The states party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will hold a Preparatory Committee meeting in May 2009 for the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Many of the non-nuclear weapon states party to this treaty have been discouraged by the lack of progress by the nuclear weapons states in fulfilling their obligations for nuclear disarmament. These countries will be looking for positive signs that the new president of the United States is committed to progress on the NPT Article VI promise of the nuclear weapons states for good faith negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament.
For the past eight years, under George W. Bush, the US has made scant effort to fulfill its NPT commitment to nuclear disarmament. In 2002, Bush pushed through a bilateral agreement with the Russians, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). The treaty calls for reductions in deployed strategic warheads from approximately 6,000 each to between 1,700 and 2,200 each by the end of the year 2012. It is a three page treaty with few details. The treaty places no limitations on reserve stockpiles and has no timeline and no provisions for either irreversibility or verifiability. On January 1, 2013 the treaty ends and, unless it is extended, both countries may redeploy their reserve weapons or new weapons to any level they choose. Bush also withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2002, opening the door for deployment of ballistic missile defenses and space weaponization.
The Bush administration developed contingency plans for the use of nuclear weapons against seven countries, including states thought to be non-nuclear weapons states at the time. In addition, the Bush administration threatened preventive use of nuclear weapons and sought continuously, albeit unsuccessfully, the development of new nuclear weapons with new functions. It also sought unsuccessfully to replace the existing nuclear weapons in the US arsenal with a new warhead it called the Reliable Replacement Warhead. The Bush administration also undermined the non-proliferation regime by its arm twisting in support of the US-India nuclear deal, which gave special nuclear preferences to a state that never joined the NPT and developed nuclear weapons outside the framework of the treaty. Overall, the Bush administration appeared more concerned with assuring the reliability of its nuclear warheads and the financial profits for US corporations on nuclear deals than it was with the security of the American people or the stability of the non-proliferation regime.
With President Obama, the US has a new president who has repeatedly expressed a commitment to seeking a world free of nuclear weapons. Prior to his election, he stated, “I will set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons. To seek that goal, I will not develop new nuclear weapons; I will seek a global ban on the production of fissile material; and I will negotiate with Russia to take our ICBMs off hair-trigger alert, and to achieve deep cuts in our nuclear arsenals.”
Upon assuming office, Obama posted the following goals on the White House website (www.whitehouse.gov) under the category of Nuclear Weapons. First, securing loose nuclear materials from terrorists within four years and negotiating a global ban on production of new nuclear weapons material. Second, strengthening the NPT by cracking down on countries that proliferate by assuring that the treaty provide strong sanctions for proliferators. Third, moving toward a nuclear free world by working with Russia to take US and Russian ballistic missiles off hair trigger alert, and seeking dramatic reductions in the stockpiles of both sides’ nuclear arsenals and materials.
Securing loose nuclear materials and prohibiting the development of new material will require global cooperation, as will strengthening the NPT. These steps, however, will be viewed by many nations through the prism of how successful President Obama is in achieving the goal of moving toward a nuclear weapons-free world, and their cooperation will be to varying degrees dependent upon how successful the US and Russia are in reaching agreement to dramatically reduce their nuclear arsenals.
The May 2009 meeting of the NPT Preparatory Committee will take place shortly after President Obama completes his first 100 days in office. At the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, we believe there are three steps the President should take in advance of that meeting to demonstrate his commitment to the goals of the NPT.
First, he should publicly reaffirm his commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons. This could be as simple as indicating in a major speech his intention to follow through on the goals he has publicly expressed in previous speeches and on his White House website.
Second, he should initiate bilateral negotiations with Russia to extend the 1991 Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START 1) so that its provisions, and particularly its verification provisions, will continue in force; agree to verifiable reductions in existing nuclear arsenals to under 1,000 nuclear weapons each (deployed and reserve) by the end of 2010; and take US and Russian nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert.
Third, President Obama should announce his intention to convene a meeting of all nuclear weapons states to initiate negotiations on a global treaty for the phased, verifiable irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons within a time-bound framework. This treaty, which would outlaw nuclear weapons, would be a Nuclear Weapons Convention, similar to the already concluded Biological Weapons Convention and Chemical Weapons Convention.
The first step of reaffirming his commitment to nuclear disarmament is desirable but not essential, since Obama has already given strong signals of his commitment. The second step of initiating bilateral negotiations with the Russians is not only desirable but essential, as this is the next venue in which significant progress can and must be achieved. The third step is also desirable, but may not be essential until tangible progress is announced resulting from US-Russian negotiations.
To succeed in nuclear disarmament negotiations with the Russians, which would be strongly in the interests of the US, it will likely be necessary for the US to abandon its plans to place ballistic missile defenses in Europe. The Russians have long expressed concerns about US plans to deploy such defenses due to the potential first-strike advantage these defenses would provide. The Russians have also expressed concerns about the failure of the US to join other states in supporting a ban on space weaponization. The Russian concerns were met largely with a deaf ear and unsatisfactory explanations from the Bush administration. To make further nuclear disarmament attractive to the Russians will almost certainly require halting plans to deploy ballistic missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic and may also require the US to commit to banning the weaponization of space. The most satisfactory solution to these problems would be the reinstatement of the ABM Treaty and a global treaty banning space weaponization.
In summary, the eight years of the Bush administration have left the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in a precarious state. To strengthen the treaty and assure its capacity to prevent further proliferation, it will be necessary to show progress toward nuclear disarmament. President Obama should continue to make declarative statements of his support for a world free of nuclear weapons. Such statements will signal to the world his intentions and will help educate the American people. But such statements, while important and perhaps necessary, are not sufficient.
Prior to the next Preparatory Committee meeting of the NPT parties in May 2009, President Obama should initiate negotiations with the Russians on a range of nuclear disarmament issues, including removing nuclear weapons on both sides from hair-trigger alert; extending the START I agreement; and agreeing to move rapidly, dramatically and verifiably to reduce nuclear stockpiles of weapons and materials on both sides. To succeed in negotiations on nuclear disarmament with the Russians will require concessions from the United States regarding ballistic missile deployments and space weaponization. But these “concessions” will assure greater US security. Finally, after achieving progress in US-Russian nuclear disarmament, the president should convene the nuclear weapons states to initiate negotiations for a phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons.
Congress and the American people must support and encourage the president in taking these steps. Should the president fail in the near term in achieving concrete results with the Russians, it could result in a breakdown of the non-proliferation regime, nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. All of these would undermine US and global security in ways we must seek to imagine and prevent.
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org) and a Councilor of the World Future Council.