Does the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), signed by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague on April 8, really provide a beginning toward a nuclear-free world? That's what Obama implied in a statement two weeks earlier. Speaking to reporters at the White House, he described the treaty as an historic step toward "a world without nuclear weapons."
At the least, START qualifies as a significant disarmament measure. Under its provisions, the two nations would cut their deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 each, a reduction of about 30 percent. Furthermore they would each be limited to 700 deployed nuclear delivery vehicles (i.e. missiles, submarines and bombers) and to another 100 delivery vehicles in reserve. Verification would be assured by 18 on-site inspections per year. According to a statement issued by Peace Action, America's largest peace and disarmament organization: "The START treaty is a good step towards reducing the threat from nuclear weapons." Cutting nuclear arsenals "makes Americans safer and sends the right message to the rest of the world."
In fact, the treaty is less sweeping than government officials have asserted. Indeed, under its provisions, the warheads are simply to be taken off deployment. There is no requirement for their destruction. Furthermore, the new treaty counts each bomber as one nuclear warhead, whereas, in reality, a nuclear bomber can hold roughly ten times as many such weapons. In addition, one might ask whether the two nations -- which together possess about 96 percent of the world's 23,000 nuclear weapons -- could not go further than these relatively small reductions. "We wanted to go lower," an administration official remarked defensively; but "this was a negotiation with the Russians, not the Arms Control Association."
Even so, it's hard to deny that the new START treaty represents an advance for nuclear disarmers, particularly after the lean years of the Bush administration. The agreement resumes the nuclear disarmament process among the most heavily nuclear-armed nations, lowers the number of deployed nuclear weapons, and updates the disarmament verification and monitoring system. It also lays the groundwork for a better relationship between the United States and Russia, thus paving the way for further nuclear reductions.
Perhaps for these reasons, conservatives in both nations seem eager to block treaty ratification. In the United States, where treaty approval will require 67 votes in the Senate, the entire Republican caucus in that body has announced that it will oppose any nuclear reduction treaty until the President commits himself to modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It also has warned that it will not ratify the START treaty if the president cuts back the U.S. missile defense program. Meanwhile, In Russia, hardliners contend that their nation should rely more on nuclear weapons to offset NATO's superiority in conventional military forces and to cope with the U.S. missile defense program, now creeping toward Russia's borders. As a result, ratification by both the U.S. Senate and the Russian Duma remains uncertain.
The cautious nature of the Obama administration's Nuclear Posture Review -- its official declaration of nuclear policy -- appears to indicate its recognition of the serious obstacles it faces. Announced on April 6, after lengthy intra-governmental battles, the statement avoided committing the U.S. government to a "no first use policy" for nuclear weapons or to the idea that the sole purpose of such weapons was to deter a nuclear attack on the United States and its allies. The Review also reiterated the Obama administration's earlier decision to increase spending on the maintenance of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. Given the high expectations of peace and disarmament organizations, they expressed their disappointment.
On the other hand, this latest Nuclear Posture Review contains some significant departures from those of the past. For the first time, the U.S. government committed itself not to use nuclear weapons to attack non-nuclear nations that were in compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In addition, the Review declared that the "fundamental role" of U.S. nuclear weapons was to deter nuclear attacks on the United States and its allies, as well as that the U.S. government would not explode nuclear weapons for tests, rejected the development of new nuclear weapons, and was ready to negotiate substantially deeper nuclear weapons reductions with Russia.
These changes from past practice and policy are important -- not only in their own right, but because they have the potential to lead the way to a nuclear-free world. Indeed, within the coming months, much of the future of nuclear weapons -- and perhaps of the planet -- will be determined. Not only will the START treaty and the Nuclear Posture Review be hotly debated, but an NPT review conference will open this May at the United Nations. Here government leaders from around the world will discuss the obligations they have under the treaty -- for the non-nuclear nations, to forgo nuclear weapons; for the nuclear nations, to disarm.
But none of this is going to get very far without a massive outpouring of popular sentiment. At the moment, polls show overwhelming public support for building a nuclear weapons-free world. As this support is largely latent, it needs to be mobilized if it is to overcome fierce political opposition and governmental inertia. But there are signs that this is happening. Peace and disarmament organizations are working to sharpen public consciousness of the issues. Millions of people are already busy petitioning for nuclear abolition. And many thousands of them will be participating in an international demonstration for nuclear abolition in New York City on May 2, as the NPT review conference gets underway at the United Nations.
With lots of popular pressure -- and a little bit of luck -- START could provide the beginning of a nuclear weapons-free world.
Lawrence S. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).