Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Obama and nuclear arms control

Tara McKelvey in A New Start: Prospects for Obama’s “Global Zero” Boston Review May/June 2010 gives some perspective on the Obama administration's nuclear arms control policies and their prospects:

While the proximate concern is nuclear terrorism—Obama has warned that terrorists are “determined to buy, build, or steal” a nuclear weapon—the larger goal is “global zero,” a world without nuclear weapons. In pursuit of that goal, Obama has generated a level of activity around the nuclear threat that is without recent precedent.

Still, the obstacles to achieving these ambitious aims are considerable. In Washington many officials, guided by unilateralist ideas about national security, cling to a robust U.S. arsenal. And while Obama and Medvedev have reached an agreement on a new START, Republicans may hold up its ratification when the treaty is submitted to the Senate later this year. The administration itself is filled with hawkish holdovers from the Bush era and new blood who support the status quo either because they think it is sound, or because they prefer to concentrate on domestic issues.

For their part, Russian officials feel manipulated and betrayed by their U.S. counterparts, regardless of who is in the White House. Obama and Medvedev may have joked around during the START signing in Prague—highlighting their “personal chemistry,” as Medvedev described it—but their warm feelings are not shared by many of their colleagues. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is famously hostile toward the United States and has stalled negotiations over nuclear arms. Following his example, many high-ranking Russian officials have been looking quietly for ways to undermine the new START. [my emphasis]

Progress is progress in nuclear arms control, even when it's accompanied by bone-headed ideas like the non-nuclear ICBM proposal that would give the US military the ability to carry out the dubious policy of targeted assassination by firing a rocket from the United States that would look to other countries' detection systems exactly like a nuclear rocket. That idea is the opposite of progress.

But it's also important to be realistic about how much or how limited progress is when it happens:

It will restrict both nations to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads, which means a real reduction. But both countries have hundreds of additional “non-strategic” nuclear weapons, designed for use against a modest nearby target rather than an entire distant city. Although their yields make them less destructive, these weapons still are terribly lethal. “In the real world, a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon,” says Pierce Corden, a former State Department office director in the Arms Control Bureau. “Just like a rose is a rose.”

According to Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), when all warheads are taken into account, the new START reduces Russia’s nuclear inventory by a mere 8 percent and the United States’s by even less—5 percent.
I'm not quite sure what Corden or McKelvey mean by the "a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon" quote, though. There is a difference in having arsenals of a type and amount that can destroy an entire large country like the US and Russia, or whose effects in their usage could literally wipe out the human race on earth, and having a highly destructive arsenal that lacks the capacity for such total destruction.

The idea that "a nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon" also could play into the threat inflation of those who want to paint jihadist terrorist groups as an existential threat to the US, i.e., literally a threat to the country's existence. You don't have to minimize the risk of nuclear terrorism - what that level may really be is a topic for other posts - to recognize that an arsenal like Russia's that could presumably still level every major American city threatens the existence of the United States as a viable country, while even a worst-case terrorist attack that takes out one American city is not the same level of danger. Grim as such calculations are, they really are necessary. For American security, containing nuclear proliferation and continuing to bring down the number of American and Russian nuclear weapons is enormously more critical than the "war on terrorism", important as anti-terrorism efforts are.

And there is a difference between the Cheney-Bush administration and Obama's on nuclear proliferation. McKelvey quote Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association, "The Bush administration gutted [arms-control] offices, transferred people to other places and took away a lot of State Department arms-control expertise."

And they undertook the Iraq War, which vastly increased the practical pressure perceived by Iran and other nations to acquire nuclear weapons to deter future American invasions of their countries.


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