatile Middle East.
The risk is not so much that these countries are likely to launch nuclear attacks on their neighbors, but rather to launch a nuclear arms race in Asia or the Middle East.
And as former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz once said, “Proliferation begets proliferation.”
These problems accentuate the challenges to the global nuclear non-proliferation regime enshrined in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signed in 1968 to which 189 countries now belong.
This regime threatens to unravel:
Because the nuclear weapons states such as the United States and Russia have taken insufficient steps to fulfill their part of the deal by bringing into force a treaty barring nuclear weapons testing and by eliminating nuclear weapons; and
Because the world community has been unable to stem the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran – or the nuclear weapons programs of Israel, India and Pakistan.
President Obama understands these challenges.
In his Prague speech in April, President Obama pointed out:
Today, the Cold War has disappeared but thousands of those weapons have not. In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up. More nations have acquired these weapons. Testing has continued. Black market trade in nuclear secrets and nuclear materials abound. The technology to build a bomb has spread. Terrorists are determined to buy, build or steal one. Our efforts to contain these dangers are centered on a global non-proliferation regime, but as more people and nations break the rules, we could reach the point where the center cannot hold.
President Obama not only believes in the goal of a nuclear weapons free world, he has also surrounded himself at the highest levels with experts on nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear weapons policy.
President Obama has also sought international support for his nuclear agenda.
As I indicated before, this campaign cannot only be a United States effort.
On September 24, he secured unanimous United Nations Security Council approval for the objective of a world free of nuclear weapons.
That meant the agenda won the support of China, Russia, Japan and 12 other countries.
Soon afterwards came the unexpected awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama, an award given in part due to “Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”
REACTIONS IN CONGRESS
Interestingly enough, the predominant reaction in Congress to the President’s call for a world free of nuclear weapons thus far has been silence.
That is, very few Members of Congress have reacted, either positively or negatively.
The same day the President delivered his Prague speech, North Korea conducted a missile test.
The next day, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced some weapons program cuts and increases.
A review of three-quarters of GOP senators’ web sites found plenty of condemnation of the North Koreans and ample comments about cutting back missile defense funding and killing the F-22 program.
Later, when the administration announced an end to the missile defense deployment in Europe planned by the Bush administration, there were multiple Republican critiques – despite the fact that the administration substituted one form of missile defense for another.
But there were almost no Republican criticisms of the call for an end to nuclear weapons.
Nor did more than a handful of Democrats, then or since, orate on the topic of nuclear weapons.
What do these “sounds of silence” on nuclear weapons mean?
For one thing, Congress, to be fair, has been consumed by economic issues like health care and global warming.
Topics that are a long ways off tend to get ignored.
But Republicans, who are determined to oppose many of the President’s policies and rush to the ramparts to defend missile defense, remain reluctant to either support or oppose new nuclear weapons.
After all, it was a Republican in Congress who was critical to efforts to kill the Bush administration’s proposals to build new nuclear weapons.
Last year, when a Republican House member offered an amendment to add funds for the Reliable Replacement Warhead, a new nuclear warhead, he lost 145 to 271, with 44 Republicans voting against him.
This vision expressed at President Obama’s Prague speech and at the United Nations is vitally important.
However, as all students of politics and government understand, there has to be follow-through to realize this vision.
Indeed, this next six months will be an important period to determine if the President’s vision is to be realized.
INTERIM STEPS TO REALIZE OBAMA’S VISION
To his credit, the President has proposed a series of steps to implement his vision and move in the direction of a world free of nuclear weapons.
NEW NUCLEAR REDUCTIONS TREATY
The United States and Russia have been engaged since earlier this year in negotiating a new treaty to reduce nuclear warheads and stockpiles – and then to move on to further reductions between these two countries and the other nuclear powers. The United States and Russia are about to conclude a new reductions treaty, called New START.
At this point, it looks as though the ratification or approval process will be completed in the spring of 2010.
There is widespread support for this treaty in the United States, and I anticipate it will be approved and enter into force in the spring of 2010.
