Dare We Call It Nuclear Disarmament

05/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Did President Obama set the bar too high? Last April he embraced the goal of a nuclear free world. At the time, he was widely applauded for bringing the United States back to nuclear disarmament after years of neglect by his predecessor, but will he now be jeered and criticized if he achieves only the inevitably smaller steps that are feasible? The freshly completed START Treaty between the US and Russia hailed as a break through achievement, does make sizable cuts in US and Russian nuclear stockpiles. Yet, the April signing ceremony in Prague, no matter how historic, and even with the promise of further arms control successes to come, can not meet the expectations raised by a year's worth of lofty pronouncements on disarmament and non-proliferation.

There is no doubt about the president's sincerity and his personal attachment to the disarmament ideal which explains his fervor on the subject. According to a New York Times article, hopes for a non-nuclear world have accompanied him since his student days at Columbia, reappearing, "at critical junctures of Mr. Obama's career." We seem to be at one of those critical junctures for it is hard to count how often the president has spoken of a nuclear free world over the past year. From his first foreign policy speech abroad in Prague to the special Security Council session in New York and to the Nobel Peace Prize awarded in Oslo for his "vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons," it has become the leitmotif of his early presidency.

But the utopian language may backfire on him because complete nuclear disarmament is way beyond the scope of the specific arms control measures to be addressed during the course of 2010. No matter how important, even vital, these measures may be to international security, they will not eliminate nuclear weapons, and they cannot be added together to make one big to-do list. They deal with arms reductions or with nuclear terrorism or with non-proliferation; each involves a disparate set of political and technical issues. By sweeping them all onto one ambitious "nuclear agenda", the lines between the different measures become fuzzy, the message is blurred and the whole package becomes an easy target for its opponents.

Admittedly, the new Start Treaty is a welcome next step in arms reductions, but even the White House admits that the accord is most important for picking up the thread of the US-Russian relationship, for pushing the reset button, rather than for dealing with the nuclear danger. Although thought is being given to how to incorporate the next level of nuclear weapon states such as Britain, France or China, that will come at some later time.

Two other major arms control events to be held this spring actually deal with greater challenges, but not with denuclearization. In April the United States has invited some 40 heads of state to a summit in Washington aimed at combating nuclear terrorism by reinforcing safeguards and improving security for nuclear materials worldwide. The tie to nuclear disarmament is tenuous and claims that these measures could persuade any state to shed weapons of mass destruction strain the imagination. The threat of nuclear terrorism has only increased since the days when sinister enemy agents with bombs in suitcases lurked in the scenarios of spy thrillers. Today's potential terrorist is no longer associated with an identifiable enemy state. With no visible counterparty these negotiations are more likely to be carried out among like-minded governments pooling their resources and intelligence to combat the evil intentions of rogue states, or non-state actors. Useful effective measures will hopefully come out of the Summit, but they are unlikely to abolish a single weapon.

Then in May, the 8th review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will take on the greatest danger to international security: the spread of nuclear weapons. All of President Obama's seminal "nuclear free world" speeches have really been about this threat. While some forty years ago the treaty was an off shoot of disarmament talks, a sure bet agreement to keep additional states from going nuclear while not touching superpower arsenals, it is now all about stopping Iran's nuclear ambitions, as well as thwarting North Korea's. Other countries, not members of the NPT that have acquired nuclear capabilities are spared international probation, and they not pressed to join the treaty. As if to prove the point, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking shortly before the special Security Council session on non-proliferation and disarmament last September, dwelt at length on the Iran issue and very little on arms cuts.

It is tempting to think that tackling in swift succession the three parts of a so-called nuclear agenda, disarmament, non-proliferation, and nuclear terrorism will somehow hasten the abolition of nuclear weapons, but the rhetoric will not make it so.