FOR NUCLEAR-WEAPONS watchers, the promise of the 2008 presidential campaign feels like a lifetime ago. Both Barack Obama and John McCain had endorsed the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. They were bolstered in doing so by the nonpartisan gravitas of four Cold War éminences grises who had rocked the foreign-policy establishment by arguing in The Wall Street Journal that nuclear deterrence couldn’t be trusted to keep the peace in the post-Cold War era. Instead, complete elimination of all nuclear weapons was the only way to ensure they would never again be used.
The promise of the campaign seemed to be confirmed by President Obama’s decision to declare, in a major speech in Prague within his first 100 days in office, that he “sought the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” His subsequent Nobel Peace Prize was awarded, in no small part, for the promise of the Prague address.
It’s basically been downhill from that speech.
Yes, the 2010 New START agreement ensured continued bilateral reductions by the U.S. and Russia, which together possess more than 90 percent of global nuclear stockpiles (down to 16,000 from a peak of 65,000 in 1986). But New START didn’t change the fact that both countries still have enough weapons on high alert to devastate all life on the planet.
And, for the ratification of a treaty that requires only middling arms reductions, hawks in the Senate demanded a staggering political price: the administration’s promise to “modernize” the U.S. arsenal. That pledge is currently playing out in President Obama’s proposal to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years to upgrade U.S. nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, an increasingly aggressive Russia has cancelled the historic Nunn-Lugar cooperative nuclear threat reduction program, and its officials have made ominous comments about a capacity to wage nuclear war. With U.S.-Russian relations at a post-Cold War nadir, prospects for bilateral progress have evaporated. Around the world, the multilateral situation is hardly better, with smaller nuclear powers quietly committing funds to the indefinite perpetuation of their stockpiles.
Such events only confirm global opinions that the nuclear powers have no interest in living up to their legal commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), in which they pledge to pursue “negotiations in good faith” toward the complete elimination of their own arsenals. Granted, the international community has grown used to such disappointment: According to the terms of the NPT, a conference is held every five years to review the treaty’s status, and they are always failures of various sorts. At these “RevCons,” benchmarks are established and action plans developed. Five years later, everyone gets together to discover that nothing has happened. Wash, rinse, repeat.
The 2015 RevCon in May was also a failure—but perhaps, for the first time in a long while, a constructive one. The participating nations were unable to agree on a consensus document about the state of the treaty, or necessary next steps. On paper, this is discouraging. But it indicates the promising refusal of the non-nuclear states to be placated any longer by the nuclear powers’ empty promises.
What happens now depends very much on where one sits. From a U.S.-centered, Beltway perspective—which never paid much attention to the 2015 NPT RevCon to begin with—all the energy is focused on a potential Iran deal (eminently worthy and extremely important). It’s also possible that President Obama might use executive authority to take some positive threat-reduction steps in his final 18 months in office: for instance, taking ICBMs off high-alert status, reducing the number of deployed strategic weapons, declaring a “no first use” or “deterrence only” policy, or reducing the nuclear budget. After 2016, America’s nuclear future is anyone’s guess, though the policy positions of both parties’ declared and expected candidates—with the exception of Bernie Sanders—range from the disappointingly myopic to the disastrously retrograde. One would do well to keep expectations low.
Dismantling the doublespeak
From a global perspective, however, energies are high. Over the past five years, a series of international conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons has revealed new information about their catastrophic effects. This, in turn, has revived interest in disarmament and invigorated a generation of younger activists in both government and civil society.
As interest has risen in a nuclear weapons ban or convention—as already exist for biological and chemical weapons—so have new champions. The increasingly vital International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is run by Beatrice Fihn and an international crew of 20- and 30-somethings who are as comfortable in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace as they are on Twitter. Wildfire>_ (yep, that's how it's spelled) has emerged as a sort of nuclear Diogenes, mercilessly dismantling the doublespeak employed by hypocritical nuclear powers and their “weasel” allies.
Austrian Ambassador Alexander Kmentt helped turn his government’s unilateral pledge to “fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons” (that is, a ban/convention) into a banner endorsed by (at the time of this writing) 107 nations. And (of course) there is Pope Francis, who has taken the next logical step in the Vatican’s long opposition to nuclear weapons by endorsing a global ban. For the first time in history, the three bodies representing global Christianity—along with many other faith groups—are actively working for disarmament.
There’s still important work to be done in Washington for nuclear security and disarmament. Given the U.S. political context, however, opportunities in the foreseeable future are likely to be tactical, stop-gap measures rather than strategic steps toward a nuclear weapons-free world.
By itself, of course, the disarmament movement that’s now swelling overseas won’t get us to the finish line. But by creating a clear norm of nuclear weapons as illegal and immoral, it has the potential to bring new life to an arena that’s gone necrotic. For those within the United States who are committed to the longer-term goal of abolition, it may be time to shake off any residual “Beltway blinders” and look abroad.
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