Falk: The New START treaty successfully negotiated between the United States and Russia imposed several limits on strategic armaments. It calls for the reduction of the number of deployed strategic warheads by approximately 30 percent and reduces the number of deployed launchers that each side has to 700. This seems like an intrinsically desirable step and a stabilizing step. But the question it raises in my mind is whether this represents a first step in the realization of President Obama’s Prague vision of a year ago that spoke so eloquently about a world without nuclear weapons; or whether it should be conceived as a return to the managerial approach associated with arms control during the Cold War, where these kind of stabilizing arrangements between the Soviet Union and the United States represented not a path toward nuclear disarmament, but a managerial substitute for nuclear disarmament. Such a path clearly was beneficial, diminishing risks of certain kinds of instability in the arms race between the two superpowers and kept costs of maintaining nuclear weapons arsenals within agreed boundaries.
Krieger: There are elements of both perspectives in this agreement. Those who are making the agreement would argue that it is a step in the right direction, but it is also a necessary step to deal with the discontent that exists among the non-nuclear weapon states that are parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. While the US and Russia were willing to miss the December 2009 deadline of the expiration of the START 1 treaty, which this replaces, it appears that they were not willing to miss the deadline of having this treaty in place prior to the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, which will be held in May. My reading of the timing of this treaty is that it’s designed to show the non-nuclear weapon states that are parties to the NPT that the US and Russia are at least demonstrating signs of life when it comes to issues of nuclear disarmament and not disregarding their promises and obligations, as I would say was largely the case during the previous eight years leading up to the assumption of power by the Obama administration.
Falk: Yes, I think that’s a very important double point. In other words, that this agreement, however one describes it, does establish for Obama a sense that he is pursuing security issues in the nuclear weapons context in a different and more responsible way than was done during the Bush presidency. And, secondly, I think you’re absolutely right that a primary incentive to reach this kind of agreement at this time was to provide reassurance to the non-nuclear states just prior to the NPT Review Conference that the two leading nuclear weapons states were themselves trying to do something by way of denuclearization to make the world a safer place. I still believe it leaves open the question as to whether we who believe in the importance of the Prague vision of zero nuclear weapons being taken seriously as a political project (and not just as high flown rhetoric or easily dismissed as “utopian”) should view this New START treaty with enthusiasm or with a certain prudent skepticism. I feel, as someone who has been disappointed often in the past by the pretention that arms control is positively linked to a disarmament agenda, that we as citizens should at least express a certain skepticism about what is going on, particularly if, as seems likely, there will be a big domestic fight to get this treaty ratified in the course of which the administration is probably likely to give additional reassurances up front and behind the scenes that it will be cautious about any further steps to reduce the quality and size of the US nuclear weapons arsenal. It would be acceptable, and probably desirable, to support the ratification of this treaty, but with eyes wide open as to its probable irrelevance to achieving a disarming world.
Krieger: There are a few things we can say with certainty. One is that the lowering of the numbers of nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles is something to be looked at positively. At least it is movement in the right direction. The second point, though, is that the numbers that are agreed upon are still far more than enough to destroy civilization and most life on the planet. So while this may be a positive step, it hasn’t removed the most serious danger of nuclear war as a possibility. That’s an issue that citizens in both countries need to be aware of, and certainly we shouldn’t be looking at this treaty as an end in itself. I’m sure that President Obama and President Medvedev agree that this was meant to be a next step and not the final goal.
Falk: Don’t you think that has always been said about arms control agreements? If you look back at the Cold War, at the various agreements, they were always said to be steps in the right direction, but look where we ended up.
Krieger: Right, but even in his Prague speech, President Obama tempered his vision of a world without nuclear weapons by saying that it was doubtful that it could happen within his lifetime. So he has already expressed the possibility of parameters that go far beyond his control. To show real seriousness, the kind of seriousness for achieving a world without nuclear weapons that you’re looking for and that I’m looking for, would require President Obama – I think United States leadership is essential here – to initiate negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Convention for the elimination of nuclear weapons. That would promise to be a complicated process, which would involve not only the US and Russia and the other nuclear weapon states, but all countries in the world in serious negotiations. Initiating those negotiations would constitute a benchmark for real seriousness about nuclear disarmament as opposed to arms control measures and as opposed to a primary concern with stopping proliferation or the spread of nuclear weapons.
