Battling nuclear inertia goes beyond sanctions
by Jeffrey Laurenti
"If I had known it was going to be this popular, I would have done this a long time ago," President John F. Kennedy is said to have joked with aides when enthusiastic audiences cheered his mentions of the partial nuclear test ban treaty in 1963.
Fast forward fifty years, however, and Barack Obama gets scant acknowledgment from a cynical capital and indifferent press for tightening the noose on nuclear weapons and nuclear dangers. He may get grudging credit for winning today’s overwhelming U.N. Security Council vote for toughened sanctions against Iran’s runaway nuclear program, but Washington seems willfully blind to any connection between nonproliferation and disarmament.
Obama’s success in forging global agreement at the nonproliferation treaty (NPT) review conference last month on steps to roll back nuclear weaponry has drawn a collective yawn in America's political debate. Some analysts suggest that’s because the public put its nuclear fears in deep freeze with the cold war's end. But those fears are real enough that war advocates invoke them regularly to beat the drums for military action, whether against Iraq, Iran, or North Korea.
In fact, Iran and North Korea may be less of a problem in navigating the way to the promised nuclear-free world rediscovered by Obama than are his own bureaucracies. To move the issue as far as he has, the president has had to overcome deep inertia, if not outright resistance, in both the State and Defense departments.
The Pentagon, famous for drawing up contingency plans to invade anywhere, has no one tasked with working on contingency plans for the elimination of nuclear weapons--something one would expect if senior officials took the president's commitment seriously. The undersecretary of State for arms control—who previously represented the Livermore weapons labs in Congress--told abolition advocates that Obama's goal of nuclear disarmament "is not the Holy Grail. It's only worth pursuing in so far as it increases our national security."
Of course, for any single proliferator -- whether DeGaulle's France or Kim's Korea -- the point of pursuing the Bomb was precisely to increase that country's national security. It's just everyone else's security that is jeopardized with each new arriviste in the nuclear club.
This explains why the nonproliferation conference agreed to single out North Korea, whose nuclear test last year it "condemns with the strongest possible terms." This is why the conference agreement specifically calls on India, Pakistan, and Israel -- the world's only countries that have not signed the NPT -- to accede to it. (Mystifyingly, top administration officials then complained about Israel being mentioned by name.)
Many in Washington still assume international agreements at the United Nations are unimportant. Yet a Bush administration arms official present for the torpedoing of the last NPT review conference in 2005, Andrew Semmel, acknowledged this week that the NPT accord "puts the full nuclear agenda back on track."
All 189 countries agreed on the need to accept stronger monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency. They agreed to convene a negotiating conference in 2012 to implement a long-promised nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East -- aimed at verifiably boxing in Israel's and Iran's nuclear programs and preventing cascading nuclearization of Arab countries' arsenals. (Former U.N. chief inspector Hans Blix insists that zone will need to ban enrichment and reprocessing anywhere in the Middle East.)
They agreed to Obama's insistence on "consequences" for countries that seek to withdraw from the treaty. (Ironically, the only country besides North Korea to pull out of a nuclear weapons treaty was the United States, which shredded the antiballistic missile treaty in 2002.) And the conference agreed to put a treaty for the elimination of nuclear weapons on the global "to do" list -- though Obama's negotiators teamed up with the Russians to block any deadline.
While Obama's own appointees may dismiss disarmament as no Holy Grail, "the nuclear disarmament record of President Obama was key" to the success of this conference in reviving nations' flagging commitment to the NPT, according to Jayantha Dhanapala, who headed U.N. disarmament efforts for many years. Pushing on a national-security bureaucracy that is so deeply mortgaged to nuclear weaponry, Obama "captured the imagination of civil society" worldwide, Dhanapala says -- and he stiffened the global spine for reining in transgressors.
"The conference outcome was a tribute to the new political leadership of the United States," Dhanapala told delegates to a United Nations Association meeting in Washington Monday. While Obama has certainly not rushed into the abolitionist camp, he notes, by accepting compromises to accommodate him other states "were voting for his reelection in 2012."
Like Ronald Reagan before him, Obama’s first challenge is to infuse his own team with his commitment to nuclear phase-out -- including the international security institutions that Washington effectively runs, like NATO. European calls to phase reliance on nuclear weapons out of alliance doctrine, and to take tactical nuclear warheads out of the Continent, hit a roadblock in the stand-pat recommendations of senior NATO advisors last month. Obama needs to press his own strategic vision on Brussels.
Reagan was the last president to embrace elimination of nuclear weapons. Indeed, arguably his most enduring accomplishment internationally was the unprecedented elimination of an entire category of nuclear weapons -- intermediate-range nuclear forces. Like nuclear trailblazers Kennedy and Reagan before him, Obama will find public support and historical acclaim if he finishes the job.