This article was originally published by YES! Magazine
The United States and Russia reached agreement on a new START treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) to lower their count of deployed atomic warheads from 2,200 each to between 1,500 and 1,675. They would also cut their stocks of strategic bombers and land- and sea-based missiles from a current level of 1,600 each to 800. The treaty replaces the 1991 START agreement, which expired last December. Since each country still has about 10,000 weapons, mostly undeployed and in storage, the new START is a modest step forward. It is, however, a down payment on improved U.S.-Russia relations and a possible prelude to the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. Presidents Obama and Medvedev will sign the new treaty in Prague, the site of President Obama’s groundbreaking speech one year ago in which he set out a vision for a nuclear free world.
There are 23,000 nuclear bombs on the planet, all but 1,000 of them in the U.S. and Russia. To convince the other nuclear weapons states (the U.K., China, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea) to join negotiations for their total elimination, it is imperative that the U.S. and Russia cut their enormous arsenals first.
Obama and Medvedev pledged to negotiate these weapons cuts as a step towards “a nuclear free world.” The talks almost ran aground when the U.S. announced it was putting new missile defenses in Romania, Bulgaria, and Poland, after it had canceled plans to site them in the Czech Republic. Russia views the expansion of U.S. missile defenses as a threat to the integrity of its nuclear arsenal. The parties agreed to finesse their differences by settling for language in the treaty’s preamble—which the U.S. argues is not binding—acknowledging that the size of offensive arsenals must be tied to the number of anti-missile defenses.
Powerful forces are arrayed against Obama’s vision. Forty-one Republican senators wrote to him warning that they would not ratify the START treaty if the president made any moves to cut back on the U.S. missile defense program. They have also exacted a stiff price by requiring an increase in the nuclear weapons budget, including plans for a new facility to manufacture plutonium cores for new bombs. And the nuclear weapons labs are raising questions about the soundness of the nuclear arsenal without further money spent on testing and weapons development.
Nevertheless, international expectations for progress in eliminating nuclear weapons are on the rise. In addition to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s proposal to begin negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention to ban the bomb, the German Bundestag has just passed a motion urging major steps towards nuclear abolition—including removing U.S. nuclear weapons stored in Germany and beginning international talks on a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons.
In May, the UN will host a conference to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which contains a promise from the nuclear powers to give up their nuclear weapons in return for a pledge from all the other states not to acquire them. Tens of thousands of citizen activists will march from Times Square to the UN headquarters in New York, calling for nuclear abolition. Strategy sessions to develop next steps are planned by the Abolition 2000 Network and the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. On June 5th, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons is organizing in communities all over the world to urge negotiations to ban the bomb. While President Obama qualified his call for a nuclear free world by saying it might not be achieved “in my lifetime,” his very articulation of the vision has unleashed the aspirations of people all over the world, making the abolition of nuclear weapons an idea whose time has come.