Falk: I agree with you and would extend that argument a little bit by saying that this kind of arms control reduction, as you correctly take note of, doesn’t really change the fundamental vulnerability of the world to a catastrophic or apocalyptic use of the weaponry and, indeed, keeps intact a very large nuclear weapons capability for both leading nuclear weapon states. It even increases appropriations over the next five years so as to upgrade the weaponry being retained. In this sense, since the arsenal will remain very large, and under no circumstances would more than a small percentage of such weaponry be considered relevant for use, it could be that the total impact of these adjustments will make the United States and Russia more attached to these weapons than previously. But I would go one step further and say that if the intention of this treaty was to minimize the role of nuclear weapons in world politics, a more direct and less difficult path would have been to agree upon and solicit the participation of the other nuclear weapon states in a declaration of No First Use with regard to nuclear weapons. An unequivocal declaration, reinforced by adjustments in doctrines and deployment, exhibits a much clearer repudiation of the relevance of nuclear weaponry to the pursuit of national interests. Such a declaration would reveal with some clarity the intention of a government with regard to the role of these weapons. The refusal of governments to renounce first use options is a significant signal that disarmament, as distinct from arms control, is unlikely to become a serious policy option in the future, and I have felt this way ever since the original use of atomic bombs against Japanese cities in 1945. And likewise, this unwillingness to make such a No First Use declaration compromises claims to abhor the weaponry and expressions of intention to avoid any future use.
If a government claims the necessity of possessing this weaponry of mass destruction, then at least it should limit the claim to circumstances of actual necessity, which would imply confining the role of nuclear weapons to a purely deterrent role and, even then, available only in a defensive mode as a possible retaliatory weapon whose existence is mainly intended to discourage others from ever using them first. This failure after so many decades to make such a declaration raises serious doubts in my mind as to whether there is really the intentionality needed in this country, and likely elsewhere, to move seriously toward the elimination of the weaponry.
I’d say just one further thought on this: That it also would have been possible for the Obama administration to propose the establishment of nuclear weapon-free zones, particularly in the Middle East, where the danger of some kind of war connected with these weapons, either to prevent others from obtaining them or to initiate a preemptive attack of some kind, seems to pose a particularly serious danger. The unwillingness to endorse this kind of initiative, even though it has been around for quite a while, is again an indication to me that despite the Prague speech and the rhetoric contained therein, that the Obama presidency is not going to challenge the long and well established nuclear weapons status quo. In the Middle East the Obama presidency is undoubtedly inhibited by not wanting to exert pressure on Israel to take part in an arrangement to ensure the elimination of the weaponry in the region, but if true, it confirms the relatively low strategic priority attached to denuclearization goals.
Krieger: I took the Prague speech as a sign of hope, particularly in relation to the previous eight years of the Bush presidency, but at the same time, more an argument for measures for nonproliferation than for disarmament. The issues that were emphasized in the Prague speech were arms reductions, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, and stopping terrorists from getting nuclear weapons. I don’t disagree with any of those points, but I do think that they belong on to the side of nonproliferation rather than nuclear disarmament. The one thing that President Obama really has never spoken publicly about in the Prague speech or elsewhere is No First Use of nuclear weapons. As you know, the US government has just released a new Nuclear Posture Review. This Nuclear Posture Review will set the parameters for US nuclear policy for at least the years of the Obama administration and possibly beyond. I understand that the idea of No First Use was discussed and rejected. As positive as it would be to have pledges of No First Use and leadership from the United States on that issue, it was rejected. This suggests that arms control and nonproliferation are higher priorities than nuclear disarmament. I would also mention that as a candidate, President Obama talked about de-alerting the US nuclear arsenal, taking the weapons off of high alert. That would be another positive step in demonstrating a devaluation of the US nuclear arsenal. But that also seems to have dropped from the agenda and the US and Russia still maintain a total of some 2,000 strategic weapons on hair-trigger alert. There are far more nuclear weapons than that, but there are still a thousand on each side, approximately, that are on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired within moments of an order to do so.
On nuclear weapon-free zones, that is an area that deserves support. We now have nuclear weapon-free zones in most of the southern hemisphere of the world. But even though the parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty promised in 1995 – in some states’ eyes as a condition of extending the treaty – to work toward a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East, that not only has not come to pass, but there hasn’t been much effort in that direction. That creates a far more dangerous situation than need be in the most volatile part of the world.
