Change Nuclear Weapons Policy? Yes, We Can.

For nearly 40 years, American presidents have expressed their intention to fulfill the U.S. obligation under the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to pursue “effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” Still, few presidents have taken that goal seriously, and those who did missed historic opportunities to move closer toward a nuclear weapons-free world.

Under the presidential administration of Barack Obama, U.S. nuclear weapons policy and nonproliferation diplomacy can and must change, or else the global effort to reduce the risk of nuclear war, curb proliferation, and prevent catastrophic terrorism will falter.

Record of Failure

The failure of the Bush administration and other nuclear weapon states to make meaningful progress on their NPT-related disarmament commitments — including deeper, verifiable, and irreversible nuclear reductions; ratification and implementation of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; and negotiation of a global verifiable fissile material cut off — has complicated the task of strengthening the battered nuclear nonproliferation system.

The Bush administration’s decision to virtually abandon the bilateral, U.S.-Russian strategic nuclear arms control framework has also put Moscow on edge and worsened an already strained relationship between the two countries. In 2002, the administration withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to pursue a costly and rudimentary strategic missile defense system. Now, to Moscow’s great dissatisfaction, Bush has proposed the deployment of a third anti-missile site in Poland.

Meanwhile, Presidents Bush and Putin did agree to the 2002 Moscow Treaty mandating reductions of “operationally deployed” strategic warheads to no more than 2,200 each by 2012. But the agreement expires the day it goes into effect and contains no verification provisions. An earlier agreement, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and its verification provisions, could expire at the end of 2009, leaving behind no meaningful legal framework for regulating U.S. and Russian strategic weapons.

Bush administration proposals to modify U.S. nuclear warheads to improve their capabilities to strike deep underground targets and build a new generation of “replacement” warheads have further undermined confidence in Washington’s commitment to uphold its disarmament commitments. In response, states in the non-nuclear-weapon majority have become increasingly resistant to new measures restricting the spread of sensitive nuclear fuel cycle technology, strengthening international safeguards against the use of civil nuclear programs for weapons purposes, and responding more effectively to noncompliance.

For all these reasons and more, there are rising doubts about the sustainability of the nonproliferation regime. As George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and more than two dozen other former Republican and Democratic government officials warned in their seminal 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed, we are approaching “a nuclear tipping point.”

Sea Change Ahead?

There is hope. A increasingly long list of U.S. congressional leaders and foreign policy experts have joined Shultz et al in calling for the United States to reaffirm the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and pursue immediate steps toward that end.

More importantly, Senator Obama was among the first legislators to step forward to embrace this approach. In July 2007, Obama and Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) introduced “the Nuclear Weapons Threat Reduction Act” (S. 1977), which outlines a comprehensive strategy for progress on disarmament and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

During the presidential campaign, Obama elaborated on his vision in two major policy speeches, pledging to “set a new direction in U.S. nuclear weapons policy and show the world that America believes in its existing commitment under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to work to ultimately eliminate all nuclear weapons.”

Now, the president and his national security team must move quickly on the most important elements of his nuclear weapons threat reduction strategy. Concrete action in each of the following areas in 2009 would also signal a dramatic shift in U.S. nuclear policy and help create the conditions necessary to build consensus among the 180-plus parties to the NPT.

START with Russia

During the campaign, Obama called for “real, verifiable reductions in all U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons…. [T]his process should begin by securing Russia’s agreement to extend essential monitoring and verification provisions of START.” Obama also pledged to “immediately stand down all nuclear forces to be reduced under the Moscow Treaty.”

With START due to expire in a year, one of the first tasks must be to begin talks with Moscow on a new START-plus deal that achieves dramatically deeper reductions of U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads, deployed and non-deployed, to 1,000 or less by 2012. If necessary, the U.S. and Russian presidents should agree to extend START until the new treaty comes into force.

To succeed, the new administration must adopt new approaches to resolve key issues that have stalled progress. Russia has shown interest in deeper reductions: less than 1,500 warheads each along with specific limits on delivery systems. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has rejected lower ceilings on deployed warheads and further limitations on missiles and bombers.

