Change at the United Nations

by: Alicia Godsberg

The First Committee of this year’s 64th United Nations General Assembly (GA) just wrapped up a month of meetings.  The GA breaks up its work into six main committees, and the First Committee deals with disarmament and international security issues.  During the month-long meetings, member states give general statements, debate on such issues as nuclear and conventional weapons, and submit draft resolutions that are then voted on at the end of the session.  Comparing the statements and positions of the U.S. on certain votes from one year to the next can help gauge how an administration relates to the broader international community and multilateralism in general.  Similarly, comparing how other member states talk about the U.S. and its policies can give insight into how likely states may be to support a given administration’s international priorities.

The Obama administration will certainly be looking in the near future for support on some of its new international priorities – the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference is happening in May, 2010 and the U.S. delegation will likely seek to promote certain non-proliferation measures, such as universal acceptance of the Additional Protocol and the creation of a nuclear fuel bank.[i] However, many states see these and other proposed non-proliferation measures as further restrictions on their NPT rights while the U.S. and the other NPT nuclear weapon states parties (NWS) continue to avoid adequate progress in implementing their nuclear disarmament obligation.  At the same time, other states with nuclear weapons continue to develop them (and the fissile material needed for them) with no regulation at all.  The United Nations (UN) is the court of world public opinion, a place where all member states have a voice.  If President Obama expects to win support for his non-proliferation agenda next May, he needs to win the GA’s support by showing that the U.S. is ready to engage multilaterally again and take seriously its past commitments and the concerns of other states.

While the U.S. continued to vote “no” on certain nuclear disarmament resolutions[ii], there were some noteworthy changes in the position of the new U.S. administration during this year’s voting.  One major shift away from the Bush administration’s voting through last year was a change to a “yes” vote on a resolution entitled, “Renewed determination towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons.”  In fact, the U.S. also became a co-sponsor of this resolution.  The change in the U.S. position on the CTBT was likely an important factor in this reversal, as the resolution “urges” states to ratify the Treaty, something Bush opposed but the Obama administration strongly supports.  Similarly, the U.S. voted “yes” on the resolution entitled, “Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty,” and for the first time all five permanent members of the Security Council joined this resolution as co-sponsors.

The change in the U.S. position on the CTBT was welcomed by many delegations on the floor.  Indonesia stated it would move to ratify the Treaty once the U.S. ratifies, and China has hinted at a similar position.  Non-nuclear weapon states have found the past U.S. position – that no new states should have nuclear weapons programs while the U.S. continues its own without any legal restrictions on the right to test nuclear weapons – to be hypocritical.  Add to this that the U.S. and other NWS have promised to work for the entry into force of the CTBT in the final documents of the 1995 and 2000 NPT Review Conferences, even using this promise as a way to get the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995, and it may be that the CTBT is the sine qua non for the future of the NPT regime.

The U.S. delegation gave some strong signals that the Obama administration may be planning on decreasing the operational readiness of U.S. nuclear weapons (so-called “de-alerting”) in the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review (NPR).  This speculation comes from remarks on the floor, when the sponsors of a resolution that had been tabled for the past two years entitled, “Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapon systems” stated they would not be tabling the resolution this year.[iii] The sponsors stated  that they would not be tabling the resolution because nuclear posture reviews were underway in a few countries and they hoped leaving the issue of operational readiness off the floor would, “facilitate inclusion of disarmament-compatible provisions in these upcoming reviews and help maintain a positive atmosphere for the NPT Review Conference.”  Apparently the U.S. delegation pushed to leave this resolution off the floor, not wanting to vote against it again while the NPR was underway.   Many took these political dealings as a sign that the Obama administration was pushing at home for a review of the operational readiness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.  Decreasing the operational readiness of U.S. nuclear forces would be a welcome change in the U.S. nuclear posture, adding time for decision-making and deliberation during a potential nuclear crisis.  Such a change would also send an unambiguous signal to the international community that the U.S. was taking its nuclear disarmament obligation seriously, the perception of which is necessary for cooperation on non-proliferation goals in 2010 and beyond.