Falk: Yes, I agree, and I think that the discussion we’ve had up to this point does raise the question of whether those who really believe that it is morally, legally, and politically desirable to work seriously toward nuclear disarmament – that it is in fact overdue, but that goal be affirmed and steps taken to realize it – should be complicit in this continuing dynamic of shifting the emphasis to arms control and nonproliferation. I see no evidence that there is any kind of political project underway that seeks to achieve nuclear disarmament and, until I see that, I am very skeptical that if one wants to get to zero, this is the path that will get the country and the world moving in that direction. My related point here is that we need to make clear as an educational priority that strengthening the nonproliferation regime and managing existing nuclear weapons arsenals may be helpful steps, but that there is every indication that such steps are leading to a dead end if our goal is zero nuclear weapons. I would even argue that the historical evidence supports the view that progress in arms control tends to divert attention from disarmament and removes the goal of zero altogether from the policy agenda. We as citizens should do our best to prevent this from happening.
Krieger: It puts people like ourselves and organizations such as the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in a difficult bind. On the one hand, to not accept the agreement that has been made as progress seems ungrateful and perhaps overly negative to the people who have been waiting for some sign of hope in this area. On the other hand, if we become too enthusiastic about the progress that has been made then we run the risk of not staying true to our goal of achieving a world without nuclear weapons. So I feel there is a necessity to walk a very careful line here, one which acknowledges that some progress has been made and, yet, still points out that there is quite a long ways to go, that we still stand in considerable risk, the future stands in risk, and that there are some far more tangible ways in which a commitment to a nuclear weapon-free world could be manifested.
Falk: Don’t you think that there are some serious costs in labeling these kinds of steps as progress toward nuclear disarmament if one doesn’t believe that that’s where the path is leading. From my perspective, it is what the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called “false consciousness” when you subscribe to a set of propositions that are in a sense trying to provide a certain form of reassurance, but the underlying reality more carefully considered actually contradicts that reassurance. And, after all, this path of arms control and nonproliferation is not something new. It has been walked upon ever since the end of World War II in one way or another with periodic brief indications of an interest in nuclear disarmament, which are then later contested as to whether they were ever sincere and meant to be taken seriously. By situating the zero goal over the horizon of Obama’s mortality, isn’t that signaling to the nuclear weapons establishment to stop worrying, and shouldn’t we by the same token start worrying! But my point is: Have we not reached a point where it is important to expose this real choice between stabilizing and minimizing some of the risks of a nuclear weapons world and making a clear commitment to the moral, legal and political imperative of getting rid of the weapons? What I’m trying to say is you can’t embrace both goals at once, although you could affirm arms control measures as holding operations. You can’t have 60 years of no real progress toward nuclear disarmament and yet continue to fool yourself into thinking that by continuing to accept arms control/nonproliferation priorities you are somehow going to achieve nuclear disarmament later on. I am really contesting your use of the word “progress.” I think the START approach and the Nuclear Posture Review represent helpful moves toward nuclear stability, but that it is an inexcusable mistake to confuse this with progress toward disarmament.
Krieger: Let me respond in this way. I think you make an important point, but I also think that both stability and nonproliferation are necessary prerequisites to actually achieving nuclear disarmament. In other words, as long as there is a great deal of instability in the international system and as long as the prospects for nuclear proliferation are high, it seems to me that countries like the United States and Russia will err on the side of caution rather than moving energetically toward a world free of nuclear weapons. Although the primary goals at this point, certainly for the United States, are stabilization, preventing proliferation and keeping the weapons out of the hands of terrorists, those efforts still provide a platform for more serious and actual progress toward a world without nuclear weapons.
Falk: I would disagree with your argument that the nonproliferation regime is a precondition for moving toward nuclear disarmament. I think the more persuasive understanding reaches just the opposite conclusion. I think if the nonproliferation regime were to breakdown altogether, there would surface here and elsewhere a much more energetic political will to seek nuclear disarmament because only then would the dangers to the nuclear weapon states become sufficiently evident to mobilize a popular anti-nuclear movement that is strong enough to shake the complacency of the nuclear weapons establishment. Ali Mazrui, the eminent Kenyan political scientist, argued in his Reith Lectures on the BBC several decades ago in favor of proliferation to Third World countries, insisting that only then when the weaponry was so dispersed would the Western nuclear weapon states seriously consider getting rid of them. His position provoked much controversy at the time, but it is not such an easy position to dismiss.
