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.

Editor’s Comment:

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.

Greg Mello responds to the editor’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.

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