by John Isaacs
Stepping back from the past few frantic days on nuclear weapons issues, it is useful to realize how much has been accomplished. The last two weeks have arguably been the two most eventful weeks on reducing the dangers posed by nuclear weapons since the advent of the nuclear age.
• On March 29, President Obama, together with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, announced that the U.S. and Russia had reached agreement on the “New START” nuclear reductions treaty.
• On April 6, the United States released the results of a year-long review of nuclear weapons, called the Nuclear Posture Review.
• On April 8, Presidents Barack Obama and Dimitry Medvedev signed New START in Prague, Czech Republic.
• On April 12-13, the President convened leaders of 47 countries to agree on steps needed to secure and safeguard vulnerable nuclear materials and to cope with the worldwide terrorist threat.
Critics will point to shortcomings in the treaty, the nuclear review and the Washington summit. The millennium has not come and nuclear weapons will not disappear the day after tomorrow. Iran and North Korea continue to break the rules. There remain about 23,000 nuclear weapons across the globe, most much larger than those used against Japan in 1945.
But there has been significant forward movement that had been lacking over the past two decades…
New START enhances U.S. security by verifiably reducing deployed U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles and ensuring a stable and predictable U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship. It will help strengthen cooperative efforts to reduce the risk that U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons or materials could be stolen and used in a nuclear terrorist attack and buttress global efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. It is also an important means to improve U.S.-Russian relations and sets the stage for discussion on deep reductions in U.S. and Russian arsenals in the future.
But at the end of the treaty’s 10-year duration, there will still be hugely excessive numbers of nuclear weapons, both deployed and in reserve.
The Nuclear Posture Review reorients U.S. nuclear policy to reflect the fact that changing technological, strategic, and geopolitical circumstances have made it possible and essential for the U.S. to reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons. It places preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism atop the U.S. nuclear agenda. It reduces the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security by stating that the “fundamental” role of nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on the U.S. and its allies and limiting the circumstances under which the U.S. would contemplate using nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the Review reaffirms that the U.S. will not conduct nuclear explosive tests and rejects the development of new nuclear weapons.
However, the new policy does not go as far as it should to break from Cold War thinking and reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy.
The nuclear summit meeting focused international attention on the need for global cooperation to deal with the threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists. This threat is real, but it’s also preventable. Some countries attending the summit brought along “house presents”: Chile, Ukraine and Canada announced the elimination of all of their highly enriched uranium, Russia announced the closure of its last plutonium production facility, Mexico agreed to convert its research reactor to use low enriched uranium and Malaysia’s enacted new export controls. All the countries agreed to a four-year deadline for the safeguarding of all nuclear weapons and materials.
What follows the summit will be at least as important as the summit itself. The Communiqué and Work Plan that came out of the gathering are only first steps, and it will be necessary to ensure that these commitments are acted upon in the months and years ahead.
All of these actions are part of a comprehensive and bipartisan nuclear security agenda that advances the security of this country. This agenda is rooted in the view that the current nuclear status quo is no longer tenable. According to this consensus, the potential spread of nuclear weapons and materials to additional states and terrorists, as well as the continued dangers posed by existing nuclear arsenals, has put the world on the verge of a proliferation tipping point that will increase the chances that nuclear weapons could one day be used. Previous administrations since the end of the Cold War did not give this threat the attention it deserves.
The arms control process has been rekindled. The President has managed to focus world attention on critical issues. The uniformed and civilian military leadership is on board. Many Senators are taking a new look at issues they had long ignored. Former government officials who helped kick off the process are solidly behind it.
We will not know for many years the ultimate outcome of the journey. But this country and the world have moved far these past two weeks and the job of those interested in these issues is to keep this momentum going and push for even more far-reaching change in the months and years ahead.