I think we can point to something more recent that moves in a similar direction as did Mazrui. This is the unexpected advocacy by the Kissinger, Shultz, Nunn, Perry group of an abolitionist goal based, in my view, on their sense that the proliferation regime was being eroded in such a serious way as to undermine the advantages previously gained for the United States through possessing, developing, deploying, and threatening the use of nuclear weapons. These mainstream realist heavyweights never showed any kind of moral or legal anxiety about relying on nuclear weapons so long as their retention conferred strategic benefits. Their recent change of heart represents a simple realist recalculation that the world was getting more dangerous for the nuclear weapon states, and it was getting more dangerous because the nonproliferation regime was not working as effectively as it had in earlier decade, and new threats of acquisition and use by non-state, non-deterrable actors or hostile states had surfaced in the post 9/11 world.
Krieger: My own view of the Kissinger, Shultz, Perry, Nunn commentaries is that their primary concern is with terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons and there being no possibility of deterring those extremists with nuclear weapons. Therefore, they’ve begun to talk about abolition as the goal, but they’re still talking in a way that is consistent with how Barack Obama is implementing his policies. They’re talking about the goal of abolition being the top of a mountain, which they can’t even see at this time and needing to get up to the base camp in order to realize where they’re going. I agree with you that the goal clearly has to be abolition, and we can see far enough to know what we need to do. The Kissinger group could see that as well if they were open to it, but they’ve promoted more of a nonproliferation and stabilization agenda. Their greatest concern seems to be that of cheaters; in other words, how do you properly verify reductions and what kind of actions do you have to take to assure that there won’t be a breakout from the agreed upon reductions.
Falk: Yes, I think you’re right to mention their preoccupation with terrorism, but I think, at least in my reading of their advocacy, that it is in the setting of not being able to be very trusting of the countries that now are nuclear weapon states or might become nuclear weapon states. Their anxiety about terrorism is linked to the failures of the nonproliferation regime to restrict the weaponry to the five permanent members of the Security Council, which I think they were relative comfortable about, although they undoubtedly would have preferred an Anglo-American or Euro-American nuclear oligopoly, assuming that an American monopoly was not in the cards. Experience with Pakistan also prompted some realist rethinking about security in the nuclear age. It was deeply disturbing to settled attitudes of complacency that Pakistan’s leading nuclear physicist and weapons designer, A. Q. Khan, had heavily engaged in black-market activity to sell illicitly nuclear knowledge and technology. Revelations along these lines challenged the conventional wisdom in Washington. This meant that the control system that had been relied upon in previous decades now seemed risky and potentially very dangerous.
Against such a background it is not surprising that a realist reappraisal made it seem preferable to work toward the elimination of the weaponry even if it turned out to be difficult to go all the way to the top of that mountain. I think that what we’re really talking about, and it is an important issue, is whether strengthening the nonproliferation regime is a contribution toward the goal of nuclear disarmament or it operates as a diversion. I think you are taking more the view that strengthening the nonproliferation is still possible, and hence desirable, and that it may even be a precondition for disarmament. I’m taking the view that the stress on nonproliferation operates mainly as a diversion; that the only likely way to fashion the political will needed to move toward nuclear disarmament, is through a dramatic breakdown of the nonproliferation regime or through some kind of catastrophic use of nuclear weapons. Neither of these “preconditions” is desirable. Quite the opposite, but nothing short of such developments seems capable of shaking the anti-disarmament consensus that pervades the nuclear weapons establishment.
Krieger: It is the fear of the catastrophic use that motivates the Kissinger group. It is the fear that it is something that could happen, that the probabilities of it happening are increasing, and that no matter how large the US nuclear arsenal remains, it won’t be helpful in preventing the use of nuclear weapons by those who can’t be located or don’t care if they are. They see the kind of rationality that they believed was inherent in nuclear deterrence disintegrating under those conditions. And also, as you mentioned, the instability with regard to Pakistan and the instability in the Middle East create other sets of problems, which would be less dangerous if nuclear weapons weren’t in play. I think they see the threat, but they also see abolition, as President Obama has expressed, as a very long-term project. It seems to me that one of the most important and compelling things we could do as members of civil society concerned with this issue is to find a way to instill in it a greater sense of urgency. And so, the question that you are raising about whether this agreement should be applauded and move on from there or whether it should be exposed as not having gone far enough in the right direction seems to me to be less the question than that of how can the efforts that Obama is making – the vision that he has expressed, the same vision of the Kissinger group and others around the world – be given an appropriate sense of urgency rather than left in the visionary stage while we move only incrementally toward the vision.
