Nuclear Debate

By editor on 02-03-2010



This debate began when Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group wrote a February 10, 2010 commentary for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. I posted his commentary on this site and wrote a response. I then invited a variety of leaders of nuclear disarmament efforts and specialists in nuclear issues to respond to the Mello-Knight exchange.

In all there have been ten contributors (see list below) to this debate which touches on many important points of agreement and disagreement. This is a discussion that needs to continue among experts, activists, and the wider citizenry.

I have compiled the responses in chronological order on this page and made them individually accessible by the tabs at the top of the page or sequentially by the navigation buttons at the bottom of each section.

I have added a selection of other relevant postings (tab: Addenda) at the end of this compilation — accessible individually by the tabs.

I encourage you to add your voice to this debate, should you be moved to do so. I will publish here any informed, thoughtful and respectful viewpoints. Submit your piece using the site contact form.

Charles Knight, editor

Contributions to the debate chronologically — navigate to each using tabs at top of page

Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group, original commentary in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Charles Knight, Project on Defense Alternatives, responded to the Mello commentary
Greg Mello responded to Charles Knight’s comments
Martin Senn, U. of Innsbruck, responded and elaborated at on Mello’s original commentary
Bill Hartung, Arms and Security Initiative, New America Foundation, responded to the Mello-Knight exchange
Paul Ingram, BASIC, responded to the Mello-Knight exchange
Jonathan Granoff, Global Security Institute, responded to the Mello-Knight exchange
Todd Fine, Global Zero, responded to the Mello-Knight exchange
John Isaacs, Council for a Liveable World, responded to Mello in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Robert G. Gard, Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, responded to Mello in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Greg Mello responded to Isaacs and Gard in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Robert G. Gard and John Isaacs responded to Greg Mello in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
Matthew Hoey, Military Space Transparency Project, responded to the Mello-Knight exchange

Mello 1

The Obama disarmament paradox

Greg Mello. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 10 February 2010. Greg Mello is the executive director and co-founder of the Los Alamos Study Group.

Last April in Prague, President Barack Obama gave a speech that many have interpreted as a commitment to significant nuclear disarmament.

Now, however, the White House is requesting one of the larger increases in warhead spending history. If its request is fully funded, warhead spending would rise 10 percent in a single year, with further increases promised for the future. Los Alamos National Laboratory, the biggest target of the Obama largesse, would see a 22 percent budget increase, its largest since 1944. In particular, funding for a new plutonium “pit” factory complex there would more than double, signaling a commitment to produce new nuclear weapons a decade hence.

So how is the president’s budget compatible with his disarmament vision?

The answer is simple: There is no evidence that Obama has, or ever had, any such vision. He said nothing to that effect in Prague. There, he merely spoke of his commitment “to seek . . . a world without nuclear weapons,” a vague aspiration and hardly a novel one at that level of abstraction. He said that in the meantime the United States “will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.”

Since nuclear weapons don’t, and won’t ever, “deter any adversary,” this too was highly aspirational, if not futile. The vain search for an “effective” arsenal that can deter “any” adversary requires unending innovation and continuous real investment, including investment in the extended deterrent to which Obama referred. The promise of such investments, and not disarmament, was the operative message in Prague as far as the U.S. stockpile was concerned. In fact, proposed new investments in extended deterrence were already being packaged for Congress when Obama spoke.

To fulfill his supposed “disarmament vision,” Obama offered just two approaches in Prague, both indefinite. First, he spoke vaguely of reducing “the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.” It’s far from clear what that might actually mean, or even what it could mean. Most likely it refers to official discourse–what officials say about nuclear doctrine–as opposed to actual facts on the ground. Second, Obama promised to negotiate “a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty [START] with the Russians.” As far as nuclear disarmament went in the speech, that was it.

Of course, Obama also said his administration would promptly pursue ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, an action not yet taken and one entirely unrelated to U.S. disarmament. The rest of the speech was devoted to various nonproliferation initiatives that his administration planned to seek.

On July 8, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced their Joint Understanding, committing their respective countries to somewhere between 500 to 1,100 strategic delivery vehicles and 1,500 to 1,675 deployed strategic warheads, very modest goals to be achieved a full seven years after the treaty entered into force. Total arsenal numbers wouldn’t change, so strategic warheads could be taken from deployment and placed in a reserve–de-alerted, in effect. The treaty wouldn’t affect nonstrategic warheads. It wouldn’t require dismantlement. As Hans Kristensen at the Federation of American Scientists has explained, the delivery vehicle limits require little, if any, change from U.S. and Russian expected deployments.

Ironically, it’s possible that the retirement PDF of 4,000 or more U.S. warheads under the Moscow Treaty and other retirements ordered by George W. Bush may exceed anything Obama does in terms of disarmament. As for the stockpile and weapons complex, Bush’s aspirations were far more hawkish than Congress ultimately allowed. Real budgets for warheads fell during his last three years in office. Now, with the Democrats controlling the executive branch and both houses of Congress, congressional restraint is notable by its absence. What Obama mainly seems to be “disarming” is congressional resistance to variations of some of the same proposals Bush found it difficult to authorize and fund.

Last May Obama sent his first budget to Congress, calling for flat warhead spending. At that time, the administration was still displaying a measured approach toward replacement and expansion of warhead capabilities.

That said, in last year’s budget the White House did acquiesce to a Pentagon demand to request funding for a major upgrade to four B61 nuclear bomb variants–one of which had just completed a 20-year-plus life-extension program. Just one day before that budget was released a grand nuclear strategy review previously requested by the armed services committees was unveiled. It was chaired by William Perry, a member of the governing board of the corporation that manages Los Alamos, and recurrent Cold War fixture James Schlesinger. [Full disclosure: Perry is also a member of the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors.]

The report’s recommendations for increased spending and weapons development quickly began to serve as a rallying point for defense hawks–surely the point of the exercise. Overall, it was largely a conclusory pastiche of recycled Cold War notions, entirely lacking in analysis and often factually wrong. But neither the White House nor leading congressional Democrats offered any public resistance or rebuttal to its conclusions.

More largely, opposition to nuclear restraint within the administration quickly emerged from its usual redoubts at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the Pentagon, STRATCOM, and interested players in both parties in Congress. Plus, Obama left key Bush appointees in place at NNSA while the Pentagon added some familiar faces from the Clinton administration, leaving serious questions about the ability of the White House to develop an independent understanding of the issues, let alone present one to Congress.

