High hopes for progress toward nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation were in evidence this May at the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference (NPT RevCon), which takes place every five years at the United Nations. Representatives from 189 countries, as well as thousands of individuals representing global civil society, gathered for the event.
The weekend before, peace groups from around the world organized a spirited educational conference and a 15,000-person march to draw attention to nuclear disarmament—and connect it to calls to end militarism and to reinvest in human and environmental needs.
A modest but important step on the road to a nuclear weapons-free world took place in April, when the U.S. and Russia signed the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). It mandates a reduction in deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550 each, from a previous cap of 2,200. But it may not really represent a 30 percent cut: An odd provision counts each long-range bomber, which may carry as many as 20 nuclear weapons, as only one. The New START also leaves out the more than 2,000 short-range “tactical” nukes and thousands more “reserve” warheads each country possesses. Even after the treaty, the two countries may still have a total of more than 20,000 nuclear warheads, well over 90 percent of the world’s total.
Still, New START is a hopeful sign of improved relations between the former Cold War adversaries. The on-site inspection and verification provisions—whereby each country uses both technological means and physical, human observation to ensure compliance—are particularly important, for both this treaty and possible future ones.
For many, the real question is what comes next. Most analysts in Washington would likely bet that New START will be ratified by the required two-thirds majority of the U.S. Senate this year, despite the short election-year congressional schedule and possible partisan opposition. Another potential pitfall is the Obama administration’s willingness to make political compromises with conservatives by proposing increased funding for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, an increase which will be deemed hypocritical by the rest of the world. The administration has also angered Russia by promising to further deploy some version of the unproven “missile defense” system.
Beyond this treaty, what are possible next steps? The administration has promoted the idea of another treaty with Russia to reduce deployed strategic nukes to 1,000 each, but such negotiations would likely prove very laborious for a relatively limited payoff.
Instead, the president should make bolder moves. He should initiate, along with all nuclear-armed states, multilateral negotiations to abolish nuclear weapons worldwide. Such a treaty could take years to negotiate, but there is no good reason not to start now. It would also signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. intends to live up to its end of the bargain on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which calls for nuclear powers to disarm, not to hold on to their nukes indefinitely.
There are also executive actions the president can take immediately, without painstaking treaty negotiations and teeth-grinding Senate ratification battles. He could order all U.S. nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert. He could, in conjunction with NATO allies, announce the removal of all short-range “tactical” nukes in Europe. He could call for a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East—the best solution to the problem of Israel’s nuclear arsenal and the concern that Iran or others in the region might seek their own nuclear weapons.
Although he is undoubtedly the most committed president on nuclear disarmament issues since Kennedy, President Obama is not likely to take any of these bolder actions without support from the American public and international civil society.