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.

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