Falk: The only thing that I have trouble with is those last words of yours. I don’t think we are moving incrementally toward the vision. I think we’re moving toward another vision; the vision of a restabilized nuclear weapons security system. I don’t believe at all that arms control is incrementally moving toward a world without nuclear weapons. I think there are two competing visions, not one, and that we each have to make a choice between these visions when it comes to shaping a political project for change. President Obama, I admit, has been ambiguous as to which vision he is really championing. Conceivably, he believes he is championing them both, but I don’t see strong evidence of this, and I see mainly evidence that he is mainly pushing the arms control vision, as you earlier suggested by saying that the main purpose of his Prague speech was to endorse the arms control/nonproliferation vision, not the disarmament vision.
Krieger: I would actually say it slightly differently. I take the president at his word when he says his vision is a commitment to a world without nuclear weapons. His implementation thus far has been expressed as an arms control/nonproliferation agenda. The advisors he is surrounded by must favor such an agenda, and although the Kissinger group has expressed a vision of a world without nuclear weapons, their agenda is also consistent with an arms control/nonproliferation agenda. The question for me is, without rejecting outright what they’ve done, and I don’t think it is to be rejected, how to instill a sense of urgency toward achieving the actual vision that President Obama has expressed. It may be that he doesn’t clearly understand the difference between the incremental steps that he has talked about and that are being implemented in this treaty and the goal that he expresses of a world without nuclear weapons. Clearly, there are things that he could do that aren’t currently on his agenda and maybe aren’t even on his radar that would make a far stronger commitment to a world without nuclear weapons.
Falk: I think that what you say about his own consciousness in relation to his nuclear weapons agenda is quite plausible, but at the same time I do think that it is of considerable importance to try to draw this distinction sharply between an arms control/nonproliferation security system and a security system dedicated to the elimination of weaponry of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons. I don’t feel that distinction is clearly understood, even by many people, like ourselves, who favor nuclear disarmament, but still feel that these arms control steps are somehow not only consistent with a nuclear disarmament agenda but are incremental steps toward its realization. My view is that the whole record of arms control throughout the Cold War and since, confirmed over the years by my interaction with the people in the Washington defense policy community, especially while I was teaching at Princeton, has convinced me that this still prevailing consensus doesn’t believe that nuclear disarmament is in the national interest and doesn’t think there is a tolerably safe way to manage a nuclear disarmed world so as to be secure against cheating.
This Washington consensus was expressed probably most clearly years ago by the Harvard policy analyst, Joe Nye, who wrote at length about the irreversibility of a nuclear weapons world – a world in which you can never be sure that others won’t cheat or given that the knowledge needed to make a bomb is out there, then there will always remain the possibility of putting weapons back into existence even if they are or seem to have been all destroyed. I think that this skepticism reflects the continuing majority view of the policy community in this country and probably also in other nuclear weapon states. At the same time, they are prepared to ignore a politician who says that a world without nuclear weapons is desirable as long as the goal is situated well outside the realm of current politics, and Obama has done this by situating clearly his visionary goal beyond the horizon of his own mortality, thereby making the wish seem to be a harmless piety, remote and irrelevant. I don’t want to let the politicians get away with such an ideological maneuver, seeking to mystify the people who are morally, legally and politically deeply troubled by the implications of living in a world with nuclear weapons. I am one such person, committed to making zero a political project and not just a vision!
Krieger: It is becoming increasingly apparent that nuclear weapons are not necessarily serving the interests of the United States and its citizens, if they ever really did, but are serving rather the interests of a small group of security experts who have developed a whole imaginary world around concepts such as nuclear deterrence; that is, security based on threats of retaliation. It is true that, even at lower numbers of weapons, those individuals still seem to have a lot of influence and power in Washington. That is reflected in the new Nuclear Posture Review. The American people run significant risks by their complacency on this issue. I can appreciate your concern that the US-Russia agreement, which appears to be progress, could result only in a greater level of complacency in thinking that important steps are being taken to improve the security of the country at lower levels of armaments.