Either way, potential treaty ratification is surely a major factor in White House thinking. Senate Republicans, as expected, are demanding significant nuclear investments prior to considering ratification of any START follow-on treaty. Democratic hawks, especially powerful ones with pork-barrel interests at stake such as New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, also must be satisfied in the ratification process. All in all this makes the latest Obama budget request a kind of “preemptive surrender” to nuclear hawks. So whether or not the president has a disarmament “vision” is irrelevant. What is important are the policy commitments embodied in the budget request and whether Congress will endorse them.

Investments on the scale requested should be flatly unacceptable to all of us. The country and the world face truly apocalyptic security challenges from climate change and looming shortages of transportation fuels. Our economy is very weak and will remain so for the foreseeable future. The proposed increases in nuclear weapons spending, embedded as they are in an overall military budget bigger than any since the 1940s, should be a clarion call for renewed political commitment in service of the fundamental values that uphold this, or any, society.

Those values are now gravely threatened–not least by a White House uncertain about, or unwilling or unable to fight for, what is right.

Knight 1

Charles Knight comments on Mello

Mello does a good job of explaining why there will be little progress toward nuclear abolition during the Obama administration. Further he makes a good case that the current administration seems to be headed towards feeding the nuclear weapons complex to a greater degree than Bush was able. Who’d of thought!

But Mello misses on a couple points. One is that he dismisses too quickly the nuclear abolition aspiration Obama stated in Prague. Those few words may have little affect on policy, but they do mark a return to the rhetoric of all atomic age administrations up until George W. Bush markedly abandoned such aspirations. What is the value of that rhetoric? Mostly it gives credence to those who organize around abolition — something of value, but not much.

Secondly, Mello states that when Obama spoke of…

…reducing “the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy” it’s far from clear what that might actually mean, or even what it could mean.

Actually, this statement of Obama’s refers to something quite specific and important. The U.S. has been advancing for several decades to an unprecedented level of conventional force dominance over all other nations (see Bernard I. Finel on strategic meaning of U.S. conventional military power). At this point the U.S. can anticipate gaining even more strategic advantage if it can convince other nations to join in disposing of nuclear weaponry (for an official statement of this strategic formula see Vice President Biden’s speech at the National Defense University on 18 February 2010.) This is indeed quite an aspiration!

This connection of conventional dominance to nuclear dominance brings me to the other shortcoming of Mello’s article. Nuclear abolition will be impossible without a significant restructuring of the international (in-)security system. Why would Russia or China eschew nuclear weapons or N. Korea and Iran abandon efforts to obtain them while these nations remain utterly vulnerable to U.S. conventional strike?

Leaders of popular efforts for nuclear disarmament almost never acknowledge this strategic problem. That’s a disservice to their cause, because it leaves a major obstacle to disarmament in place with no plan (or even awareness of the need for a plan) to remove it.

The eventuality of an agreement to abolish nuclear weapons will require the U.S. to first draw down its conventional military power. And concurrent to a deep draw down of US conventional military power there must be a build up of international structures which can take up more and more of the responsibility for global security.

Such a transfer of power and responsibility will probably happen someday, but we are certainly not presently on that path. That is one more “change” that Obama is not pursuing, not even aspirationally.

Mello 2

Greg Mello responds to Charles Knight’s comments

I think your comments are excellent. Let me begin with the second one, with which I wholly agree. Our work here at the [Los Alamos] Study Group has emphasized nuclear weapons issues in part because of our geographic, and hence political, locus adjacent to the two largest nuclear weapons laboratories.

The barrier to nuclear disarmament posed by military policies and investments that express an aspiration for “full spectrum dominance” on a global scale is almost certainly insuperable. Nuclear disarmament is only consistent with a quite different conception of national security than we now have and with a quite different economic structure internally as well. The good news — and I think we have to make it good where it may not appear so at first glance, since we have no other choice — is that our empire is failing.

Your first point, which relates to the symbolic value of Obama’s disarmament statements, is also sound, but here I think that symbolic value is greatly outweighed by the passivity and compliance which his statements have engendered in civil society. The actors and forces which could and should be forcefully working for disarmament have been themselves disarmed by what amounts to propaganda.

Hypocrisy may be the homage paid to the ideal by the real, but it is not leadership, it is not honest, and it will not produce anything of value in this case. At the moment, it is allowing the nuclear weapons establishment to do what it could not accomplish previously: increase production capacity and provide greater, not lesser, endorsement of nuclear weapons in all their aspects, both materially and symbolically.

Obama’s disarmament aspiration, so called, is a faint echo compared to the full-throated endorsement of nuclear weapons it is enabling.


The (second) Obama disarmament paradox

Martin Senn., 10 February 2010.
Martin Senn is a lecturer in International Security at the University of Innsbruck (Austria). The focus of his research is on nuclear proliferation, non- and counter-proliferation, as well as on ballistic missile defense.


Greg Mello has an op-ed on the web-page of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in which he argues that the increase of funding for nuclear weapons in the federal budget request contradicts President Obama’s stated goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Now here is my take on a second Obama disarmament paradox:

Reading through the DoD’s BMD Review Report the other day, two things caught my eye:

First: In the section on co-operation with the Russian Federation, the report states that “the Administration will continue to reject any negotiated restraints on U.S. ballistic missile defense.” (p. 34) This sounds like there will be rough times ahead for further offensive reductions as Russian political and military elites have repeatedly linked further reductions to an agreement on missile defense (if you have the common “Russia has to disarm anyway”-argument in mind, you should drop by Pavel Podvig’s blog and let yourself convince of the contrary)

Second, and even more interesting: The report also notes that the US needs to put an emphasis on the development and deployment of

… missile defenses that are both relocatable and scalable. Relocatable assets can be surged to a region in times of crisis, providing increased capability against a larger threat raid size. This feature will also allow missile defenses to be brought to bear in regions relatively swiftly. Scalable assets can be integrated into existing regional architectures. (p. 27)

In addition, the DoD intends

… to develop an ‘engage on remote’ technology that includes not only launching on data from a remote sensor track but also the ability to uplink data from assets other than the Aegis radar. This will allow the interceptor to engage the threat missile at greater ranges.” (p. 22)

An illustration on the same page shows a forward-based X-band radar and a space-based sensor providing information to an Aegis ship.

Alright, now here is a brief passage of Dean Wilkening’s 2000 Adelphi Paper “Ballistic Missile Defense and Strategic Stability”:

Only when upper-tier interceptors are guided in flight beyond the range of their tracking and fire control radars can THAAD or NTW [Navy Theater Wide] provide substantial coverage of the US. For example, if accurate track data is obtained early in the trajectory of an intercontinental missile by sensors such as upgraded early-warning radars located outside the US or SBIRS-Low, and this track data is communicated to interceptors in flight, then the hypothetical THAAD footprint against ICBMs increases to a circle about 1,100km in diameter. This implies that 10-12 sites could cover the continental United States. Between three and four NTW footprints would be required under these circumstances. Currently, neither THAAD nor NTW is being designed to accept track data in flight except from their ground- or sea-based radars. However, if SBIRS-Low is deployed, Russian planners fearing the worst might believe that upper-tier TMD interceptors could be guided in flight using its track data, especially if the in-flight interceptor communications system is deployed as part of a future US NMD system. [emphasis added]

On balance, it is hard to imagine that Russia or China would be willing to considerably reduce their offensive arsenals, if the US retains the ability to boost the homeland defense by relocating and/or connecting TMD systems with remote sensors.


