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.

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.


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.

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