An inch closer to a world without nuclear weapons

Almost exactly one year since his last visit, US President Barack Obama has returned to Prague. One year ago, he publicly declared his vision for a world without nuclear weapons. Today, together with his counterpart, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, he has signed a treaty that some international commentators call the most concrete foreign-policy achievement of the US president so far. I am speaking of the treaty with the working title “New START” (perhaps the name “Treaty of Prague” will catch on), which replaces the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) of 1991. President Obama sees New START as literally a new start for relations between the United States and Russia, and as a “clear and concrete” step towards fulfilling the vision of a safer world, i.e. a world without nuclear weapons. But how big a step is this really?

New START builds upon a long series of bilateral treaties between the US and Russia (or the Soviet Union) that limit or reduce the numbers of their strategic nuclear arms. The primary motivation for both countries for limiting and, subsequently, reducing the numbers of nuclear arms was an effort to stop the Cold War arms race, especially for economic reasons and partly humanistic reasons (there are still many who believe that the capacity to destroy life on Earth many times over guarantees peace between the current nuclear powers). The economic factor as a motivation for continued reductions in nuclear arms persisted even after the end of the Cold War. Maintaining a large arsenal of nuclear arms costs a considerable amount of money and lacks logic in peacetime. Additionally, a new security factor has emerged: the fear that a nuclear weapon could potentially fall into the hands of terrorists. Apart from this, states with nuclear weapons have committed in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to reducing the numbers of weapons and to their complete elimination in future. Setting aside the perverse nature of a situation where every day hundreds of millions of people are effectively a target in the sights of the lethal weapons of another, officially friendly state, these economic, security and legal issues should alone be sufficient to prevent the momentum of nuclear disarmament from losing speed. The reality, however, is different.

The previous US administration was dominated by individuals who conceived of nuclear strategy in a completely different direction from that pursued by the Obama administration. For these people, it did not make sense to coordinate decreases in the numbers of nuclear arms with the Russians, as the latter would have reduced their arsenal for economic reasons anyway. Disarmament would have been a sign of weakness and would have encouraged “rogue states” in their efforts to gain the ultimate weapon. This is why President George W. Bush only negotiated the so-called Moscow Treaty (SORT), pithily nicknamed by some experts as “a sort of a treaty”. SORT’s greatest deficiency was its complete resignation on verification mechanisms, which were a cornerstone of START. SORT did contain limits on the numbers of deployed nuclear warheads, but both parties would merely have to declare the numbers of warheads without the capacity to verify them through inspections or other verification procedures. It is no secret that the administration of George W. Bush was not inclined to negotiate a sequel to the START treaty, which expired at the end of last year. The Bush administration was also extremely unwilling to make an effort in the area of nuclear disarmament, preferring instead to focus on nuclear non-proliferation. At the same time, nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation (together with the right to access peaceful nuclear technologies) are part of one and the same equation, which is the basis of the NPT. And for at least ten years, it has been obvious that the NPT is in crisis and that promoting non-proliferation at the expense of disarmament threatens the whole system upon which the NPT is built. In other words, the neo-conservative hawks among the Republicans would not have minded too much for this system to fall apart. A similar situation was mirrored on the Russian side, especially in certain military circles that would have wished for less oversight and more financing for Russian nuclear forces.

This was one of the reasons it took more than a year to negotiate and sign New START, and this negotiation certainly was not easy. The Russians tested Barack Obama hard during this period, especially through a stubborn effort to include language on missile defence in the treaty. Considering that Moscow must have understood that the US Senate would not ratify a treaty limiting missile defence in any way, this stance must have been mere posturing from the very beginning, aiming to satisfy a domestic audience and possibly gain concessions in other areas. In the end, President Obama had to negotiate fourteen times with his Russian counterpart face to face or over the phone before they could both say that negotiations had been concluded.

The parameters of New START are well-known: a decrease in the number of deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 on each side and a reduction in the number of launchers to 800 on each side. Compared to previous limits, however, most experts call this decrease “modest”. Moreover, the decrease only covers deployed strategic offensive nuclear weapons. In addition to the deployed weapons, however, there are also non-deployed ones, and in addition to strategic ones, there are also tactical nuclear weapons. Altogether, the Americans and the Russians have at their disposal more than twenty thousand nuclear weapons, about 95 % of all nuclear weapons in the world. When President Obama talks about the signing of the new treaty as proof of meeting the disarmament commitments of the great nuclear powers and about the need to fulfil commitments in non-proliferation, some hesitation is called for.

Certainly, New START is a possible new start, and not only for Russian-US relations. Speculation about whether it was Russia or the US that wanted the treaty more is pointless. Treaties are concluded to build trust and New START is a compromise whose most important element is the verification mechanisms that strengthen trust. President Obama assured us in Prague that we would soon see more negotiations on another treaty aimed at further decreasing the numbers of strategic nuclear weapons. Obama and Medvedev also continue to look for a way to cooperate on a missile defence shield. Russian (and Chinese) concerns about US missile defence will be increasingly justified as the numbers of strategic nuclear weapons decrease and the efficiency of the missile shield increases. However, for the world to truly come closer to zero (in terms of nuclear weapons) in the long run, and to save the NPT system in the short run, it will be necessary to overcome a series of hurdles.

First of all, New START will have to be ratified by the US Senate (there are no worries about the Russian Duma). Although in the past the Senate has ratified similar treaties almost unanimously, some Republicans have been hinting that they will at least delay ratification of the new treaty, if not outright sink it. The reasons they give for their opposition to the treaty are insincere, however, and their main goal is to strike a political blow to President Obama and complicate further progress in nuclear disarmament, especially with regard to the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

Another key moment will be this May’s NPT review conference, which must not turn into the fiasco that its predecessor was five years ago. In addition to Pakistani resistance to the ratification of the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, the conference will need to find a way to take a position on the Iranian nuclear programme without this issue completely blocking its agenda. It will also be necessary to increase the number of countries that would accede to IAEA’s Additional Protocols and resolve the issue of what to do in the event that a state uses the NPT to develop peaceful nuclear technology and subsequently withdraws from the treaty. Last but not least, conference members need to express themselves constructively on a resolution calling for a nuclear-arms-free zone in the Middle East; in 1995, this was part of the exchange whereby Arab states agreed to a temporally unrestricted extension of the NPT’s validity. Only this last effort relates to the resolution of the Arab- (and Palestinian-) Israeli conflict. No small task.

All in all, the treaty signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev today brings us closer to fulfilling the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, but only by mere inches. Follow-up steps on the part of the international community and the resolve of key actors to make practical progress in nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation will be of extreme importance. States possessing nuclear weapons should not fold their arms and think that with New START there is no work left to do. Non-nuclear states’ scepticism and suspicion as to the efforts and abilities of nuclear states to make dramatic progress in disarmament are largely substantiated. Still, it seems that a consensus is emerging among states and across the political spectrum that the costs and risks associated with nuclear weapons speak in favour of coordinated multilateral measures leading to greater disarmament, greater control and greater security. The Nuclear Security Summit in New York in April and the May NPT review conference will show how strong this consensus really is.

Šádí Shanaáh is a graduate of University of Cambridge and a foreign-policy expert for the Czech Green Party (Strana zelených).