On April 1, 2009, the presidents of the United States and Russia, Barack Obama and Dmitriy Medvedev, issued a Joint Statement, promising “a new tone” and a far more constructive working relationship between the two countries. Relations had dramatically deteriorated under the leadership of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. The Joint Statement announced to the world that Obama and Medvedev are “ready to move beyond Cold War mentalities and chart a fresh start in relations between [the] two countries.”
The Joint Statement covered a wide range of issues, but gave greatest attention to issues related to nuclear weapons. The two leaders pledged to fulfill their obligations under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which calls for good faith negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament. This will be welcome news to the non-nuclear weapon states that are parties to the NPT and have committed to not acquiring nuclear weapons.
Presidents Obama and Medvedev committed their two countries “to achieving a nuclear free world.” This is an important promise, and these leaders must be supported by their citizens and people throughout the world in seeking its fulfillment. The promise is tempered, however, by the recognition of the two leaders that it is a “long-term goal” that will require “a new emphasis on arms control and conflict resolution measures, and their full implementation by all concerned nations.” The two leaders set no timeframe for achieving the goal.
They further agreed “to pursue new and verifiable reductions in…strategic offensive arsenals in a step-by-step process.” They pledged to have their negotiators begin talks immediately on replacing the START I agreement, set to expire in December 2009, “with a new, legally-binding treaty.” This is an important step in preserving the verification provisions of the START I agreement and reducing the size of existing nuclear arsenals.
The statement calls for reductions in strategic offensive weapons, but gives no numbers indicating the thinking of the two leaders regarding the next step down. Some reports have suggested that the next reductions are likely to be relatively modest, to the level of 1,500 deployed strategic weapons, continuing the past practice of allowing no controls on additional nuclear weapons held in reserve.
The two leaders acknowledged differences related to the deployment of missile defense systems in Europe, while recognizing that there were possibilities to work together on assessing “missile challenges and threats.” They also promised to work together to secure loose nuclear materials, promote the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and bring the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force (Russia has ratified, while the US has signed but not ratified).
They also agreed to promote “international cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy.” While many nations of the world may favor this, the promotion of nuclear energy has serious drawbacks. It will reduce emphasis on societal investment in truly sustainable forms of energy, and it will make it more difficult to achieve nuclear disarmament. The more that nuclear power is promoted and developed throughout the world, the more difficult it will be to assure that nuclear weapons do not proliferate to other countries or to terrorist organizations.
Achieving a world free of nuclear weapons will require both a commitment and a detailed plan to provide a roadmap. The commitment has now been made. The plan will reveal the realism of the commitment. Reductions in nuclear arsenals demonstrate progress, but it is important that reductions be tied to the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons from all arsenals within a reasonable timeframe.
The intentions of the two leaders expressed in their Joint Statement are far ahead of the limited vision of their recent predecessors. It is real progress. The world is too dangerous, however, to think that it will be possible to muddle through to zero. The stakes are far too high. As President Obama pointed out recently in Strasbourg, “Even with the Cold War now over, the spread of nuclear weapons or the theft of nuclear material could lead to the extermination of any city on the planet.”
Achieving a world of zero nuclear weapons will require the creation and implementation of a well-conceived plan. To assure our common future, Presidents Obama and Medvedev must assure a workable plan with a reasonable timeframe. They must now spend time at their drawing boards developing this plan.
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org) and a Councilor of the World Future Council.