I still find it perplexing as to how to move closer to implementing a nuclear disarmament agenda. I don’t think we’ve had a president who has expressed as clear a vision of a world without nuclear weapons as President Obama has done. I think he is a person who is clearly intelligent enough to understand the continuing risks of living in a world with nuclear weapons, no matter how many of them there are or how many we possess. I don’t think he should be attacked for taking steps that he feels are fulfilling his vision. I wonder how we could be more effective in expressing the kinds of concerns that you’ve articulated about the differences between arms control and disarmament so that they would actually have some possibility of being received in a way that would lead to implementation rather than outright rejection.
Falk: I think you raised a difficult, appropriate question and it relates back to this issue of how do you achieve some kind of hopeful posture in relation to what is happening? And is it false consciousness to view this START agreement to reduce the number of strategic missiles and launchers – is it false consciousness to express hope rather than skepticism in response, or should one try to blend the two and say that if it is to be viewed as hopeful from the perspective of nuclear disarmament, then one needs to follow this step with a clearer sense of future direction in terms of policy? But if this is coupled with similar kinds of negotiations and no real indication that either the strategy of the country or its capabilities are turning away from relying on these weapons, then I think it becomes important to express a truthful sense of skepticism, not to discredit the motivation of Obama as an individual, but to clarify what the policy of the country seems to be and how this pattern relates to these values and policy objectives.
Krieger: I think we should give our best assessment of the situation and our best policy advice, but it still begs the question of how we can be more effective in following that path.
Falk: I think, above all, we need at this time to be truthful about the ambiguity of this step. I think that civil society voices don’t have real resources or governmental power, but they do have the capacity to tell the truth or to express their sincere understanding of an unfolding reality, and if they compromise this true witnessing for a rather vain effort to get a seat at the end of the big table they give away their authenticity as voices of conscience. I feel strongly that the legitimacy of this civil society voice depends upon its moral and legal clarity and its political insight even if it disappoints liberal sentiments. That means that sometimes one has to say things that are not in keeping with a widespread belief that it is important to lend support to a president who is better than his predecessor or possible successor. What should be the guiding motivation here? I agree that it is a little different for someone like myself who is in some ways an independent intellectual academic person and someone like yourself who represents an organization that is involved with efforts to persuade policymakers to take constructive short-term steps. You’re more constrained by those practicalities that shape what seems to be a different conception of responsible behavior. I have license to be irresponsible toward the immediate political process and to ignore the domestic constraints on policy (what the Senate will swallow). Perhaps, as this dialogue may illustrate, it may be that the combination of these two somewhat discordant voices is the best we can do at this stage.
Krieger: It seems to me that you are right in theory, but I’m not sure how it would play out in practice. I certainly agree with you that we should always speak the truth as we see it and try to find our way through a thicket of obstacles to achieve the goal as best we can – and the goal is a world without nuclear weapons, which I believe is essential for a human future.
I want to raise a related issue that I think is important. Although we’ve been talking about moving to the strongest position possible for a world free of nuclear weapons, there remain quite a few people in the political sphere of this country that would argue that President Obama has gone too far and would see what he has done as a problem rather than a step in the right direction. You’re approaching it from the other side. But given the general ambiance in the Senate these days, the possibility of ratification of this treaty doesn’t seem high to me. Getting 67 votes in the Senate seems like it would be a stretch. We already know that certain leading Republican senators have said that if there is any mention of curtailing the anti-ballistic missile system that the US is deploying in various places, including Europe, that the treaty won’t get their support in the Senate. This issue, however, is very important to the Russians. They didn’t want to have an agreement that would allow unfettered deployment of US missile defenses. The Obama administration tried to deal with this situation by agreeing to a preambular statement in the treaty that simply said that offensive and defensive missiles have a relationship to each other. A preambular statement carries no legal effect. There will still be some potentially serious difficulties in having this treaty ratified by the Senate. Twenty years ago or so when the START 1 agreement was ratified in the Senate, there was bipartisan support for it. Now it seems doubtful that there is going to be bipartisan support no matter what compromises President Obama is willing to make. You can see in looking at that issue of missile defenses, the kind of narrow path that President Obama needed to walk in order, on the one hand, to reach agreement with the Russians and, on the other hand, to be able to get enough support to have the treaty ratified in the Senate.
