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Obama's vision of nuclear non-proliferation

The cases of North Korea and Iran highlight the weaknesses of the current non-proliferation regime

Summary: The cases of North Korea and Iran highlight the weaknesses of the current non-proliferation regime. But momentum towards reform is developing on a number of fronts. Is significant progress possible, or will this be another false start in the long history of non-proliferation attempts?

29.06.2009 · By Mark Hirschboeck

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Speaking in Prague this April, US President Barack Obama pledged to pursue a number of nuclear disarmament efforts, all with the goal of eventually eradicating the world's nuclear arsenals. The vision he outlined, while bold, was nothing new. In 1946, the United States presented the Baruch Plan, which called for universal nuclear disarmament, to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission. Sceptics may justifiably wonder if Obama's vision will be similarly unsuccessful. Certainly, complete nuclear disarmament will not occur anytime soon, as Obama readily admits ("I'm not naïve," he said in Prague). But Obama’s optimism may not be entirely out of place—a number of factors, beyond the US administration's own commitment to the issue, suggest that serious progress could be made this time around.

Hopeful Signs

One factor is simple necessity. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the cornerstone of current US-Russian disarmament policy since 1991, is set to expire in December. Negotiations over the details of its replacement have begun and, encouragingly, both sides appear open to significant reductions in their nuclear arsenals. It appears likely that the number of deployed warheads will be capped at 1,500, a sizable decrease from the limit of 2,200 agreed upon in a 2002 interim treaty.

The START renegotiations begin under the auspices of a new American administration, which has presented an opportunity to revive deteriorating US-Russia relations—in the words of US Vice President Joe Biden, "to press the reset button." During the Bush years, tensions arose over a number of interrelated issues: the conflict in Georgia, the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the proposed anti-ballistic missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, and the potential admission of Georgia and Ukraine to NATO. Although these areas remain contentious, Obama has struck a much more conciliatory tone. He has distanced himself from the issue of Ukrainian and Georgian membership in NATO (the decision perhaps made easier by Georgia's provocative actions against Russia this past summer and Ukraine's continued political instability). He appears open to compromise on the missile defence system. In Prague, the US-President stressed that the anti-missile shield is designed only as a deterrent to Iran, despite Russian scepticism to the contrary: "If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for missile defence construction in Europe will be removed." This suggests that the US may be willing to suspend the plans for the system in return for Russian cooperation on the issue of Iran. Indeed, US Deputy Secretary of Defence William Lynn told the US Senate's Armed Services Committee that a Russian offer to share radar sites is under consideration as an alternative to the European missile defence system: "No final decisions have been made regarding missile defence in Europe. Despite all this, the US approach to missile defence in Europe will be to seek cooperation with international partners—to include Russia—in order to reduce the threat from Iran."

Likewise, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev spoke positively of the ongoing negotiations and expressed his support for "practical and effectively verifiable reductions." He made it clear that the suspension of the European missile defence system was a prerequisite for those cuts: "We cannot agree with US plans to establish a global missile defence. I would like to emphasise that the reductions we are suggesting are possible only if the United States addresses Russian concerns." With luck, a definitive compromise will emerge during Obama’s trip to Russia next month.

Beyond START

The developments between Russia and the United States are only a part of wider movement towards a stronger and more credible non-proliferation regime. Again, timing is playing an important role: next year, the venerable Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is due for its review, a process that occurs every five years. 2005's Review Conference was widely regarded as a failure (discouragingly, it took ten days for the parties to agree on an agenda). To many, this, along with North Korea's practically repercussion-free withdrawal from the treaty in 2003 (and subsequent testing of two nuclear devices), was another sign of the NPT's increasing irrelevancy. In addition, a number of non-nuclear states have become increasingly disenchanted with the treaty—the perceived failure of the five recognized nuclear powers to fulfil their Article VI disarmament commitments have led to charges that the NPT serves only to maintain the current balance of power, a "caste system" of "nuclear haves" versus "have-nots."

The United States has done little to shore up the treaty's credibility. In addition to lacklustre disarmament efforts, the US brokered a deal with India in 2005, providing assistance to India's civilian nuclear energy programme in exchange for the permanent IAEA inspections of its civilian (but not military) installations. By supplying nuclear fuel to India, an unofficial nuclear-weapon state and a non-party to the NPT, the agreement violated the US's own Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which had to be amended to allow the deal, and undermined the NPT by implicitly legitimatising India's nuclear program. While some saw the deal as the only realistic way to integrate India into the non-proliferation regime, it nonetheless highlighted the ineffectiveness of the NPT and raised doubts about the treaty’s future. But in his Prague speech, Obama reaffirmed America's commitment to the treaty, promising to strengthen the compliance procedures and introduce "real and immediate consequences" for violators. He also spoke of "a new framework for civil nuclear cooperation, including an international fuel bank" to oversee peaceful uses of nuclear energy and of his plan to secure the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the US Senate has refused to ratify. Russia, too, has registered its support for the NPT, with Medvedev affirming that "in accordance with its obligations under the [NPT] Russia is fully committed to reaching the goal of a world free from these most dangerous weapons." At the NPT's 2009 Preparatory Conference (a prelude to the 2010 Review Conference), UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the progress of START negotiations between Russia and the US: "I hope their example will serve as a catalyst in inspiring other nuclear powers to follow suit." Britain, for one, appears to be in agreement; Prime Minister Gordon Brown has repeatedly expressed Britain's commitment to universal nuclear disarmament. France has not followed Britain in advocating a complete abolition of nuclear weapons, but has taken steps to significantly reduce its arsenal: last year President Sarkozy announced plans to reduce France’s total stock of nuclear warheads to 300. Serious disarmament efforts among the five official nuclear weapon states will do much to restore the NPT’s credibility and increase international cooperation with regard to North Korea and Iran.

On another front, the UN Conference on Disarmament is continuing its negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), which would ban the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. The Bush administration was hesitant to endorse such a treaty, arguing that the enforcement regime required to guarantee compliance would be excessively burdensome. Obama, however, has changed tack, and now views such a treaty as the “first step” in stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Such a treaty already enjoys broad international support.

What now?

A number of factors—a combination of intentional efforts, fortunate coincidences, and real-world events—have refocused international attention on nuclear disarmament efforts. Admittedly, these efforts remain in the planning stage and face significant hurdles. For instance, despite their agreement on the goal of general disarmament, Russian and American officials must still sort out a number of controversial details. Will the new treaty follow START in limiting only deployed strategic warheads? Or will the number of tactical and stored warheads be restricted as well?

But, even if it takes some time for tangible progress to be made, the frequency and optimism of the discussion alone are positive developments. In contrast to the lack of progress during the last ten years (which EU High Representative for the CFSP Javier Solana called "a lost decade" of disarmament efforts), nuclear non-proliferation is once again a serious topic.

Ultimately, the international community’s ability to transfer all this promising talk into action will make the difference between success and failure. Either way, we will have an answer soon—START expires in December and the NPT Review Conference is scheduled for April 2010.

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