Saturday, September 26, 2009

Obama and Nukes: Talking the Talk, Awaiting the Walk

Obama and Nukes: Talking the Talk, Awaiting the Walk


By: David Krieger


The five permanent members of the United Nations

Security Council possess over 98 percent of the more

than 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Today,

President Barack Obama led a session of the council

focusing on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament.

We take that opportunity to present a dialogue between

David Krieger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace

Foundation - an organization strident in its opposition

to nuclear weapons - and Richard Falk, professor

emeritus of International Law and Practice at Princeton

University and the chair of the Nuclear Age Peace

Foundation. Falk and Krieger have written widely on

nuclear dangers and are co-editors of the 2008 book At

the Nuclear Precipice: Catastrophe or Transformation?


David Krieger: How seriously should we take the changes

that are being proposed by the Obama administration? Do

you see these proposals as a serious turning away from

catastrophe toward transformation?


Richard Falk: I think that this is a much more hopeful

time to consider these various issues bearing on

nuclear weapons and, at the same time, it's a rather

confusing and complicated time. Of course it's

appropriate and accurate, I think, to welcome the kind

of rhetorical leadership that President Obama has so

far exhibited, particularly in his Prague speech of

April 5. One has to hope that this is more than a

rhetorical posture, but represents, as he said in the

speech it did, a serious commitment to take concrete

steps toward the objective of a world free from nuclear

weapons. But one has to look at two other factors here

that make me, at any rate, somewhat less optimistic

about the real tangible results.


The first is the continuing confrontation with Iran as

a potential nuclear weapon state on the unspoken

assumption that we still will be living in a world

where some countries are allowed to have those weapons

and others are forbidden. It would be a very different

confrontation, from my perspective, if it was coupled

with a call for a Middle East free from nuclear weapons

altogether or a dual call to Israel and Iran that would

take account of the existence of a nuclear weapon state

in the region already. But as far as I can tell there

is no disposition to do that.


A second concern, it seems to me, is the degree to

which the bureaucratic roots of the nuclear weapons

establishment are still very deep in the governmental

structure and very dedicated, as near as I can tell, to

pursuing a path that has some of President Obama's

rhetoric, but really aims at managing and stabilizing

the nuclear weapons arsenals of the world and,

particularly, the U.S. arsenal. This would, in that

sense, maintain this geopolitical structure of a world

where some have the weapons and supposedly the great

danger comes from the countries that don't have the

weapons. I find that an untenable and basically

unacceptable conception of world order in relation to

this challenge posed by the continued existence of nuclear weaponry.


DK: Should we be pushing for President Obama to call

for a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone in the Middle East and

for Israel to be a party to that zone? Is that where

our efforts should be focused, or should they be

focused on taking some large steps, such as negotiating

a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Moscow? The

United States and Russia have most of the nuclear

weapons in the world, so that is where a good deal of

progress could be made at this moment. Other issues

have been stalled for the eight years of the Bush

administration, including the Comprehensive Test Ban

Treaty, a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, gaining

control of loose nuclear materials, and dealing with

the potential threat posed by nuclear weapons falling

into the hands of non-state extremists. There is space

at this time for considerable progress on those issues

before moving to some of the tougher issues. I would

put a Middle East Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone into that

tougher issue category, and a Northeast Asian Nuclear

Weapons-Free Zone as well, dealing with concerns in

North Korea, South Korea, Japan and China. There are

many practical questions, such as which issues should

we be focusing on now, which ones can come later, as we

actually move towards zero? There seems to be some

momentum now, at least in comparison to what we've had

for the Bush years and largely for the Clinton years as well.


RF: Yes, I think certainly there is a case to be made

in favor of moving forward on these avenues of arms

reduction and stabilization that have been blocked over

a period when the conservatives controlled security

policy for the U.S. But I'm convinced that unless the

difficult issues are raised alongside these other

issues, they will never be raised, and there is, I

think, a quite serious urgency in the Middle East, to

some extent in the Indo-Pakistan region, central and

south Asia, as well as in the Korean peninsula that you

referred to. And maybe one perspective to bring into

the debate about next steps is to talk about these

kinds of regional conflict zones, because they pose

immediate problems that could lead to serious

deterioration. There is the possibility that Pakistan

could come under the control of very extremist

leadership and that India would be very nervous by such

a development, and one could have the first war between

nuclear weapon states easily taking place. So I'm not

convinced myself that these general denuclearizing

steps should be privileged at this early stage of the

Obama presidency. I think they should certainly be

supported, but to allow them to dominate the political

agenda at this stage is, in my view, a tactical as well

as a strategic mistake.