Bill Hartung responds to the Mello-Knight exchange

William D. Hartung is Director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation. He responded on 15 February 2010 to the Knight-Mello exchange of views on nuclear disarmament and the Obama administration.


Obama’s aspirations go beyond just his statement at Prague. He is in the midst of negotiating a new nuclear arms
reduction treaty with Russia, with a possible follow-on seeking deeper cuts; he has committed himself publicly to pursuing ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a treaty banning the production of bomb-making materials
(the Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty); he is hosting a nuclear security summit of scores of nations to work on plans to secure or destroy “loose nukes” and bomb-making materials; and he hosted a meeting of the UN Security Council (the first U.S. president to do so) to reinforce disarmament pledges of numerous key players.

Some of these changes can occur without major restructuring of U.S. conventional forces (new reductions with Russia and new nuclear security measures, for example).

Everything beyond that will require substantial changes first, as Charles suggests, not only in U.S conventional forces and posture but in regional politics in security dynamics in South Asia (India and Pakistan) and the Middle East (Israel, Iran, and host of related questions, including an Israeli-Palestinian setttlement). And current actions such as boosting spending on the nuclear weapons complex need to be reversed.

Many of these factors are rarely or not fully discussed by many — but not all — of the advocates of “getting to zero.”

So, I guess I agree with many of the points made by Charles and Greg, but I’m not ready to give up on the prospect of some significant changes in nuclear policies and postures. My sense is that we should applaud Obama’s commitments and then hold him to his word, not presume that progress is impossible.


Paul Ingram responds to Mello-Knight exchange

Paul Ingram is the executive director of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC). He responded on 15 February 2010 to the Mello-Knight exchange of views on nuclear disarmament and the Obama administration.


Everyone knows that in this tough world of realist nuclear politics it does not pay to be naïve. What is less frequently recognised is that in a world of global threat it can be equally dangerous to play an extreme game of zero trust.

So we have to go through this strange and difficult world navigating a constant and complex series of considered calculations, making judgments based upon evidence and previous experience, what we can trust and what we cannot. That goes as much for those of us trying to influence decision-makers as much as for officials making decisions over foreign policy.

So when a President gets up and makes a speech that contains within it commitments to a world free of nuclear weapons, proposing a number of initiatives, and looking forward to concrete commitments in the near term, it pays to be hopeful, but not gullible. And we have the first test of this hope in the very near future when the President comes to publish a version of his long awaited Nuclear Posture Review.

Let me say at the outset that I am not intimately familiar with the inner workings of the Obama Adminsitration’s game plan, with the NPR, the START follow-on negotiations, these investments. I don’t like these investments in the infrastructure [weapons complex] any more than Greg. I think they are a waste of US taxpayer’s resources, and America and the world would be better off without them, with existing budgets devoted to further winding down the infrastructure, clean-up and the like.

But there remain several reasons for treating Obama’s nuclear diplomacy, and these investments, seriously:

1) It is a new departure. Now, bask in that fact, but I agree with Greg, this is hardly a cause for great celebration.

2) There are no obvious electoral benefits in this for Obama beyond the concrete international results that pertain. Few Americans will vote differently on this, unless President Obama actually delivers upon this agenda and appears come the next election as a President that delivers on the international scene. In actual fact, if the agenda were a cynical one, he will more likely end up seen as a President big on promises and weak on delivery – whether he is genuine or not, this is a likely and very depressing outcome.

3) The view that is being taken by the Administration over the need for this level of extra investment may be misguided, but it does hold a certain level of internal consistency. Let’s be honest, few things in politics are pure and simple, black and white. Even the JASON report, when pointing out that the warheads were in good shape, said that the infrastructure itself was under severe strain through lack of investment and the challenge of attracting talent into the profession. The belief that we need to reduce slowly and multilaterally whilst maintaining a nuclear force well into the future may be frustrating to many of us, and highlight the fact that we still live in a world where governments have not yet understood the need for more radical shifts in their postures, but it does not contradict the vision. And let’s be clear here, commitment to the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, whilst only the first step, is an important one nevertheless. And if you were based in France, you’d know what a big step it was.

4) Perhaps most important, the Obama Administration, and we ourselves, need to consider strategically how we can realistically bring the majority of Americans, Russians, and God knows, the Indians, Pakistanis and Israelis along with us (everyone these days focuses on the Iranians but trust me, they are easy in comparison). It is not effective simply to state positions and push through initiatives against majority opposition, even when you are the most powerful man in the world. You still have to convince Congress, the Americans people, and then colleagues abroad, in a huge complex web of inter-relationships that are not conducive to rational debate, let alone instruction. It takes gentle engagement, openness to others’ perspectives, appreciation of diversity, team work and many other cooperative skills beyond policy work to build the process necessary for disarmament. And that takes building confidence. And that probably requires the sort of investment we are witnessing today.


Jonathan Granoff responds to the Mello-Knight exchange

Jonathan Granoff is president of the Global Security Institute. He responded on 15 February 2010 to the Knight-Mello exchange of views on nuclear disarmament and the Obama administration.
Jonathan Granoff is the author of Memo to Obama: Nuclear Weapons, which appeared in Tikkun Magazine, January-February 2009.


Was President Obama outplayed by DOD and DOE? They have posed a very clever analysis. If progress is to be had on nonproliferation, such as support for a test ban, then modernization and the ability to strengthen the capacity to improve the arsenal seems to be the cost. Does this still allows them to say that the modernization “might require testing someday?” This will be an enormous benefit for those who want to stop the test ban. Will it not be like the Clinton administration’s deal with Stockpile Stewardship where he thought funding it would generate their support for the test ban but did not gain the full out support of DOE?

I am consistently surprised by how naive politicians appear when challenged by strategic military planners. So, I state this as an example where it appears that President Obama really wants to make progress (not necessarily on disarmament, but certainly on nonproliferation) and even here he is getting cul de sacked.

Or, is he fully aware of the strategy being played out. Does Mr. Mello think he was being deceptive in the Prague speech, or just a bit cute?

