Obama and Medvedev on Nukes

Committing the United States and Russia “to achieving a nuclear free world,” Presidents Obama and Medvedev issued a joint statement breathtaking in its positive tone. It marks an astonishing shift from the hostile policies of the Bush and Clinton administrations and offers new hope to a world weary of the endless nuclear arms race. Their statement concludes:

We, the leaders of Russia and the United States, are ready to move beyond Cold War mentalities and chart a fresh start in relations between our two countries… Now it is time to get down to business and translate our warm words into actual achievements of benefit to Russia, the United States, and all those around the world interested in peace and prosperity.

There are 25,000 nuclear weapons on the planet, all but 1,000 of them in the United States and Russia. Obama and Medvedev agreed to immediately pursue verifiable reductions in their massive nuclear arsenals, and instructed their negotiators to have a plan by this July for replacing the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), due to expire in December. A treaty signed by Bush and Putin in 2002 called for reductions to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads by 2012, but under Bush’s insistence made no provision for verification. If START expires in December without a follow-up treaty, there would be no legally binding system for verification. Obama and Medvedev qualified their commitment to a nuclear-weapons-free world by describing it as a long-term goal, requiring “a new emphasis on arms control and conflict resolution measures, and their full implementation by all concerned nations.”

The two leaders affirmed the importance of the Six-Party Talks and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and, in a marked shift of rhetoric for the United States, recognized that under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) “Iran has the right to a civilian nuclear program,” while still needing “to restore confidence in its exclusively peaceful nature.” They pledged to work together to combat terrorism and cooperate on “stabilization, reconstruction and development” in Afghanistan.

Nuclear Energy

The major portion of their statement deals with nonproliferation measures including the need “to secure nuclear weapons and materials, while promoting the safe use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” Since every nuclear reactor is a potential bomb factory, achieving the safe use of nuclear energy is probably the one part of their proposal that is least likely to succeed. Attempts to control the fuel cycle and the production of bomb-making materials, while spreading the “benefits” of nuclear power, are doomed to fail. Consider all the countries that developed nuclear weapons through their civilian nuclear programs: North Korea, India, Pakistan, Israel, and Libya (which recently gave up its nuclear weapons program).

More promising was their statement to implement the G-8′s St. Petersburg Global Energy Security Principles, “including improving energy efficiency and the development of clean energy technologies.” But with Obama repeatedly calling for “clean coal” technology, it remains to be seen whether that commitment will provide any real benefit.

Missile Defense as Spoiler

The positive Obama-Medvedev agenda for a new U.S.-Russian relationship was marked by several caveats and possible pitfalls where the parties agreed to disagree. Most significant was their acknowledgement that “differences remain over the purposes of missile defense assets in Europe.” It would be tragic if cooperation once again failed because of the hegemonic U.S. drive to dominate and control the earth from space. In a sense, we have now come full circle to the time of the Reagan-Gorbachev 1986 summit in Reykjavik, when negotiations for the total abolition of nuclear weapons collapsed because Reagan wouldn’t give up U.S. plans for a Strategic Defense Initiative to dominate space.

Clinton similarly rejected opportunities to take up Putin’s proposal to cut our nuclear arsenals to 1,000 warheads. After Russia’s ratification of START II and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 2000, Putin called for new talks to reduce long-range missiles from 3,500 to 1,500 or even 1,000, upping the ante from the planned levels of 2,500 warheads. This forward-looking proposal was accompanied by Putin’s stern caveat that all Russian offers would be off the table if the United States proceeded to build a National Missile Defense (NMD) in violation of the ABM Treaty. Astoundingly, U.S. diplomatic “talking points” leaked by Russia to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists revealed that Clinton was urging Russia it had nothing to fear from NMD as long as Russia kept 2,500 weapons at launch-on-warning, hair-trigger alert. Rejecting Putin’s offer to cut to 1,000 warheads, the United States assured Russia that with 2,500 warheads it could overcome a NMD shield and deliver an “annihilating counterattack!” If the Clinton administration had instead embraced Putin’s plan, the United States and Russia would have been able to call all nuclear weapons states to the table — even those with arsenals in the hundreds or fewer — to negotiate a treaty to ban the bomb.

Bush unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, pursuing U.S. plans “to dominate and control the military use of space, to protect U.S. interests and investments,” as set forth in the U.S. Space Command’s Vision 2020 mission statement and the Rumsfeld Commission Report of 2000. Current schemes to plant missile and radar bases in Poland and the Czech Republic could well derail real progress for nuclear abolition once again. The recent fall of the Czech government, partially in response to massive public opinion and demonstrations against the Czech radar base, should give Obama pause.

Meanwhile, Russia and the United States aren’t talking about a reduction to 1,000 warheads but have instead compromised at 1,500 warheads. Russia is unwilling to discuss lower cuts without also dealing with missile defense.

Looking at NATO

Finally, the two presidents called for the revitalization of the NATO-Russia Council, the strengthening of European security, and U.S. participation at a Conference on Afghanistan convened by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an alliance organized by Russia and China. One of the major sticking points in the U.S.-Russian relationship, NATO has expanded right up to Russia’s borders and even invited former Soviet Republics Ukraine and Georgia to join the rusty Cold War alliance. In a public statement issued only three days after the Obama-Medvedev declaration, Mikhail Gorbachev reminded the world that the United States, together with Western Germany and other western nations, had promised after Germany’s reunification in 1990 that “NATO would not move a centimeter to the east.” The West’s failure to honor this promise led to deteriorating relations with Russia.

As NATO completed its 60th anniversary meeting in Strasbourg, tens of thousands of peace protesters called for its dismantlement. It will take an enormous grassroots effort to make good on the Obama-Medvedev vision for a nuclear-weapons-free world, and to help them reach their goal to “translate our warm words into actual achievements of benefit to Russia the United States, and all those around the world interested in peace and prosperity.”

Alice Slater is a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, the New York director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and a founder of Abolition 2000, a global network working for the elimination of nuclear weapons.