Nuclear Weapons

The Big Picture – what is really at stake with the START follow-on Treaty

07.15.09 | 6 min read | Text by Alicia Godsberg

by Alicia Godsberg

There is cause for cautious optimism after Presidents Obama and Medvedev signed their START follow-on Joint Understanding in Moscow last Monday – the goal of completing a legally binding bilateral nuclear disarmament agreement with verification measures is preferable to letting START expire without an agreement or without one that keeps some sort of verification protocol.  The Joint Understanding leaves some familiar questions open, such as the lack of definition of a “strategic offensive weapon” and what to do about the thousands of nuclear warheads in reserve or awaiting dismantlement.  But so far few analysts on either side of the nuclear debate have been talking about the big picture, what for the vast majority of the world (and therefore our own national security) is really at stake here – the viability of the nonproliferation regime itself.

Why will the follow-on treaty to START have such a great impact on the entire nonproliferation regime?  Simply, the rest of the world is looking for the possessors of 95% of the global nuclear weapon stockpiles to show greater effort in working toward their nuclear disarmament obligation under the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).  The NPT is both a nonproliferation and disarmament treaty, and at the NPT Review Conferences (RC’s) and Preparatory Committees (PrepCom’s) the Non-Nuclear Weapons States Parties (NNWS) continue to voice their growing concern and anger over what they perceive to be lack of real progress on nuclear disarmament.  At the PrepCom this past May those voices – including many of our closest allies – spoke loudly, stating that continued failure by the NWS to work in good faith toward their nuclear disarmament obligation could eventually break up the nonproliferation regime, spelling the end of the other part of the Treaty’s bargain: the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.

Just to put things in perspective, NNWS are every country in the world except the five NWS (US, Russia, UK, France, and China) and the three countries that have never signed the NPT (Israel, India, and Pakistan – with a question now about the obligations of North Korea and without including Taiwan, which is not recognized by the United Nations).  While the NPT has an elaborate mechanism to verify the compliance of NNWS with their nonproliferation obligations under the Treaty (i.e. the IAEA and its Safeguards Agreements), there are no institutionalized means to monitor or enforce compliance with the disarmament obligation of NWS under Article VI of the Treaty.  And while some NWS are now proposing further restrictions on NNWS nuclear energy programs through preventing the spread of sensitive fuel-cycle technology, NNWS are increasingly voicing their frustration over nuclear trade restrictions while greater progress on nuclear disarmament remains in some distant future.  Further fueling this distrust of the NWS and of new technology transfer restrictions was the Bush administration’s ill-advised US-India nuclear cooperation deal, seen by many NNWS as “rewarding” India with an exception to nuclear trade laws and export controls while India continues to operate its nuclear programs largely outside the NPT’s nonproliferation regime and its oversight and restrictions.

This blog is not meant to weigh in on the controversy surrounding the inalienable right of NNWS to nuclear technology under Article IV of the NPT, but rather to state the fact that a series of what are perceived as broken promises by NWS to NNWS has led the regime to approach what many have seen as a breaking point.  Some of those promises include the ratification of the CTBT, strengthening of the ABM Treaty, and the establishment of a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in the Middle East.  These promises have special significance, as they were part of political commitments made to get the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995, thereby removing any small pressure NNWS might have been able to place on NWS to meet their disarmament obligation by threatening not to renew the Treaty at future RC’s.

The US has a special role to play in this drama for two reasons.  First, the US is the second largest possessor of nuclear weapons in the world and as such needs to be at the forefront of nuclear disarmament for that goal to be taken seriously and eventually come to fruition.  Second, President Obama has publicly reversed some positions of President George W. Bush on nuclear disarmament and the world is waiting to see if his vision will be translated into action by the US.  For example, at the 2005 NPT RC the Bush administration stated it would not consider as binding any of the commitments made by prior US administrations at previous RC’s, such as the commitment to the “unequivocal undertaking” to eliminate nuclear weapons and the commitment to work toward ratifying the CTBT.  Contrast that with Obama’s policy speeches, especially the one in Prague on April 5, 20009 in which he placed a high priority on US verification of the CTBT and on his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, and you can begin to understand the feeling of hope surrounded by a continued atmosphere of mistrust that pervaded the United Nations in May.

A recent New York Times op-ed[i] pointed out that there is no guarantee the US Senate is going to go along with President Obama’s nuclear policy vision, and he may in fact encounter difficulty ratifying the CTBT and gaining support for the reductions outlined in last week’s Joint Statement.  In a June 30 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal,[ii] Senator Kyl and Richard Perle voiced this side of the debate, stating:

There is a fashionable notion that if only we and the Russians reduced our nuclear forces, other nations would reduce their existing arsenals or abandon plans to acquire nuclear weapons altogether… this is dangerous, wishful thinking.  If we were to approach zero nuclear weapons today, others would almost certainly try even harder to catapult to superpower status by acquiring a bomb or two.  A robust American nuclear force is an essential discouragement to nuclear proliferators; a weak or uncertain force just the opposite.

This fear mongering, unsupported by the facts, is the type of rhetoric that will confuse the debate once any START or CTBT-related issues hit the Senate floor.  In a world where reductions would still leave actively deployed nuclear warheads in the thousands – with thousands more on reserve – “superpower status” will not be achieved by acquiring “a bomb or two.”  Think about North Korea – are they a “superpower” now that they have exploded two nuclear devices and we know they are continuing to work on their nuclear weapon program?  Hardly.  Instead, they are international outcasts, condemned even by China for their latest atomic experiment, and have become weaker still in their attempt to achieve international status.  And if the US, the country with the most powerful and advanced conventional forces, needs a “robust” nuclear force to protect its national security and fulfill security commitments, then it seems that any country with a weaker conventional force (which is everyone else) should seek nuclear weapons.  So, I would argue exactly the opposite Senator Kyl and Mr. Perle, and say that a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in US security actually lessens the case for other nations to develop their own nuclear weapons, which are more costly both economically and politically than conventional forces.

Whether the US can restore the faith of the rest of the world in our leadership on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament by meeting previous political commitments and working toward fulfilling Treaty obligations remains to be seen.  Rose Gottemoeller’s remarks to the 2009 NPT PrepCom at the UN in May were well received by the global community, but NNWS also made clear that words need to be followed by concrete actions.  The US needs the cooperation of the global community to continue the success of the nonproliferation regime, which has been largely successful over the past 39 years minus the few notable failures.  To do this, the US must understand that the follow-on treaty to START will directly impact the perception the rest of our global community has about the seriousness of our commitment to the NPT.  That is because the NPT is both a disarmament and nonproliferation treaty; if the US recognizes and acts on this truth, it will be able to achieve the urgent goal of regaining its leadership position on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.

[i] Taubman, Philip. “Obama’s Big Missile Test.” Editorial. New York Times 8 July 2009.

[ii] Jon Kyl and Richard Perle. “Our Decaying Nuclear Deterrent.” Editorial. Wall Street Journal 30 June 2009.