Procedures in the United States Constitution require 67 Senators out of the 100 to approve the treaty, but I expect it to be approved despite some scattered opposition by a few hardliners.
This is a first step. President Obama has pledged to engage in negotiations towards deeper cuts in the nuclear arsenal.
COMPREHENSIVE NUCLEAR TEST BAN TREATY
The Obama administration has vowed to seek a new Senate vote on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty – a treaty defeated by the Senate in 1999.
The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) bans all nuclear explosions, on the surface of the earth, underground, in the atmosphere and underwater.
The treaty, once it enters into force, will make it more difficult for countries to build nuclear weapons, and those that have them to develop new or more advanced weapons. 182 countries have signed the treaty and 150 have ratified.
However, under procedures written into the treaty, nine major countries which must ratify the treaty have not, including the United States, China, Pakistan, India, North Korea, Israel, Egypt, Indonesia and Iran.
It is expected that if the United States ratifies, China, Indonesia and Israel will follow suit, leaving only four states that need to ratify.
There is a chance that there will be a new vote in the Senate around mid-2010, but there continues to be opposition within the Republican Party, and it is not clear what will happen.
Currently, the administration needs seven Republican votes to get consent to ratification. And it has zero of these votes today.
It will take skillful work by the Obama administration to win approval of the Test Ban Treaty – and then for the treaty to enter into force after approval by the other hold out countries.
FISSILE MATERIALS TREATY
The President pledged to reinvigorate international negotiations to end the production of fissile materials for military purposes that can be used in nuclear weapons.
In May, the U.N. Conference on Disarmanent, based in Geneva, Switzerland, broke an 11-year impasse by approving a program for action.
The agreement appeared to open the door to the negotiation of a treaty banning the production of fissile material.
However, that consensus among the 65 countries in the Conference on Disarmament has broken down, particularly hindered by Pakistani objections.
The treaty’s fate now must wait a new effort next year.
SECURING ALL VULNERABLE MATERIAL IN FOUR YEARS
President Obama pledged a major campaign to secure all vulnerable nuclear material across the globe within four years.
At the end of the Cold War, it became apparent that many nuclear weapons and supplies of nuclear materials have been left in insufficiently guarded facilities subject to theft or sale.
This was particularly true in the former Soviet Union, but in many other countries as well.
With the threat of terrorism spreading to so many countries, it is important to choke off supplies of weapons or materials that could be fashioned into weapons.
Here too, the follow-through has been slow. We are hopeful that in the next U.S. federal budget presented in February 2010, President Obama will launch a vigorous effort to fulfill that pledge.
OTHER KEY EVENTS IN 2010
There will also be important milestone events in 2010.
NUCLEAR POSTURE REVIEW
First is the completion of a complete review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, usually called the Nuclear Posture Review, launched by the Obama administration.
That review has been underway for many months, and should be concluded by early 2010.
What our community would like to see is for the policy review to significantly reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy and lay the groundwork for a world free of nuclear weapons.
We certainly expect the review to produce a more forward leaning policy on nuclear weapons than issued by the last two presidential administrations, but we are not sure how far it will go.
We are at the same time wary that the lower level officials that are preparing the review do not share President Obama’s nuclear weapons vision. Bureaucratic processes usually tend to favor the status quo.
APRIL 2010 GLOBAL NUCLEAR SECURITY SUMMIT
A Global Nuclear Security Summit to be held in Washington, D.C will hopefully lead to an accelerated program for securing, and eliminating where possible, unsecured nuclear materials and weapons across the globe.
The meeting will give governments a forum to consider cooperative efforts to track and protect weapons-usable materials and to safeguard against nuclear terrorism.
The summit is expected to include leaders from 25 to 30 nations.
American leadership hopes that the gathering launches an international discussion on the nature of the threat of nuclear terrorism and develops steps and commitments that can be taken together to secure vulnerable materials, combat nuclear smuggling and deter, detect and disrupt attempts at nuclear terrorism.
MAY 2010 NPT REVIEW CONFERENCE
Prime Minister Hatoyama discussed these previous steps as an important prelude to this conference to determine if the international community can indeed take pragmatic steps ¬towards nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.