Falk: I don’t disagree with this analysis. I’m only suggesting that if one wants to support the treaty, one should do it without indulging illusions that it is more than it is and not pretend that it should be viewed as a step toward nuclear disarmament. I would take a somewhat agnostic position, myself, thinking that it may or may not be, depending on what happens subsequently; accordingly, we should withhold any expression of either positive or negative judgment about whether this particular treaty, aside from endorsing it from a stabilization perspective, is desirable from the perspective of getting to zero. I believe it is important to clarify that these two paths are in all probability parallel, and not convergent. Further, that at this point the New START treaty and the Nuclear Posture Review seem clearly to have chosen the arms control/nonproliferation path, and shunned the disarmament path. I think we have to clarify those two directions that are available to American security policy. It is my fear that by choosing the arms control/nonproliferation path, whether to overcome domestic political opposition or to mollify the nuclear weapons establishment, the visionary rhetoric, while inspiring, is also somewhat misleading to the extent it suggests that the disarmament path is also being seriously embarked upon.
Krieger: Of course, many people would disagree with the proposition that you’ve just put forward that arms control and disarmament are divergent paths and would say that the path of arms control leads ultimately to disarmament. You are making a clear statement that you don’t agree with that perspective.
Falk: Not exactly. I go further by saying that to the extent that arms control succeeds, it weakens the pressure supportive of disarmament, making zero less attainable than ever. It is only when there is instability that people feel that there is a need for disarmament, and as long as the regime seems stable, and especially if it seems to keep the weaponry away from those that we don’t like, our adversaries in the world, our leadership will not alter the status quo. It is only by subverting the ideological and bureaucratic status quo that it may become possible to raise the level of societal receptivity to the disarmament alternative sufficiently to make it a political option. It should be recalled that the moments in the past when public support for nuclear disarmament was greatest coincided with those times when Cold War confrontations brought public fears of nuclear war to the surface, provoking widespread anxieties.
Krieger: That proposition may not be correct because often it is instability that leads to a retrenchment and more armaments, to a restarting of an arms race. If we can’t develop a program to achieve the goal of nuclear disarmament under conditions of relative stability, it seems like we may be not moving up the mountain to a base camp, but trying to instead to roll the Sisyphean boulder up the mountain to achieve nuclear disarmament under unstable conditions.
Falk: That it is one of these confusing situations where the evidence is not conclusive for these alternative points of view, and my own skepticism about arms control initiatives really is something that evolved in my thinking over a long period of time, enduring many disappointments, watching from the sidelines what seemed to be the real goals of the arms control community and witnessing their antipathy toward nuclear disarmament, which extended far beyond a belief that one needs to go slowly and carefully toward nuclear disarmament. I think there are two possible ways of thinking. Those that are very optimistic about arms control have always said what I think you are saying, that these are incremental steps that eventually make the world secure enough to consider nuclear disarmament. The contrasting view that I’m espousing suggests that the arms control and security policy community is fundamentally hostile to nuclear disarmament, and its influential advocates view the arms control/nonproliferation goals as ends in themselves that should not be undermined by sentimental and essentially wrong-headed commitments to a disarmament program.
Krieger: You are referring to an approach to arms control that confers relative advantage.
Falk: It is also prudent with respect to their assessment of comparative risks. They want to cut risks and costs, and arms control is a sustainable way of managing the nuclear weapons arsenal. It does not necessarily mean that you get the better of the deal in relation to adversaries, though you may, and this is certainly an aim of arms control negotiations. The main thing is that it is helpful to have an appropriate regulatory framework, but from an arms control perspective it is also important to discredit what is deemed to be dangerous—namely, the effort to eliminate nuclear weapons in real time, rather than as an “ultimate” but politically irrelevant goal. My own effort for many years is to challenge this view, and insist that the elimination of nuclear weapons is a practical and desirable political undertaking, and anything less than this represents complicity with the most immoral and unlawful weaponry ever introduced into the domain of world politics.
Krieger: I think that the arms control perspective that you are referring to comes out of an identification with national security experts who have largely defined US nuclear policy over the past 65 years. It often comes out of a military framework, so a security/military orientation guides that perspective. I agree that there is a managerial element to arms control and nonproliferation, but also one that confers upon these so-called national security experts a sense of dominance in our social structure.
Falk: It is part of what Eisenhower was thinking about when he warned about the military-industrial complex. It is sustained also by a policy community —think tanks, academic specialists, and journalists — that appear to have been socialized into this managerial and strategic mindset that is essentially antithetical to a normative or ethical/legal vision of security systems, and basically doesn’t regard a concern about indiscriminate warfare or the massive killing of civilians as relevant to the framing of security policy for the United States. The discourse that has realist credibility considers comparative levels of weaponry, of missions that may or may not be successfully performed by different types of nuclear weapons. But over the years these are the concerns that have defined the outer limits of responsible policy discourse. If you try to address the issues outside those limits, the gatekeepers in Washington will do their best to exclude you from the discourse, and they usually do their job very well. As far as I know, none of the people in Washington prominent in the arms control agency or in the national security council hold views that are compatible with the outlook of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.
