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John Feffer

John Feffer

Posted May 12, 2009 | 05:21 PM (EST)

Give Me Abolition... But Not Yet


St. Augustine fooled around a lot as a young man. At one point during his philandering, according to his Confessions, the future Church Father uttered the immortal lines: "Give me chastity. But not yet."

President Obama has taken a very Augustinian approach to nuclear weapons. He has identified a desired goal. But at the same time, he's reluctant to give up old habits. "Give me nuclear abolition," Obama proclaims in public. With his day-to-day policies, however, the president is conveying a slightly different message: "But not yet."

Let's start with the declaration of faith. One of the great moments of the Obama administration's first 100 days was the president's speech in Prague on nuclear policy. "Today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons," he proclaimed. At the recent confab in New York to prepare for next year's Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review, Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller reiterated the administration's support for Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a new fissile material cutoff treaty, steps on the road to abolition.

Obama is no peace activist. Like Henry Kissinger and George P. Shultz in their much-cited Wall Street Journal essay, Obama comes to the nuclear abolition agenda through realpolitik calculations. Accordingly, the great nuclear threat today isnt the arsenals that Moscow or Beijing control. The greatest risk is nuclear proliferation: the Taliban with ICBMs, al-Qaeda with a suitcase bomb. The more nukes in the world, the greater likelihood that they might fall into the "wrong" hands (though frankly, the fact that the nuclear football was in the "right" hands of such quarterbacks as George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan makes me think we're just lucky they never decided to throw a bomb into the opposing team's end zone). This risk of proliferation has made abolitionists out of the sternest of Cold Warriors.

Not everyone is on the abolition bandwagon. Some remain wedded to the notion that nuclear weapons have made war less likely and that drastic reductions in the Russian and U.S. arsenals will make any given nuclear weapon that much more powerful and desirable. Meanwhile, Michael Krepon, in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, argues that the nuclear threat has been "greatly exaggerated" and we should carry on with the same policies - "containment, diplomacy, deterrence, conventional military strength, and arms control agreements" - that prevented nuclear war during the Cold War.

After the defections of Shultz and Kissinger, many defense intellectuals who made their living off of Cold War theorizing are digging in their heels. They reject abolition as dangerously destabilizing and prefer the more reassuring pace of arms control treaties that limit but don't eliminate nuclear weapons. And, just to make sure, they prefer that the United States hedge its nuclear bet by pushing ahead with such projects as missile defense and modernization of the nuclear complex.

The influence of these Cold War diehards can be detected in the latest Department of Energy budget: a whopping $6.4 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration. "A $6 billion-plus budget for moving forward on nuclear weapons research and development while negotiating for nuclear nonproliferation and pledging a nuclear-weapons-free world sends mixed signals to allies, provides political cover to adversaries, and makes it more difficult to persuade Iran and North Korea to roll back their nuclear programs," writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) columnist Frida Berrigan in The News on Nukes.

Obama isn't the only leader who waxes Augustinian in his commitment to nuclear abstinence. Kim Jong Il has devoted enormous resources to a nuclear program that has functioned as both deterrent and bargaining chip. Recently, after the United States managed to push through a UN Security Council statement condemning North Korea's April rocket launch, Pyongyang kicked out international nuclear inspectors, announced that the Six Party Talks have been a waste of time, and signaled that a second nuclear test may be in the offing.

Just back from a trip to Pyongyang, FPIF contributor Gyorgy Toloraya explains that North Korea's recent actions aren't mere truculence. The leadership is holding on to its nuclear weapons because it feels poorly treated in the recent negotiations. "They did not come much closer to getting substantial security guarantees, and even the largely symbolic 'delisting' of North Korea as a terrorist state caused much controversy in the United States and elsewhere, and led to demands for new concessions from it in return," Toloraya writes in The New Korean Cold War. "North Koreans saw that as a breach of trust. Modest economic assistance was indeed promised when the accord was sealed, but only Russia carried out its obligations (200,000 tons of heavy oil), while other countries either totally abstained (Japan) or dragged their feet. North Korea felt that its concessions were not fully recognized and valued."

The Obama administration's commitment to nuclear abolition is laudable and so are the concrete steps it has pledged toward that goal. But the new president has to make a much cleaner break with the past. The United States must engage in substantive negotiations with North Korea - and Iran - that provide a real deal that can substitute for denial of membership in the nuclear club. And the Obama administration shouldn't continue to lavish money on researching and building the very weapons it's negotiating away in talks with the Russians.

Nor should the United States substitute for any nuclear arms reductions with a spike in other offensive capabilities. "Military superiority would be an insurmountable obstacle to ridding the world of nuclear weapons," Mikhail Gorbachev argued recently. "Unless we discuss demilitarization of international politics, the reduction of military budgets, preventing militarization of outer space, talking about a nuclear-free world will be just rhetorical."

It's a great relief that, after eight years of irresponsible nuclear policies in Washington, arms control is back on the agenda. Even more reassuring, the Obama administration has uttered the previously taboo word: abolition. We have to keep up the pressure on the president to resist Augustinian loopholes. When it comes to nukes, it's time to just say no.

Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus.

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