Many of these steps, including further reductions in the number of nuclear weapons and the Test Ban Treaty, were key promises made to non-nuclear weapons states in 1995 (and reiterated in 2000) in exchange for their support for indefinitely extending the NPT.
An international conference will be held in New York City in May 2010 to review the status of the NPT. The major goals of that conference are to strengthen the treaty and increase barriers to proliferation.
As President Obama stated in his April speech in Prague:
The basic bargain is sound: Countries with nuclear weapons will move towards disarmament, countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them, and all countries can access peaceful nuclear energy. To strengthen the treaty, we should embrace several principles. We need more resources and authority to strengthen international inspections. We need real and immediate consequences for countries caught breaking the rules or trying to leave the treaty without cause.
However, there is a real fear that the NPT will unravel.
The nuclear weapon states such as the United States and Russia have taken insufficient steps to fulfill their part of the bargain of eliminating nuclear weapons and the world community has been unable to stem the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran.
Though expectations are not very high in terms of substantial forward progress at the Review Conference, there may be momentum toward agreeing to a plan of action for the next few years for re-invigorating the NPT.
NORTH KOREA AND IRAN
Clearly the barriers to progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons include the distressing problems of North Korea and Iran.
One country has now conducted two nuclear explosive tests and launched ballistic missiles over Japan. The other appears determined to move towards building nuclear weapons.
I wish that I had a good or easy solution to these problems.
But I don’t.
I believe the world community has to be patient with bilateral U.S.-North Korea talks and multilateral six party talks that also include Japan, Russia, China and South Korea.
Similarly, a number of countries are negotiating with Iran, with disappointing results thus far.
Negotiations are likely to continue to be frustratingly slow and filled with setbacks.
However, such talks and effective engagement are the only viable option to eliminate North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear weapons – which should remain the essential goal.
To paraphrase what Great Britain’s Winston Churchill once said about democracy, negotiation is not a great option but all the other options are worse.
EVALUATING THE PRESIDENT’S POLICIES
Okay, you might say, the rhetoric is great but would about the reality. Where’s the beef, as Walter Mondale once asked Gary Hart?
Henry Kissinger was recently quoted as saying about the President: “He reminds me of a chess grandmaster who has played his opening in six simultaneous games…But he hasn’t completed a single game and I’d like to see him finish one.”
In the President’s defense, these things take time.
Of all people, Henry Kissinger should know. His and Richard Nixon’s opening to China and the exit from the Vietnam War took many years to accomplish.
Going to war can be done relatively quickly. Extricating ourselves from wars takes a lot of time.
A modest reduction in U.S.-Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles is taking the better part of the year. Safeguarding nuclear weapons materials is a four-year project. Solving the Middle East imbroglio and peace between Pakistan and India are time-consuming, if not impossible.
Again, Mr. Kissinger should know, having attempted to deal with both these problems during his tenure.
Producing health care reform and getting out of a recessiuon – these things take a long time, both domestically and internationally.
If I were giving the President a report card today, it would be a series of incompletes.
The President and his team have made some worthy and tough decisions – to end the missile defense system proposed for Poland and the Czech Republic and to terminate the F-22 program, for example.
But invite me back after three or four years, and I will be able to give you a better evaluation.
In short, the President has presented ambitious goals, but we will not know for a while how successful he will be in reaching these goals.
But to his enormous credit, President Obama has revived interest at home and abroad on the subject of nuclear disarmament.
It was not just one great speech in Prague, but a series of steps that I have outlined and a series of milestones for next year to move the agenda forward.
He is clearly on a path of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in American security policy and perhaps moving toward a world free of nuclear weapons.
I thank you very much for this invitation to speak to you about these critical and timely issues.
The subject that I just discussed is a topic in many capitals around the world.
While there is a new vision put forward by a new American President, there is an important and historic role to play for so many other countries.
If we do not see substantial progress in the next six months, the vision will be in jeopardy.
I will be happy to take your questions.