Regardless, the current programs being funded that Mr. Mello highlights will certainly make achieving any strengthening of the nonproliferation aspirations of the Administration at the upcoming NPT very difficult. They certainly do not seem to be consistent with a commitment to disarmament.

I sincerely hope I am wrong and look forward to hearing from some of the people in the current Administration whom I respect very much, such as Ambassador Rice and Assistant Secretary of State Gottemoeller.

Mello 3

Greg Mello responds to Jonathan Granoff

Among your other interesting points, you raise this question: “Does Mr. Mello think he [Obama] was being deceptive in the Prague speech, or just a bit cute?” I would say neither. The substitution of an aspiration for a commitment or promise is a rhetorical device so normal these questions don’t arise. Both the speaker and the audience expect some sort of ritual acknowledgment of our common aspirations. The gap between those aspirations and our actual practice is fairly embarrassing; many members of the audience are looking for some sort of fantasy bridge between the two. They don’t want bad news, they want “hope.”

Somehow we have gone from “I will put a chicken in every pot” to “I will seek to put a chicken in every pot.” There is less accountability in the second formulation, which may be especially helpful in a time of contracting national prospects — in which contraction, the increased nuclear military spending I am criticizing plays a central symbolic role. Our hopes are greater than the realities available to service them. We, and our donors and supporters, want Santa Claus.


Todd Fine responds to the Mello-Knight exchange

Todd Fine organized and developed the Global Zero campaign for the elimination of nuclear weapons as a program officer at the World Security Institute. He is currently working to establish the Iran Data Portal at Princeton University. He responded on 18 February 2010 to the Knight-Mello exchange of views on nuclear disarmament and the Obama administration.


President Obama’s exceedingly generous budget request for the nuclear weapons labs has boiled long-simmering anxieties about the concrete policy impact of his frequently expressed “vision” for “a world without nuclear weapons.” Aligning with the prominent series of op-eds in The Wall Street Journal, Obama repeated this earnest aspiration consistently throughout the campaign for the presidency, and in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech and April 2009 policy speech in Prague.

Given the ambition of this vision in practical terms, and, of course, the now apparent serious interest in its achievement by predecessor Ronald Reagan, it is not surprising that long-time advocates have expected policy proposals that would explicitly move in this direction. Yet, these budgeting numbers signal an overall regression. They will further institutionalize the development of new weapons and will make restructuring the labs toward other functions more difficult.

The failure to assure advocates began at the rhetoric’s root. Despite the welcome credibility they have given the anti-nuclear cause, the op-ed authors – George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and William Perry – had a burden to consider how other countries perceive the size and activities of our weapons laboratories. At the same time in 2007 that American anti-nuclear lobbyists and activists were feverishly working to block funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) in Congress, Kissinger forwarded an analysis by Shultz and Hoover fellow Sidney Drell to Sen. Pete Domenici supporting investments in the program. And although Nunn declared that he was opposed to the RRW, he signaled his acceptance for large-scale increases in lab funding in the foursome’s third op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on January 19, 2010. Unlike the previous op-eds, which were enthusiastically endorsed by others and received with much fanfare by the press, this one seemed clinically designed to give their reputational blessing to the upcoming budget numbers.

Chief nuclear negotiator under President Reagan, Max Kampelman, who has claimed that he originally prompted George Shultz to return to the question of elimination, has advocated a bold path to zero using multilateral processes in the United Nations. Indeed, outlining the divisions among the foreign policy elite, the Global Zero campaign was initiated by a number of attendees of the Shultz-led Hoover Institution meetings who were dissatisfied with the extreme focus on short-term “steps” instead of the explicit practicalities of achieving the ultimate goal. And following that, the policy program of Global Zero itself has revealed a split between the advocates of immediate multilateralization of the strategic arms control process and others who propose that a decades-long series of U.S.-Russia agreements expand into a multilateral process.

These assorted divisions among the elite may come to the fore at the May NPT Review Conference as other nations test the United States’ new-found commitment to the treaty’s stated objective of disarmament. Given the current crises involving Iran and North Korea and the shortening window of Obama’s dynamism on the world stage, if the President fails to inspire others to adopt his “vision” and work toward elimination concretely, he may miss a singular opportunity. If CTBT, which is symbolic despite its limitations, is not ratified by the conference date, these budget requests alone may devastate U.S. credibility. And as Greg Mello’s logic indicates, other nations are unlikely to be impressed with the scale of the START follow-on treaty, and there are not yet any indications that the posture review language on “the role” of nuclear weapons will be that momentous in terms of practical implications.

In order to blunt these concerns and sincerely recommit to the vision, there are a number of policy proposals the Obama administration could potentially advocate going into the review conference:

1. A funded international program that would initiate cooperative research into verification technologies and enforcement strategies that would be required in a world of “global zero.”

2. The initiation of an international audit of all existing nuclear weapons and material.

3. Sponsorship of initial discussions on a timeline for negotiations and targets involved in the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

However, as Charles Knight mentioned with respect to international concerns about the United States’ superiority in conventional weapons, these actions would only be a start. Given the terrifying overall budget projections and the abject failure of our military contracting and procurement processes, the United States needs to reformulate its entire defense posture and budget. In order to convince states like Russia and China to approach low numbers of nuclear weapons, it might even be necessary to consider multilateral treaty restrictions on general conventional forces and on specific advanced weapons systems like Prompt Global Strike. If the elimination aspiration is sincere, then these concerns are unavoidable and should be seriously studied and contemplated.

Max Kampelman, the symbolic initiator of the present return to abolitionism, has spoken powerfully of what real leadership by an American president, especially when morally confident and unabashed, can accomplish. President Obama’s rhetoric on the elimination of nuclear weapons apparently inspired some enough to award him the Nobel Peace Prize; if he is sincere, he owes it to the younger generation to present a clear path to elimination, if not in his lifetime, then in ours.

Isaacs & Gard 1

The Obama disarmament paradox: A rebuttal

John Isaacs and Robert G. Gard, Jr. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 24 February 2010.

John Isaacs: The executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Isaacs represents the center’s sister organization, Council for a Livable World, on Capitol Hill. His expertise is in how Congress works, especially when it pertains to national security issues such as nuclear weapons and missile defense. Previously, he served as a legislative assistant on foreign affairs to former New York Democratic Rep. Stephen Solarz.

Robert G. Gard Jr.: A consultant on international security and education, Gard is the chair of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation’s Board of Directors. He also is a member of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board. Previously, he served as president of the Monterey Institute of International Studies and as director of the Johns Hopkins University Bologna Center. During a military career that spanned three decades, he was an assistant to the secretary of defense and president of the National Defense University.


