Last April, in the Czech capital of Prague, Barack Obama stood in front of a crowd of 20,000 and announced that, unlike any president before him, he would work to develop peace and security for a world without nuclear weapons. There was rapturous applause. These devices are, after all, Cold War relics with no conceivable military utility today. By hanging onto them, the US and others in the exclusive nuclear club are only helping to convince would-be proliferators that it’s a club they need to join.
But President Obama’s anti-nuclear sentiments were greeted less enthusiastically back home, including by certain elements of his own administration.
The fight over "socialised medicine" is not the only battle being waged by conservatives in Washington at the moment. For months the White House has been at loggerheads with the Pentagon over moves to bring official nuclear doctrines into line with Obama’s professed vision for a nuclear-weapons-free world.
His eagerly awaited "nuclear posture review" has now been delayed three times because of the infighting. It is expected to be made public later this month. The details of the review, and the overall emphasis it places on nuclear weapons in providing for the nation’s security (currently they play a "critical role"), will matter enormously both in terms of halting nuclear proliferation and advancing nuclear disarmament — two sides of the same coin. Progress on one front will depend on progress on the other.
The review will also have significant implications for Australia as one of only three nations outside NATO to benefit from the dubious protection of America’s "nuclear umbrella", which from above looks more like a bullseye. According to current doctrine, if an adversary wielding nuclear, chemical, biological or even conventional forces were to threaten us, the US would be willing to drop a nuclear bomb on them. Are Australians comfortable with this possibility, however remote it may be?
When a country like the United States envisages unleashing its nuclear weapons against non-nuclear targets — as it has done since the Clinton years — one cannot credibly maintain that these weapons are purely for deterrence against nuclear attack.
George W Bush broadened the doctrines for nuclear use further after 9/11 to include the possibility of a pre-emptive US strike. He sold it as a component of his war on terror, although nobody has quite been able to explain how a nuclear bomb could ever be effective in deterring terrorists, who have no territory or population to defend.
President Obama wants to backtrack from this position, but only slightly. He says that the "primary" purpose of US nuclear forces should be to deter a nuclear attack against America or its allies. But this kind of policy ambiguity will do little to help the US persuade nations seeking nuclear weapons capability that they have no real use. Further, a broad policy for nuclear use is clearly unnecessary from a practical point of view, given that America has vastly superior conventional forces to any other country in the world.
But Pentagon hawks remain unconvinced. They are also resisting the President’s plans to cut the size of America’s nuclear arsenal, which currently consists of 9400 ground-based, sea-launched and airborne warheads, most of them hundreds of times more powerful than the A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Roughly 2000 of these weapons are kept on hair-trigger alert — a Cold War anachronism that imperils us all. Russia has just as many pointing back at America on the same level of readiness, and thousands of theirs are reportedly vulnerable to theft.
But if there’s any cause for hope it’s that the two nations recently resumed talks on a Strategic Arms Reduction (START) follow-on treaty to reduce their stockpiles of strategically deployed weapons. However, the reductions being discussed are hardly ambitious, and the end agreement is unlikely to address the 15,000 or so nuclear bombs maintained in reserve as a hedge. Moreover, Obama’s decision in February to cut spending on the US dismantlement program and boost funding to the nuclear labs has left many doubting his commitment to making substantial cuts.
Another point of serious contention is the continued stationing of some 250 tactical US warheads in Europe. Three weeks ago, the German, Belgian and Dutch governments expressed official discontent for the first time at having these weapons placed on their soil. But this concern is more likely to be raised in the context of NATO’s own nuclear review, due out later this year, than in the US review.
Despite all the uncertainties surrounding the US review, one thing has been clear from the outset: it will play a crucial role in defining the global mood on disarmament for the next four years. A strong review will bode well for the important Non-Proliferation Treaty conference in May. The last such gathering, in 2005, was derailed by the US, with France as an accessory. States couldn’t agree on any course of action. This time around, no matter how underwhelming the US review turns out to be, we are unlikely to witness another train wreck.
That said, we know from the NPT conference in 2000 that the adoption of bold plans, including unequivocal undertakings by the nuclear-weapon states to disarm, is meaningless without a genuine commitment to follow through. Thus, we should judge President Obama not by the power of his oratory or the strength of his ideals — as demonstrated last year in Prague — but by the actual, measurable progress he manages to make towards abolition. Words alone only provide the illusion of security.
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