Krieger: I noticed in some comments on this New START agreement that Secretary of Defense Gates made a point of saying the reductions are numbers that the defense community, the national security experts, believe can be achieved without any impact on US national security, and that these numbers are reflected in the Nuclear Posture Review. He also said in his comments on this treaty that it will be necessary to strengthen the nuclear weapons infrastructure at the nuclear weapons laboratories and that would, of course, require a budget allocation. They are already talking about a $5 billion increase for the weapons labs over the next five years. I also noticed that the third opinion piece by the Kissinger group, which came out this year, called for similar budget increases in the nuclear weapons infrastructure. This group of insiders that have dominated national security policy are looking for some commensurate gain to be obtained with the reduction of nuclear weapons. They may be seeking to take the numbers down, but to also make the nuclear weapons arsenal, in their words, “safe, secure and reliable.” That will cost more money and will require strengthening the infrastructure at the nuclear weapons laboratories. This will reinforce the US commitment, in the eyes of the world, to greater reliance on nuclear weapons. It will be viewed as a step away from nuclear disarmament.
Falk: What are your thoughts on the Nuclear Security Summit that President Obama convened in April 2010? Do you believe it can be effective in keeping nuclear weapons and the materials to make them out of the hands of terrorists?
Krieger: The Nuclear Security Summit is a good idea, an important and necessary one, but I fear it will not be sufficient. Nuclear terrorism is only one strand of the problem. There are also regional nuclear issues that drive arms races, such as the failure to create Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones in the Middle East and Northeast Asia. Israel’s nuclear weapons, which are not publicly discussed, are highly provocative in the Middle East. And, as yet, the international community has been unsuccessful in negotiating an agreement with the North Koreans to give up their nuclear arms and return to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
There is also the nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan, which remains unstable. In addition, there is the US insistence on moving forward with deployment of missile defenses, space weaponization and projects such as replacing nuclear warheads with conventional warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles, creating a Global Strike Force. Such steps will slow down, if not halt altogether, further progress on nuclear disarmament between the US and Russia. We need to lock down all nuclear materials for weapons, but the global trend in spreading nuclear power plants will make this extremely difficult. If we make plutonium a valued element of international commerce, it will increase the possibilities of terrorists gaining access to it for bombs. I doubt if, in the long run, the world can both support a resurgence of nuclear power and prevent terrorists from obtaining nuclear weapons. I support President Obama’s efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism, but I believe it will require a far more urgent effort to achieve nuclear weapons abolition as well as severe constraints on the spread of nuclear power plants, leading to phasing them out.
Falk: I would only add that I would have found the Nuclear Security Summit more in keeping with even slim hopes for a world without nuclear weapons if the approach to threats associated with terrorists acquiring such weaponry was assessed from the dual perspectives of nonproliferation and various forms of denuclearization, including Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones, No First Use commitments and the formation of an international working group tasked with exploring whether plans for phased and verified nuclear disarmament can be drawn up within 12 months. Until denuclearization is discussed alongside nonproliferation, I will remain mainly critical of what is being done about the various dangers associated with the retention of nuclear weapons. I classify myself as among those who regard it as totally unacceptable to base security on threats of mass annihilation, a condition that creates a moral urgency and legal imperative to make nuclear disarmament a goal of present policy; and until this is done by our leaders, I will not be content with the steps taken.
Krieger: It must be kept in mind that the steps are only steps. It is too soon to know where they will lead. We may look back to see that these steps were far too little, too late; or we may look back to see that these steps stemmed the tide and were a meaningful turning point on the path to a nuclear weapon-free world. It seems certain that where these steps will lead will depend not only on the steps themselves and President Obama’s vision, but on the support and engagement of broad masses of people who are committed to ending the nuclear weapons threat to humanity. Awakening our fellow citizens of the planet, raising their awareness and encouraging their engagement on this project is the key to achieving the world we both seek – a world at peace free of nuclear weapons, one that spends its resources not on war and its preparation, but on meeting human needs for all and protecting the Earth and its resources for future generations.