DK: In the Prague speech, President Obama talked about

the importance of moving toward a world free of nuclear

weapons, but he didn't really indicate that it was

something that needed to be done with a sense of

urgency. He said something to this effect: "I'm not

naïve; this may take a long time. It may not happen

within my lifetime." Surely there is cause for concern

in that lack of urgency because it's a deferral of the

end state until some time in a future that can't yet be

foreseen. And that's a similar point of view to what

former officials like Kissinger, Shultz, Perry, Nunn

and others are also articulating. They think that a

world free of nuclear weapons would be a good thing,

but they can't see "the top of the mountain," as they put it.


RF: I disagree with you a little bit there. I think

there is a difference between the visionary approach

embodied in Obama's Prague speech and the very realist

assessment of the status of nuclear weapons in the

Kissinger, Shultz, Perry and Nunn statements. In their

case, ironically, they see getting rid of nuclear

weapons as a strategic benefit to the United States at

this stage. They're worried about the spread of nuclear

weapons, which they don't think can be contained by the

present nonproliferation regime, and they further

believe that any further proliferation will neutralize

whatever benefits nuclear weapons have had up to this

point in serving American security interests since the

end of World War II. Kissinger initially made his

career as a policy advisor on the basis of advocating

the reliance on U.S. military superiority when it comes

to nuclear weapons in confronting the Soviet Union,

even endorsing the Cold War idea of "limited nuclear

war." I believe Kissinger hasn't changed his worldview;

he just sees, and I think probably correctly from a

realist point of view, that the U.S. military dominance

would be less inhibited in a world without nuclear weapons.


DK: And the United States would be less threatened in a

world without nuclear weapons because of the power

imbalance that nuclear weapons make possible?


RF: Yes.


DK: Without U.S. leadership, the project is going to be

stalled. If the U.S. doesn't lead, Russia won't be

particularly inclined to change its reliance on nuclear

weapons more than it is being forced to do by

economics, and other states won't be pressed to move in

that direction. So, I see the real starting point is

the United States now moving from the rhetoric that

Obama has put on the table to the actual steps that

will move us closer to a nuclear weapons-free world,

not only in numbers of weapons but in how we treat the

weapons, how we view them in our strategic outlook, and

how much we rely upon them militarily.


RF: Yes, I think those are certainly good ways of

assessing the motivations associated with whatever

steps are advocated by the United States in its natural

position of leadership. I am a little bit less

convinced that the U.S. has this special vocation of

providing the leadership. The most successful setting

for real momentum toward the goal of elimination would

be for mutually reinforcing developments to occur in

the other nuclear weapon states, because that would

both create a kind of encouragement here as well as not

make others suspicious that this was a kind of U.S.

tactical, Kissinger-like move to shift the pieces on

the global chess board so as to give the U.S. a tighter

grip on world politics. So I would put a lot of

emphasis on engaging the other nuclear weapon states in

a more global process of denuclearization. I think it

would be very good, for instance, to have speeches by

other leaders that responded in some way to the Obama

Prague speech, and to have civil society alerted and

mobilized to a much greater extent than it is at

present in these other countries to see this as a

moment of opportunity - stark opportunity. I think as

long as the climate in civil society is as passive as I

believe it still remains, even here, there will not be

much significant progress toward zero. There will be

some progress toward stabilization and management and

reducing the risks of unintended use of nuclear weapons

or perhaps making them more secure in relation to non-

state actors and other essentially managerial initiatives.