Greg Mello’s recent Bulletin article “The Obama Disarmament Paradox” distorts the Obama administration’s nuclear agenda by making unjustified assumptions that discredit President Barack Obama’s historic commitment to seek a nuclear-weapon-free world. Obama has committed to such a goal several times–both before and after his election in November 2008. But Mello calls that a “vague aspiration” rather than a commitment. Yet the evidence he provides to support his assertion isn’t persuasive.

In fact, the president has advocated for numerous initiatives in a comprehensive nonproliferation program. These include winning U.N. Security Council endorsement for a nuclear-weapon-free world; negotiating a new arms reduction treaty with Russia, which Obama considers an interim agreement toward further reductions; preparing a Nuclear Posture Review consistent with reducing the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy; pledging to secure all loose nuclear materials over a four-year period; and taking an active role at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.

As President Obama stated during his seminal Prague speech on nuclear disarmament, achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world is a long-term goal that might not be achievable in his lifetime, but that doesn’t minimize the necessity of taking interim steps to reduce the likelihood of nuclear proliferation.

Mello sees Obama’s requested increase in the fiscal year 2011 budget for stockpile stewardship and the construction of new facilities at the nuclear laboratories as a commitment to the production of new nuclear weapons. Yet the administration has made clear that there are no such plans underfoot; the 2011 budget request states unequivocally that “new weapons systems will not be built.” As such, the president’s requested increase in nuclear expenditures should be viewed in the context of seeking ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and further nuclear weapon reductions.

More largely, there is nothing inconsistent between a vision of a nuclear-weapon-free world and ensuring a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent in the interim, including refurbishment of aging systems, providing the labs with facilities to replace their deteriorating physical plants, and maintaining the essential expertise that the scientists at the labs provide. Nor does such a deterrent require “unending innovation,” as Mello claims. Our current nuclear weapons inventory, validated by extensive testing, is more than adequate to deter the use of nuclear weapons against the United States, our troops abroad, and our allies, provided sufficient resources are dedicated to the Stockpile Stewardship Program.

Mello also seems to forget that the pursuit of a nuclear-weapon-free world is both national and international law; the NPT, which the United States has ratified, includes a commitment to seek nuclear disarmament. Not to mention that the treaty has an important practical component: Its non-nuclear weapon states have conditioned treaty cooperation on the NPT’s nuclear weapon states fulfilling their obligations under Article VI to move toward full nuclear disarmament.

Thus, the “vision” of a nuclear-weapon-free world is essential as context for “the various nonproliferation initiatives” in Obama’s plan to reduce dangerous threats to our national security–e.g., nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

President John F. Kennedy’s June 1963 nuclear test ban speech at American University is famous not only for its rhetoric but also for its follow-through: Kennedy’s words led to the end of aboveground nuclear testing. While it is legitimate to be skeptical about how successful Obama will be in implementing his disarmament agenda, let’s hope Mello and others will wait to see how the follow-through progresses before they judge him too harshly. Anything else would be unfair.

Mello 4

Greg Mello responds to John Isaacs and Robert Gard:

A “commitment” to a goal that a speaker says he may not achieve in his lifetime (let alone in his administration, the only germane period) is by definition an aspiration at best. If that “commitment” isn’t concrete and specific it is vague. Such were Obama’s very few words in Prague (and since) pertaining to disarmament. There have been no significant actions.
I am interested in action — ours and the government’s — not “hope.”

In your reply, you simply reiterate the Administration’s themes on these points.

If you look over what you wrote, you will see that you freely conflate disarmament with nonproliferation issues and initiatives. You’re not alone; many people do. I suppose that’s the idea. These are quite different things, obviously. Preventing others from acquiring a nuclear deterrent has precious little to do with getting rid of my own. I nowhere argue against sound, just, and legal measures to prevent nuclear proliferation.

I think you err significantly when you say “the pursuit of a nuclear-weapons-free world is both national and international law.” It is the achievement, not the pursuit, of this goal that is a binding legal requirement, unanimously confirmed by the International Court of Justice. Attempting to substitute an alleged aspiration (and that ominously vague), for achievement is a big step down from logic and law, a grave political disservice. This is all the more true when this alleged aspiration comes from the very temporary leader of the world’s largest and most aggressive military power, and is then followed by a very large increase in nuclear weapons spending.

I never said that a nuclear deterrent required “unending innovation.” I suspect we agree that the reverse is true. What I said was quite different: that the “deterrence of any adversary” to which Obama referred was unachievable, and therefore its pursuit implied unending innovation. I think investment itself, together with an ideology of technical “progress” – often expressed through fads like the quest for greater device “surety” – creates the hope that a “credible” nuclear deterrent, a deterrent that is relevant to “any” adversary as well as one that is “safe” and “secure,” can someday finally be achieved. Nuclear weapons will never be safe, secure, and they will never deter “any” adversary.

There’s many reasons why our leaders engage in this kind of crazy talk, and none of them are pretty.

Disarmament aside, the warhead complex, especially at the physics labs, is riddled with waste and unnecessary programs and missions, which help drive down morale and scientific quality. I and many others believe the complex is grossly over-funded (by at least 40%) for the mission of maintaining the present arsenal indefinitely. Much smaller arsenals, right on down to zero, would be quite desirable from every perspective, and cheaper. The U.S. arsenal can be unilaterally reduced to much lower levels without any loss of U.S. “security.”

If Obama wants to decrease the role of nuclear weapons in national security, and expects anybody to believe him, he must actually do so. Instead, building thousands of significantly upgraded bombs (a process already underway) with new requests to develop and produce more kinds of upgraded bombs, and the factories to make them, isn’t disarmament at all. It’s the modernization of everything for the long run – warheads, delivery systems, factories, everything.

Isaacs & Gard 2

Robert Gard and John Isaacs continue the exchange:

It’s gratifying to learn that Greg Mello agrees with us on the desirability of both sound measures to prevent nuclear proliferation and a “much smaller” U.S. nuclear arsenal. For our part, we agree with him that the increase in funds programmed for the nuclear laboratories is excessive, although we don’t see any inconsistency between ensuring a safe, secure, reliable, and effective nuclear stockpile and reducing its size.

We may have a basic disagreement regarding deterrence. It’s not clear whether Mello’s quote of deterring “any adversary” includes non-state actors or only nation states. If he is referring to nation states only, we believe even extended deterrence can be accomplished without “unending innovation” and with a smaller stockpile. If his definition includes non-state actors bent on terrorism, no amount of innovation or real investment can deter them from using a nuclear weapon should they acquire one.

We certainly concede the point that most measures designed to reduce the likelihood of nuclear proliferation wouldn’t qualify as disarmament, but they may facilitate reductions in nuclear stockpiles, which would qualify as disarmament.

