Time for Change? Will we see nuclear disarmament?

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Will we see a policy of nuclear disarmament adopted under President Obama? His speech in Prague at the beginning of April was interpreted by many in this way and it is certainly important that the world's most powerful politician has expressed support for nuclear disarmament. There is, however, a problematic relationship between ultimate goals and practical policy steps. Not the least of the problems involved is that of the 'After You' principle: everyone is for nuclear disarmament, provided someone else takes the first steps.

Also of importance is the practical matter of how things stand now: at the present time the US has 2700 directly usable nuclear warheads available, of which 2,500 are categorised as strategic. Of 500 tactical nuclear bombs, meant for use over short distances, 200 are stationed in Europe in the framework of NATO nuclear policy (see table). Between ten and twenty of these are in the Netherlands.

Russia possesses up to 2,700 usable nuclear warheads. Reserve stocks such as those enumerated in the table exist also on the Russian side. These would be nuclear warheads with no delivery system or those earmarked for dismantling. These numbers are much smaller than were total nuclear weapon stocks at the high-point of the Cold War: some 45,000 for Russia in the 1980s, and around 32,000 for the US in the 1960s.

This colossal reduction certainly represents progress, but the big question is progress towards what? The existing nuclear strike force remains easily sufficient to destroy the world many times over. Unfortunately, it isn't of much importance whether one can do this a thousand times or a hundred. The consequences of nuclear war would still be the end of civilisation. Only a reduction to zero, as demanded by the anti-nuclear weapon movement, is acceptable if the security of humanity is the priority.

General statements in favour of nuclear disarmament, such as that made last year by Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen, and this year by President Obama, are important. But practical steps are even more important. Since his statement, Verhagen has made it clear where his limits lie. In answer to questions from Socialist Party (SP) Member of Parliament Harry van Bommel, as to whether he was prepared to rid Dutch soil of American nuclear weapons, he said: "NATO policy has as one of its principles that the alliance will maintain nuclear capacity in Europe at the minimum level necessary for the preservation of peace and stability. Alteration of this policy can only occur in consultation with all of the allies. Unilateral disarmament would, as things stand, be counter-productive."

Following the US elections the Obama government did indeed take a number of steps. Serious negotiations were established with Russia over a new treaty further to limit the number of nuclear weapons. The US has, in fact, already reached the level - 2200 strategic nuclear weapons - agreed in the Moscow accords of 2002, and each side wants to prolong the START agreement, laying down new limits. (START - the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty - allows both the United States and Russia to maintain 6,000 operational strategic nuclear warheads. During a meeting of the Russian and American Foreign Ministers, Sergey Lavrov and Hilary Clinton, in Geneva at the beginning of March, this aim was explicitly confirmed. The goal is to arrive by the end of 2009 at a verifiable nuclear strike force of 1,000 warheads on each side. The thinking in relation to this is that the major nuclear powers must demonstrate that they are serious about nuclear disarmament if they want to enjoy a credible position during the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference due to take place in 2010. This gathering is seen by all sides as a last chance to reach an international agreement to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons.

Obama's promise to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty is also important, though a hard fight is expected in the US Senate, which must agree to it. Yet the US government maintains at the same time a policy which envisages the maintenance of an admittedly smaller, but more robust nuclear arsenal. Secretary of Defence Gates declared at the beginning of May that the path to nuclear disarmament is a long one, thus confirming previous declarations from Pentagon spokespeople that in the Nuclear Posture Review (an inventory of the American nuclear strike force)which will be made public at the beginning of 2010, no reference would be made to nuclear disarmament. In addition, plans in the Department of Energy's budget to spend billions of dollars on the modernisation of existing nuclear weapons and the building of new nuclear arms installations mean that a major gap exists between President Obama's promises and stark reality.

Other steps supported by Obama are to a large extent aimed at countering the proliferation of nuclear weapons by a freeze at the status quo, through putting a stop to nuclear tests and to the production of fissile material, and extending punitive regulations against new nuclear-armed states. The absence in the Prague speech of any mention of the existing fora for disarmament negotiations, such as the Conference on Disarmament, while the unilateral Proliferation Security Initiative initiated under President Bush was, in contrast, spoken of, is in this context worrying. If no more than those steps mentioned by Obama were to be taken, this would point to a policy under which the existing nuclear strike force would be frozen at a lower level, while a monopoly for a small number of countries on possession of fissile material would be established. This is not enough to create a consensus at next year's NPT Review Conference and self-evidently no satisfactory promise of nuclear disarmament. For this reason sustained support for the campaign of Dr. Tadatoshi Akiba, Mayor of Hiroshima and President of Mayors for Peace for an addition to the Non-Proliferation Treaty - the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Protocol - in which such guarantees would be given, is of enormous importance.
Karel Koster works for the Socialist Party research bureau in Rotterdam. This article was first published, in Dutch, in the Summer 2009 edition of NVMP Nieuwsbrief, the newsletter of a Dutch organisation promoting peace and public health.