I believe quite strongly that without a movement from

below there will be no challenge to the nuclear weapons

establishment that is well situated in the governmental

structure that operates from above. I think President

Obama's political style is very much one of responding

to pressure and not being willing to take big political

risks to get out ahead of what he regards as the

relation of forces within society. I think he's shown

that in everything he's done so far, including his

appointments to important positions, the way he has

handled the economic crisis, the way he has handled the

Palestine-Israel conflict. In all these areas he's

taken a very low-risk, low-profile strategy except rhetorically.


DK: Most of what you refer to - for the United States

to supply nuclear materials and technology to a known

proliferator of nuclear weapons - occurred primarily

under the Bush administration. So it's too soon to tell

whether that's a policy that President Obama intends to follow.


I think we agree that a No First Use policy would be a

strong signal to the world that the United States is

serious about moving toward a nuclear weapons-free

world. I think that we also agree that another signal

would be for the United States to end its silence about

Israel's nuclear arsenal, and to be more proactive

about a Middle East Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone.


RF: A third point that I think is important is the

serious commitment, either in collaboration with other

governments or on our own, to develop a roadmap that

sketched in a process that leads toward a world without nuclear weapons.


DK: I was just moving to that. One of the actions that

President Obama called for in his Prague speech was a

Global Summit on Nuclear Security. When he called for

that global summit, what he was saying was in essence

that we want to prevent nuclear terrorism. If this

Global Summit on Nuclear Security could be broadened,

it could be a really valuable project. The United

States has the convening power to bring together the

nations of the world that would be needed, including

the nine nuclear weapons states, for such a global

summit. These states could actually look at the

security issues related to nuclear weapons in all their

dimensions, including the dimension of the existing

nuclear weapons in the hands of the nine nuclear

weapons states, and the potential for accidents,

proliferation, and all of the other security issues

that nuclear weapons pose. It could include nuclear

policy issues, such as No First Use. It seems to me

that if the Global Summit on Nuclear Security were

broadened, that could actually be the place to initiate

a joint effort at developing a roadmap on the way to a

new treaty that would lead, with the appropriate

confidence-building measures and assurances against

cheating, to the phased, verifiable, irreversible, and

transparent elimination of nuclear weapons.


RF: I suspect that there will be a lot of pressure to

keep the global summit narrowly focused on the

terrorist issue, making the argument that if the focus

is diluted nothing will come out of the summit.


I think it's important to bring into the discussion the

role of the U.N. system and possibly regional groupings

of states, as well as to look at what groups in civil

society can do in relation to their own governments.

One of the important achievements in the latter stages

of the Cold War was the transnational peace movement in

Europe, which had a very strong, positive effect on

opposition politics in Eastern Europe and created a

kind of collaboration that was often described as

détente from below. A public climate of opposition was

built through the mobilization of civil society that

created a context able to take advantage of other

opportunities for fundamental change. ....


We have to acknowledge that the place where democracy

seems to be least effective is in relation to the

national security agenda, and that ineffectiveness has

been reinforced now for decades of an essentially

militarist state having emerged out of first, World War

II, and then the long decades of the Cold War and

intensified after 9/11. In all these situations, what

one has observed is a continuity of a governmental

structure that is organized around the primacy of using

military power in the world. Eisenhower, of course

warned long ago, about the military-industrial complex

in his farewell address, but that's almost 50 years ago

and we now spend as much as the whole world put

together on our military budget. It's an extraordinary

thing. I mean Defense Secretary Gates was quoted

recently as saying that the American navy is stronger

than the navies of the next 13 powers in the world, but

despite this disparity we must still make it even

stronger. One needs to understand that a leader like

Obama is faced with that enormous antidemocratic,

militarized, bureaucratic structure and that he would

probably receive a vicious backlash from this military

establishment if he makes clear that his advocacy in

favor of eliminating nuclear weapons is intended to

become a real political project. At the same time, such

a move would be very, very reinforcing for his

leadership and for U.S. leadership, but it would almost

certainly involve a fierce struggle with the national

security bureaucracy and its links to the media and to

certain think tanks and so on. I think this entrenched

militarism is a formidable obstacle astride the path to

a nuclear free world. It's not so much just that the

public is ill-informed; it is a matter of a hidden,

unaccountable power structure that does not want to

make basic changes. Incremental changes are acceptable,

but seeking basic changes invariably arouses formidable

bureaucratic resistance.