Finally, let’s return to the basic issue of President Obama’s commitment to seeking, as a goal, a nuclear-weapon-free world. Even if it is an “aspiration,” that doesn’t reduce its importance. Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligates the nuclear weapons states, including the United States, “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament.” And although Mello might not consider the action “significant,” Obama did chair a U.N. Security Council meeting with other heads of state that resulted in a resolution affirming the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world. Additionally, to meet our obligation under Article VI, Obama has stated his intent to follow up the new START treaty with negotiations involving all of the nuclear powers to reduce stockpiles of weapons.

Coming full circle, these actions taken are essential to obtain the cooperation of the non-nuclear weapons states in measures to reduce the likelihood of nuclear weapons proliferation, which both we and Mello favor.


Matthew Hoey responds the the Mello-Knight exchange

Matthew Hoey is the founder of the Military Space Transparency Project (MSTP) and a former senior research associate at the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies (IDDS) where he specialized in forecasting developments in missile defense and military space technologies. He responded on 02 March 2010 to the Mello-Knight exchange of views on nuclear disarmament and the Obama administration.

President Obama’s hopes to begin the long march toward a nuclear free future are not limited to just words, though I understand how some may believe this to be the case. Upon closer examination, the President is taking the critical first steps in an effort to go beyond his address at Prague. The President is in the process of negotiating a new arms control treaty with the Russians, and it is highly likely that he will be pursuing even deeper cuts in the future. He has also made efforts to expand and strengthen the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Where are the results? Why have we not seen action? When will the nuclear threat begin to wane–even if it happens ever so slightly?

This is a very informative thread, and I have enjoyed reading all of the entries. What Charles [Knight] has initiated here serves as an example of how if we draw upon all of the myriad arguments before us, we are sure to paint a more nuanced picture of the road to consensus and cooperation. The same could not be truer in regard to our domestic political and international diplomatic climates as well. Parties in all corners have legitimate disputes and concerns, and until these are all fully addressed in a courageous and aggressive new fashion it is my belief that our drive towards zero will never get in gear. Here are my thoughts on how we can get moving.

One step would be for both American and Russian defense industries to gradually be converted into commercial industries – in the current global economy this would be slow to begin but would eventually reap tremendous benefits. Such a transition would even free university students from the confines of military contractors as a leading option for employment, ensuring that this generation of young people would not be bound to the archaic practices of the military industrial complex. The ripple effects on cooperative defense would be tremendous. As it is, our overall military capabilities are already unrivaled. Such reductions in military spending and subsequent reinvestment in new technology would not in fact lessen our strategic dominance, since cooperative defense would diminish the move-countermove dynamic that has long undermined disarmament efforts. Then taking into consideration cooperative defense and the promotion of one another’s security, our mutual economic potential would be enhanced further, thus strengthening our international relationship to an unprecedented level.

This would not be a cooperative security agreement limited to just sharing military and launch data; such a partnership would also extend into a shared strategic defense. In this era where the war on terror and the threat from extremism is the focal point of nations such as the US and Russia—ever posed with internally-based security threats and intrusions by radicals who would not hesitate to use a nuclear weapons in a major city—this simply makes sense.

The pursuit of missile defense to guard against incoming threats is the single greatest impediment to progress – this is the lynch pin, and under the banner of reducing national security threats it does nothing more than increase them. It is a fool’s pursuit. Should the United States pull back from its BMD aspirations in concert with the initiation of cooperative defense discussions, real progress toward reducing the threat of a missile attack against the US could begin. This would also help to motivate the US and Russia to find common ground in regard to Iran during this heady time. With the world’s two military superpowers acting as enhanced security and economic partners, it is more likely that this leadership by example would take hold and could spur the beginning of a global trend over the long run.

Spending has long been unrestrained within the nuclear complex and the national labs. This is a perennial phenomenon—the effect of unwavering pork barrel spending and lobbying by elected officials in cahoots with the defense industry to bring home jobs to their home districts. This cannot be undone without disastrous results. The US economy is addicted to the defense dollar and must be weaned from it gradually. This would come in the form of a transition away from the development of destructive technology and towards the development of beneficial technologies, for example, alternative energy solutions or emerging technologies that would enhance space exploration. Far too many working American families rely upon the defense budget and the nuclear dollar. If consensus for disarmament efforts is to extend across the aisles of Congress and the Senate, this must be understood and honored. If not, we face divisions and a squandered opportunity that may not present itself again.

Once such a transition takes place, a type of economic vacuum effect could commence where free markets, capitalism and innovation driven by new technology could lift the US and Russian economies out of the mud that is the threat of nuclear annihilation. This vacuum effect was not possible in years past, and is actually enabled by the current economic crises and the need for new industries that would contribute to economic recovery and job creation. It does not require any more courage, concessions or clarity to pursue a world without nuclear weapons through such avenues than what is needed to cling onto weapons that can and will someday kill millions.

When placed side-by-side, exchanges and the resulting debates regarding the increase in the nuclear complex budget versus the White House’s current policy positions beg for such a solution. In fact, if such a solution is initiated cautiously through careful consideration of the needs of all parties, it could ripple across the economy help to address our greatest global challenges. This could be accomplished while progressively extracting more and more American and Russian scientists from the nuclear gadgetry industry and channeling their enormous individual and collective talents into a more prosperous direction.

Barack Obama and Dimitri Medvedev have the courage and clarity to understand and express their willingness to discuss a world without nuclear weapons. Progress will require a steadfast commitment to courage in the face of the defense industry and the clarity to see that thousands of Russian and Americans rely on these industries and will need jobs that provide the means to support their families. Cooperative defense will lead to the beginning of a transition from massive defense spending to productive civilian investment that stands to benefit all.

Offering concessions and placing cooperative defense on the table while viewing the road ahead in a broader context should get the discussion moving in a direction that turns words into additional actions. As long as the United States refuses to give up missile defense in Eastern Europe we will remain at a standstill.

It was Dr. Randall Forsberg who opened my mind to this way of thinking. She taught me about how cooperative security could be used as a vehicle for peace. Her words that follow, written in 1992, ring today with a renewed poignancy:

The end of the Cold war represents a turning point for the role of military force in international affairs. At this unique juncture in history, the world’s main military spenders and arms producers have an unprecedented opportunity to move from confrontation to cooperation. The United States, the European nations, Japan and the republics of the former USSR can now replace their traditional security policies, based on deterrence and unilateral intervention, with cooperative policies based on minimum deterrence, non-offensive defense, nonproliferation, and multilateral peacekeeping.

There are four important reasons to make this change, and make it quickly:

First, massive resources are at stake. With a cooperative security policy, the United States could cut the annual military budget… A peace dividend on this order is exactly what we need to revitalize the economy and meet the backlog of needs in housing, health, education, environment and economic infrastructure.

