Obama and the NPT: our nuclear future

IssueApril 2010
Feature by Brian Larkin

The upcoming Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference could be the beginning of the end for nuclear weapons.

Under the terms of the NPT “nuclear weapon states” – the US, Russia, UK, France and China – promised 40 years ago to pursue nuclear disarmament but have failed to do so.

But momentum for a nuclear weapons convention is building across civil society and governments. The mayors of 3,680 cities in 135 countries are calling for abolition by 2020. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has called for a nuclear weapons convention. This groundswell is partly a response to President Obama’s “vision of a world free of nuclear weapons”.

Obama is pursuing a substantial arms control agenda. He is near completion of a new START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) agreement with Russia, and has promised to pursue ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and to negotiate a Fissile Materials Cut Off Treaty.

We might believe that this US president is doing everything possible to pursue nuclear disarmament.

Reality check

But Obama’s rhetoric and policies do not join up. These steps will not remove tactical nuclear weapons from Europe or take nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert, and will leave in place massive stockpiles of bombs and first strike arsenals and policies. When he proclaimed his goal of a nuclear-free world in Prague in April 2009, Obama added “perhaps not in my lifetime”.

Obama’s mantra of a world without nuclear weapons was followed by the proviso that the US will maintain a strong nuclear deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist. Last month Obama requested more than $7bn in funding for nuclear weapons, revealing his real intentions.

Obama does not use the word “abolition”, for good reason. Instead he uses the phrase “a world free of nuclear weapons”, taken from a 2007 Wall Street Journal article by Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn.

Now these “four horsemen”, who are in fact lobbyists for the weapons labs, are supporting Obama’s requests for the largest nuclear weapons budget since the Manhattan project. Just as Kennedy used fear of communism and a fictitious missile gap, they invoke fears of terrorists getting hold of nuclear weapons, rhetoric repeated by Obama.

But the notion that nukes could “fall into dangerous hands” is disingenuous as ten thousand nuclear weapons remain in the hands of the only party ever to use them on innocent civilians. The only way to insure against the use of nuclear weapons is to disarm them.

In adapting the rhetoric of Kissinger and friends Obama was signalling that he would not go beyond arms control to actual abolition. Last month’s budget request, 40% higher than during the Cold War, confirmed this.

Follow the money

Obama’s budget reveals that it is the US that is planning to acquire new nuclear weapons. US vice-president Joe Biden claims “stockpile management” will not involve the development of new nuclear weapons. But Obama is requesting funding for facilities for development and fabrication of new warheads including a new plutonium pit facility and a supercomputer for simulating testing of new warhead designs.

Using data it collected from past nuclear weapons testing and from ongoing “subcritical” testing, the US will be able to circumvent a Test Ban Treaty and develop new nuclear warheads, while other countries cannot.

Obama’s increased funding of the weapons labs is part of a complicated political horse trade aimed at getting the support of 40 conservative senators whose votes he needs to pass the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Replacing Trident

Developments in the UK are closely linked to US plans. Although parliament approved only the research stage for a replacement for Trident submarines and did not approve the research on new warheads, construction of facilities at the atomic weapons establishments (AWEs) at Aldermaston and Burghfield for design and fabrication of new warheads started in 2002.

The US and UK are collaborating on a new “trigger”, effectively a new design for a nuclear weapon. These preparations for modernisation of nuclear arsenals will almost certainly thwart progress on disarmament at the NPT review conference.

Diplomats are proposing promising alternatives and intermediary steps. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has proposed the alternative of a “framework of legal instruments”.

Other ambassadors have suggested a minimum commitment to preparatory talks leading to a nuclear weapons convention. These steps would constitute enormous progress. Prior to the NPT, states should take steps to demonstrate the will to achieve disarmament. The US should take its weapons off hair-trigger alert. The UK should take Trident off patrol and halt construction at Aldermaston.

If Obama wants to earn the Nobel peace prize, he should heed the calls from around the world for real disarmament and make good his promises.

To do so he must transcend the vagaries of domestic politics. In doing so he would become a truly historic figure. But, as he has said, the people must generate the pressure to make politicians act. Citizens’ groups including CND will hand in petitions signed by millions of people calling for the NPT states to commit to negotiations leading to abolition of nuclear weapons.

Topics: Nuclear weapons