DK: Another signal may be what comes out of the U.S.-

Russia negotiations that have begun. The last agreement

that Bush made in 2002, which is still being

implemented, is to reduce the deployed strategic

arsenals on both the U.S. and Russian sides to between

1,700 and 2,200 nuclear weapons each. Under the Bush

agreement with Putin, the strategic weapons that are

taken off deployed status can either be put in storage

- the core can be placed in storage - or they can be

dismantled and destroyed. There's no limit to the

number of weapons that can be kept in reserve. The

Bush-Putin treaty only dealt with deployed strategic

weapons, so there's no limit to the number that can be

kept in reserve. Right now the US does have, as does

Russia, a number of weapons awaiting dismantlement, but

they also have a number of other weapons that are

considered strategic reserve weapons. How to count

remains an issue. Should there be one overall number -

strategic, tactical and reserve - or should there be

several numbers? Under the Bush plan, there was one

upper limit specified (2,200), but only for deployed

strategic weapons. Other numbers, for the overall

arsenal, for instance, were unspecified and unknown.

They were not subject to accounting. I think there

should be one number of nuclear weapons, and it should

be the same formula for each country. It should include

reserves and deployed weapons.


RF: That seems to me essential to the credibility of

any kind of disarming process in relation to other

nuclear weapon states.


DK: We don't yet know how the new negotiations will

handle the number, and we also don't know if they'll

actually make any significant reduction below the

current level that has been agreed to. There have been

a number of people who have suggested that going down

to 1,000 or less would be a good next step, but the

numbers that I've heard referred to in relation to the

Obama administration are around 1,500, which would be a

rather minimal incremental step downward. I'm not sure

how much emphasis to put on that kind of

incrementalism, or even on the number itself, when in

the bigger picture it is not the number that is

critical as much as it is the demonstration of

political will to achieve zero. At the same time, if it

turns out that it's not a very significant reduction, I

think that may be a warning sign that the bureaucrats

working on stabilization and wanting to continue

American nuclear dominance are in more control than perhaps Obama is.


RF: That's always a question as to how much leadership

is possible in the national security domain of policy

because of the strength of the permanent bureaucracy -

its nonaccountability and its links to influential

media. That's why I feel it is so important to have

this counter pressure mounted by a mobilized civil

society to the extent possible. The question is whether

it is possible to mobilize civil society around this

kind of issue in the absence of existential fear of the

sort that existed from time to time in the Cold War.

When the American or European public became very scared

about the prospect of a nuclear war, then the climate

of opinion changed in favor of denuclearizing initiatives and visions.


DK: I think the greater problem in relation to nuclear

energy is the intense desire of many countries around

the world to proceed with development of nuclear

energy, in part because they believe it shows a high

level of technological achievement. They have bought-in

to the promotional arguments that nuclear power will

provide a country with its energy needs at a relatively

low cost. I don't think that's a correct understanding,

but it's widespread. When I was at the 2009 Non-

Proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee meeting, I

didn't hear one country denounce the idea of the spread

of nuclear energy technology, and most of them were

continuing to enthusiastically embrace it.


RF: I think the oil squeeze with rising prices and the

prospect of supply scarcities, as well as skepticism

about the contribution of solar and wind energy, is

making opposition to nuclear energy a losing battle. I

don't think you can stop the spread of nuclear energy

capabilities. What can be done is to insist on a

safeguarding and monitoring superstructure that makes

diversion for military development much more difficult.

Even this will be difficult to accomplish without

reciprocating denuclearizing moves by the nuclear weapons states.


DK: You absolutely have to stop the production and use

of highly enriched uranium; convert existing stockpiles

of highly enriched uranium to low-enriched uranium only

for power plants; have safeguards that involve

international challenge inspections; and control all

fissionable materials, including any reprocessing of

plutonium. It will be a major undertaking. It will make

the job of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons

harder by many degrees.


RF: Incredibly difficult, and it will be very difficult

to get countries, like the U.S., to accept the same

kind of regulatory standards that it would want to

impose on others and without mutuality nothing very

significant can be achieved.




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