Second, the cooperative approach to security is prerequisite to stopping the global proliferation of armaments and arms industries. The prospect of proliferation has become the single greatest military threat to this country and to the world…

Third, the choice by the major industrial nations either to perpetuate a US-dominated international security system or to develop a more cooperative system will have far-reaching political ramifications at home and abroad… here in America, the change would help reverse the nasty mixture of cynicism, violence, and racism that has increasingly pervaded our society since the first Reagan Administration made increases in military spending at the price of national debt and deep cuts in domestic programs.

Last but not least, a cooperative approach to security is likely to be far more effective than the traditional approach in reducing the incidence and scale of war. Despite these enormous stakes, Congress and the Administration have, until recently, refused even to consider substantial cuts in post-Cold war defense spending, much less seize the unprecedented opportunity to develop a cooperative security system. [Randall Forsberg, “Defense Cuts and Cooperative Security in the Post-Cold War World”, Boston Review, May 1992]

Should President Obama choose to accept this torch I believe that we can achieve the goals outlined in Prague within our lifetime.


Following are a number of posts relevant to this debate. They serve as reference, furthering the discussion.

Obama – Prague

Remarks by President Barack Obama, Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic

Barack Obama. remarks, Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic, 05 April 2009.


… 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.

So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. (Applause.) I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly –- perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, “Yes, we can.”

… the United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons. To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same. Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies –- including the Czech Republic. But we will begin the work of reducing our arsenal.

Carroll 1

Nuclear weapons debate takes new form

James Carroll. Boston Globe, 15 June 2009 .


Prague was arguably the most important presidential speech in decades. Again, what made that resounding call for a new “form of the forms of thought” about nuclear weapons, was the president’s starting point – an acknowledgment of special American culpability. “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.”


Odds Against Nuclear Disarmament

Charles V. Peña., 29 July 2009.


…a country can be a party to the NPT but decide that abiding by the treaty is no longer in its best interests and withdraw, which is exactly what North Korea chose to do in January 2003, claiming, “A dangerous situation where our nation’s sovereignty and our state’s security are being seriously violated is prevailing on the Korean Peninsula due to the U.S. vicious hostile policy towards the DPRK.” Given that North Korea had been named a member of the axis of evil a year earlier and the United States was on the verge of invading Iraq (a non-nuclear power), it’s perfectly understandable that the regime in Pyongyang might believe it was in the DPRK’s “supreme interests” to no longer formally agree to be a nonnuclear power, i.e., a pushover for regime change.

The NPT is not a universal treaty. There are 193 countries in the world, but not all of them are signatories to the NPT. The result is the so-called “D3 problem,” or the de facto nuclear states: India, Pakistan, and Israel. These countries were never part of the NPT regime and were thus able to develop nuclear weapons, because they are under no obligation to abide by the NPT. And it’s not lost on the rest of the world – particularly the Muslim world – that the United States doesn’t hold Israel to the same standard as Iran. Indeed, like previous presidents, Obama refuses to even acknowledge that Israel is a nuclear power.

…the NPT does not exist in a vacuum. It’s impossible to ignore U.S. foreign policy, particularly a proclivity for military intervention supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. Since the end of the Cold War marked by the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the United States has engaged in nine major military operations, but only one of those – Operation Enduring Freedom – was unambiguously in response to a direct threat to the United States. This is a powerful incentive for countries such as Iran and North Korea to acquire nuclear weapons as the only reliable deterrent against U.S. invasion. As long as the United States continues to have an interventionist foreign policy (and the Obama administration has not overseen a sea change in U.S. foreign policy), it will be next to impossible to prevent proliferation.

Hansell & Perfilyev

Together Toward Nuclear Zero: Understanding Chinese and Russian Security Concerns

Cristina Hansell and Nikita Perfilyev. The Nonproliferation Review, November 2009.


…if Chinese military experts decide that China needs the capability of a maneuvering warhead to evade missile defense interceptors, they may need to test the redesigned warheads. It is not clear that the Obama administration, however, will be willing to back down on missile defense in order to obtain Chinese agreement on a CTBT. Without a CTBT, though, further progress toward disarmament is unlikely; the nuclear weapon states’ commitment to NPT Article VI will not be taken seriously by non-nuclear weapon states, and the possibility of a future arms race (instigated in large part by the fear of U.S. missile defenses and precision weapons) is increased.

Gassen & Wickersham

A Roadmap for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons

Jared Gassen and Bill Wickersham. book chapter, November 2009.

Barry Blechman. New York Times, 18 February 2010.


Here’s how a global nuclear disarmament treaty could work. First, it would spell out a decades-long schedule for the verified destruction of all weapons, materials and facilities. Those possessing the largest arsenals — the United States and Russia — would make deep cuts first. Those with smaller arsenals would join at specified dates and levels. To ensure that no state gained an advantage, the treaty would incorporate “rest stops”: if a state refused to comply with a scheduled measure, other nations’ reductions would be suspended until the violation was corrected. This dynamic would generate momentum, but also ensure that if the effort collapsed, the signatories would be no less secure than before.

Knight 2

Charles Knight responds to Barry Blechman

There is something missing in this measured disarmament scheme which invalidates it as a path to full nuclear disarmament. Blechman makes an erroneous assumption shared by too many nuclear disarmament advocates. He assumes that nuclear weapons are a class of weapons that can be dealt with in isolation from the problems of international security and insecurity. Nuclear weapons cannot be separated strategically from the context of the conventional military power they supplement.

Note the following phrase in the above excerpt from Blechman: “To ensure that no state gained an advantage…” His prescription applies only to nuclear weapons and presumes no adjustments to conventional military power. In those conditions some states stand to gain considerable advantage from nuclear disarmament.

Imagine the case of Russia in Blechman’s staged draw down of nuclear forces with the U.S. As Russia approaches zero nuclear weapons they become more and more vulnerable to superior U.S. conventional military power.

Without parallel and compensatory reductions and adjustments in conventional forces and strong political assurances weaker nations such as Russia will never agree to give up all their nuclear weapons.

Careful schemes of balanced nuclear weapons disarmament of the type that Blechman argues for cannot by themselves get us to zero nuclear weapons. Compensating for the national insecurities arising from imbalances in conventional military power must be part of any formula for full nuclear disarmament. We need to work toward an international security regime that delivers the reassurance gained of at least fifty years without international aggression and military intervention. After that period of consistent international peace, nuclear nations may be ready to go to zero. This is the only path with any real chance of getting there.


Implementing the President’s Prague Agenda: Vice President Biden’s Speech at the National Defense University

Remarks of Vice President Biden at National Defense University – As Prepared for Delivery, 18 February 2010.