Another long-standing U.S. position apparently under review by the Obama administration relates to outer space activities.  The Bush administration spoke of achieving “total space dominance” and the U.S. has been against the multilateral development of a legal regime on outer space security for 30 years.  U.S. Ambassador to the CD Garold N. Larson spoke during the First Committee’s thematic debate on space issues, saying that the administration is now in the process of assessing U.S. space policy, programs, and options for international cooperation in space as part of a comprehensive review of space policy.  The U.S. delegation changed its vote on the resolution, “Prevention of an arms race in outer space” from a “no” last year to an abstention this year, and did not participate in a vote on a resolution entitled, “Transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space” due to the current review of space policy.  The U.S. message on outer space issues seemed to be that here too the new administration was looking to engage multilaterally instead of pursuing a unilateral agenda.

Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher mentioned another change in U.S. policy in her remarks to the First Committee – the support for the negotiation of an effectively verifiable fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT)[iv].  Previously, the Bush administration had removed U.S. support for negotiating an FMCT with verification protocols, stating that such a Treaty would be impossible to verify.  Without verification measures, which were part of the original Shannon Mandate[v] for the negotiation of an FMCT, many non-nuclear weapon states saw little value in negotiating the Treaty.  Further, because verification was part of the original package for negotiation, the Bush administration’s change was seen as dismissive of the multilateral process and a further example of U.S. unilateral action without regard for the concerns of other countries or the value of multilateral processes.  With the U.S. delegation stating that it supported negotiating an effectively verifiable FMCT as called for under the original mandate, the Obama administration again showed a marked change from its predecessor and a willingness to engage in multilateralism.

What does all this mean?  President Obama stood before the world in Prague and pledged that the U.S. would work toward achieving a world free of nuclear weapons and has brought the issue of nuclear disarmament back to the forefront of international politics.  President Obama recognizes that the U.S. cannot work toward this vision alone – we have security commitments to allies that need to be addressed as the U.S. makes changes to its strategic posture and policy, there are other nuclear armed countries that need to have the same goal and work toward it in a safe and verifiable manner, and there is the danger of nuclear terrorism and unsecured fissile material that needs to be addressed by the entire global community.  In other words, the new administration recognizes the value in collective action to solve global problems, and at the 64th annual meeting of the UN General Assembly this year, the U.S. began putting some specific meaning behind President Obama’s general statements.  With a pledge to work toward ratifying the CTBT at home and to work for other ratifications necessary for the Treaty’s entry into force, a renewed commitment to negotiating an effectively verifiable FMCT, and changes in long standing positions on outer space security and likely also on operational readiness of nuclear weapons, the Obama administration has shown the U.S. is back as a willing partner to the institutions of multilateral diplomacy.  More than anything, this change – if it turns out to be genuine – will help advance President Obama’s non-proliferation goals at the upcoming NPT Review Conference.  Of course the U.S. has internal battles to overcome, such as Senate ratification of the CTBT, but if promise and policy reviews are met with actions that can easily be interpreted by the rest of the world as genuine nuclear disarmament measures, President Obama has a greater chance to achieve an atmosphere of cooperation on U.S. non-proliferation goals at the upcoming NPT Review Conference in May, 2010.


[i] President Obama’s non-proliferation agenda was presented on May 5, 2009 to the United Nations by Rose Gottemoeller (Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Verification, Compliance, and Implementation) at the Third Session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. http://www.state.gov/t/vci/rls/122672.htm

[ii] A few of the nuclear disarmament-related resolutions the US voted “no” on were: Towards a nuclear weapon free world: accelerating the implementation of nuclear disarmament commitments; Nuclear disarmament; and Follow-up to nuclear disarmament obligations agreed to at the 1995 and 200 Review Conferences of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

[iii] The US had voted “no” on this resolution the past two years, joined only by France and the UK.

[iv] Ellen Tauscher mentioned that the US “looks forward to the start of negotiations on a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty” without further elaboration.  President Obama, unlike President Bush, has made clear that his administration supports an effectively verifiable FMCT.  For examples of this new policy direction, see: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/us-eu-joint-declaration-and-annexes; http://geneva.usmission.gov/2009/06/04/gottemoeller/; and http://www.state.gov/t/vci/rls/127958.htm

[v] Historical background on FMCT negotiations: http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/legal/fmct.html

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