To facilitate such reduction, Obama must direct the Pentagon and other cabinet agencies to conduct a nuclear posture review based on the principle that, so long as nuclear weapons exist, they shall only serve the role of deterring the use of nuclear weapons by others.

Such a shift in thinking is long overdue. Two decades after the end of the Cold War, there is no plausible reason for U.S. and Russian leaders to maintain thousands of strategic nuclear weapons with large numbers on high alert. Besides the United States and Russia, no state possesses more than 300 nuclear warheads. China currently only has about 20 nuclear-armed missiles capable of striking the continental United States.

Dramatically deeper U.S.-Russian reductions would open the possibility for the Obama team to fulfill another campaign pledge before the end of the first term: “Initiating a high-level dialogue among all the declared nuclear-weapon states on how to…move toward meaningful reductions and the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons.”

Missile Defense and CTBT

Early on, Obama will be faced with a decision about the future of the Bush administration’s plan to deploy strategic missile interceptors in Poland and a supporting radar in the Czech Republic. Given that Obama’s policy is to “make sure any missile defense…has been proven to work and has our allies’ support before we deploy it,” the decision is easy. The new two-stage interceptor for the European site has not yet been built and flight testing, which can’t begin until late 2009, would take several years to complete. Czech legislators have not yet approved their role in the scheme and many NATO members remain unconvinced, given that Iran is still years away from successfully fielding a long-range missile.

Obama also pledged to “reach out to the Senate to secure the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) at the earliest practical date and will then launch a diplomatic effort to bring on board other states whose ratifications are required for the treaty to enter into force.” The CTBT remains a vital disarmament and nonproliferation instrument. By prohibiting all nuclear test explosions it impedes the ability of states possessing nuclear weapons to field new and more deadly types of warheads, while also helping to prevent the emergence of new nuclear-armed states.

Given that it signed the CTBT and its test moratorium, the United States bears most CTBT-related responsibilities. Yet, Washington’s failure to ratify has diminished its ability to prod other nations to join the treaty and refrain from testing. At the same time, there is no need — nor is there any political support — for renewed U.S. testing for new nuclear warheads or for any other reason.

Roughly 60 senators in the next Congress will support ratification. Convincing two-thirds of the Senate that the treaty is effectively verifiable and won’t compromise future efforts to maintain the shrinking U.S. nuclear arsenal will be difficult but possible. To ensure success, Obama should appoint a special senior CTBT coordinator, backed with substantial interagency support and resources, who is solely focused on winning necessary support in the Senate before the end of 2010.

Obama and his Senate allies must also avoid the temptation to pursue unnecessary compromise measures that would undermine the purpose of the test ban. Some have suggested adopting Bush’s costly plan for new, so-called “reliable” replacement warheads to buy support from CTBT skeptics. Such an approach is unnecessary, risky, and would contradict Obama’s campaign pledge “not to authorize the development of new nuclear weapons.” The U.S. capability to maintain existing stockpile warheads is more than adequate. The production of a new generation of warheads could lead to calls to test the new designs as well as undermining the chief value of the CTBT to disarmament and the NPT, namely ending new warhead development. If pursued, other states would see the United States as circumventing the CTBT and conclude it is of little benefit.

Finally, in order to realize his pledge to lead a global effort to “secure all nuclear weapons material at vulnerable sites within four years,” Obama should appoint a special high-level coordinator to oversee government-wide efforts. This initiative will require allocating significant additional funding — around $500 million — for programs to end the commercial use of highly enriched uranium and to accelerate and maintain nuclear material security upgrades in Russian and sites in other countries.

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency represents a clear mandate for change on a number of fronts, including transforming outdated U.S. policy on nuclear weapons and reviving U.S. leadership on disarmament and nonproliferation. The job now is to get the needed support in Congress and the international arena.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Daryl G. Kimball is executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, which produces the monthly journal, Arms Control Today.