Now, as our technology improves, we are developing non-nuclear ways to accomplish that same objective. The Quadrennial Defense Review and Ballistic Missile Defense Review, which Secretary Gates released two weeks ago, present a plan to further strengthen our preeminent conventional forces to defend our nation and our allies.

Capabilities like an adaptive missile defense shield, conventional warheads with worldwide reach, and others that we are developing enable us to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, as other nuclear powers join us in drawing down. With these modern capabilities, even with deep nuclear reductions, we will remain undeniably strong.

Knight 3

Charles Knight comments on the Biden speech

When Vice President Biden speaks of plans to “further strengthen … preeminent conventional forces” with “capabilities like an adaptive missile defense shield” and “conventional warheads with worldwide reach” he seeks to reassure his domestic audience that nuclear disarmament will not make America less secure.

His words, however, do not reassure other nuclear powers or potential future nuclear powers such as Iran who will perceive these enhanced American conventional capabilities as strategic threats to their national security.

Biden surely understands that he is not really offering us a pathway to nuclear abolition. We will not get there if other nations are expected to relinquish their nuclear arsenals to face “undeniable” conventional power from the U.S.

If Biden’s speech truly represents the elaboration of the “President’s Prague Agenda” it leaves us with a very big gap (conceptually and practically) between the near term goal Biden articulates (“We will work to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”) and the longer term goal (“We are working both to stop [nuclear weapons] proliferation and eventually to eliminate them.”) which President Obama confirmed in Prague.


Nuclear Weapons in the Twenty-First Century

Matt Eckel. Foreign Policy Watch, 01 March 2010.


Though American leaders try not to say it out loud too often, one of the reasons Iran’s nuclear program is unsettling to Washington is that it constrains the ability of the United States to topple the Iranian regime by force, should push come to shove. As a global hegemon, having the ability to wave our conventional military around and implicitly threaten recalcitrant middle powers with conquest is something America likes to be able to do. It’s much harder if the recalcitrant middle power in question can credibly threaten to take out a couple of allied capital cities. Israel’s nuclear program was originally founded on this logic, as was that of France.


Debate: Waiting for Obama’s Policy on Nukes

Christopher A. Ford. AOL News, 05 March 2010.


… but remarkably, for all his nuclear posing, no one knows what Obama’s nuclear weapons policy actually is. So far, his administration has done little of real import. Obama seeks a modest new arms-reduction treaty with Russia but contemplates cuts that would not have been too shocking from the Bush administration — which, in fact, actually began these negotiations in 2006. The administration also wants to reattempt ratification of the nuclear test ban defeated in the Senate in 1999, although the treaty’s Senate prospects are dimming. As a result, at this point Obama’s “transformative” arms-control agenda looks like President Bill Clinton’s from the mid-1990s.


Debate: On the Right Nuclear Weapons Track

Will Marshall. AOL News, 05 March 2010.


Obama reasons that, by holding up its end of the bargain, the United States can strengthen global nonproliferation norms and intensify pressure on Tehran and other regimes that may be thinking about acquiring nuclear weapons. And as White House officials have stressed, the nuclear “zero option” is a policy aspiration, not something anyone believes is achievable anytime soon.

Carroll 2

The Deadly Current Toward Nuclear Arms

James Carroll. Boston Globe, 15 March 2010. Hosted on the CommonDreams website.

Think of Niagara Falls. Think of the onrushing current as the river pours itself toward the massive cascade. Imagine a lone swimmer a hundred yards or so upstream, desperately stroking against the current to keep from being swept over the precipice. That swimmer is President Obama, the river is the world, and the falls is the threat of unchecked nuclear weapons.

Henry James used the image of Niagara to describe the rush into World War I: “. . .the tide that bore us along.” Hannah Arendt defined the wars of the 20th century as events “cascading like a Niagara Falls of history.” Jonathan Schell used Niagara as an organizing metaphor for his indispensable critique of war, “The Unconquerable World.”

But now the image has entered the lexicon of strategic experts who warn of a coming “cascade of proliferation,” one nation following another into the deadly chasm of nuclear weapons unless present nuclear powers find a way to reverse the current. The main burden is on Russia and the United States, which together possess the vast majority of the world’s nuclear weapons, but President Obama deliberately made himself central to the challenge when he said in Prague, “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Now the Niagara current is taking him the other way. Here are the landmarks that define the swimmer’s momentum.

■ The US-Russia Treaty. Negotiators in Geneva are late in reaching agreement on a nuclear arms treaty to replace START, which expired last December. Obama is threading a needle, having to meet Russian requirements (for example, on missile defense) while anticipating Republican objections in the US Senate (for example, on missile defense). Warning: Bill Clinton was humiliated when the Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999. Republicans’ recalcitrance on health care is peanuts compared to the damage their rejection of a new START treaty would do.

■ The Nuclear Posture Review, the Congress-mandated report on how the administration defines nuclear needs today. This, too, is overdue, probably because the White House has been pushing back against the Pentagon on numerous issues. Are nukes for deterrence only? Will the United States renounce first use? Having stopped the Bush-era program to build a new nuclear weapon, will Obama allow further research and development? What nations will be named as potential nuclear threats? Warning: The 1994 Nuclear Posture Review was Clinton’s Pentagon Waterloo. It affirmed the Cold War status quo, killing serious arms reduction until now.

■ Although usually considered apart, the broader US defense posture has turned into a key motivator for other nations to go nuclear. The current Pentagon budget ($5 trillion for 2010-2017) is so far beyond any other country, and the conventional military capacity it buys is so dominant, as to reinforce the nuclear option abroad as the sole protection against potential US attack. This is new.

■ In April, a world leaders nuclear summit will be held in Washington, but both nuclear haves and have-nots will be taking positions based on the US-Russia Treaty (and its prospects for ratification) and the Nuclear Posture Review. Warning: if China sees US missile defense as potentially aimed its way, a new nuclear arms race is on.

■ In May, the signatories to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty will hold their eighth regular review session in New York. Since the nations that agreed to forego nuclear weapons did so on the condition that the nuclear nations work steadily toward abolition, the key question will be whether Obama has in fact begun to deliver on his declared intention. If not, get ready for the cascade.

In truth, the current rushing toward Niagara cannot be resisted. Not seven nuclear nations, therefore, but 17, or, ultimately, 70. But beware an analysis like this. The falls are an analogy, not a fact. Obama warned of such fatalism, calling it in Prague, “a deadly adversary, for if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.” Therefore, reject the analogy. Obama is not a lone swimmer, but a voice of all humanity. The nuclear future is not pre-determined. Human choices are being made right now to define it anew.