After New START: Where Does Nuclear Disarmament Go From Here?

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Dr. 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).

With U.S. Senate ratification of the New START treaty on December 22, supporters of nuclear disarmament won an important victory.  Signed by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last April, the treaty commits the two nations to cut the number of their deployed strategic (i.e. long-range) nuclear warheads to 1,550 each—a reduction of 30 percent in the number of these weapons of mass destruction.  By providing for both a cutback in nuclear weapons and an elaborate inspection system to enforce it, New START is the most important nuclear disarmament treaty for a generation.

Nevertheless, the difficult battle to secure Senate ratification indicates that making further progress on nuclear disarmament will not be easy.  Treaty ratification requires a positive vote by two-thirds of the Senate and, to secure the necessary Republican support, Obama promised nearly $185 billion over the next decade for "modernizing" the U.S. nuclear weapons production complex and nuclear weapons delivery vehicles.  Even with this enormous concession to nuclear enthusiasts—a hefty "bribe," in the view of unhappy arms control and disarmament organizations—Senator Jon Kyl, the Republican point man on the issue, continued to oppose New START and ultimately voted against it.  So did most other Republican senators, including Mitch McConnell (Senate Republican leader) and John McCain (the latest Republican presidential candidate).  Leading candidates for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, including Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin, also opposed the treaty.  As a result, New START squeaked through the Senate by a narrow margin.  With six additional Republicans entering the Senate in January, treaty ratification will become much harder.

So where do the possibilities for progress on nuclear disarmament lie in the future?

One obvious focus for action is ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).  Signed by the United States and most other nations in 1996, the treaty provides for a total ban on the nuclear explosions that serve as the basis for the development of new nuclear weapons.  This ban would be enforced by an extensive international verification system.  Republican opposition blocked Senate ratification of the CTBT in 1999, and President George W. Bush—hostile to this arms control measure and others—refused to resubmit the treaty.  Nevertheless, President Obama has consistently supported ratification of the CTBT, and has promised to bring it before the Senate once again.  After the bruising battle over the START Treaty and in the context of heightened Republican strength in the new Senate, however, he might now change his mind.

A more promising area for progress is a follow-up nuclear disarmament agreement between the United States and Russia.  As these two nations possess the vast majority of the world's nuclear weapons, other countries have long argued that, before progress can be made in reducing the arsenals of the other nuclear powers or blocking nuclear proliferation, the two nuclear giants must cut their nuclear stockpiles substantially.  In fact, officials from both the United States and Russia have spoken of another round of START negotiations that would reduce their deployment of strategic warheads to 1,000 each.  There is also pressure to cut the number of tactical nuclear weapons they possess—especially the very large numbers still maintained by Russia.  Indeed, Republican opponents of the New START treaty seized on the tactical nuclear weapons issue to argue that the real need for a treaty lay in the tactical weapons area.  Given their rhetorical stance, it might be useful to confront them with such a treaty.

Nevertheless, stumbling blocks remain to a new arms treaty with Russia.  Not only are the Republicans likely to use their enhanced Senate strength to block its ratification, but the Russians might refuse to accept a new agreement.  The apparent reason for Russian reluctance is U.S. government insistence upon deploying a missile defense system in Europe, on Russian borders.  Although the Obama administration does not appear enthusiastic about missile defense, it has given way before Republican demands to install it.  Conversely, if the administration bargains away missile defense in treaty negotiations with the Russians, it seems quite likely that Republicans will strongly oppose the treaty.

Perhaps the most promising area for disarmament progress doesn't involve treaty negotiations or ratification, but simply blocking nuclear "modernization."  After all, Senator Kyl and most Republicans didn't accept the "bribe" offered them, but continued to oppose the New START treaty.  Why, then, should the Obama administration follow through on providing $185 billion for refurbishing the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, especially when such a program so clearly flies in the face of his pledge to work for a nuclear weapons-free world? 

Even if the administration sticks to its "modernization" line, however, there is no reason for other forces, inside and outside Congress, to do so.  Over the coming years, in the midst of a huge debate on budgetary priorities, there will be a fierce battle over scarce government resources.  Are angry seniors (concerned about cutbacks in Social Security and Medicare), parents, students, and teachers (concerned about cutbacks in education), the hungry, homeless, and unemployed (concerned about the collapse of the social safety net), and other groups (facing serious attacks on their living standards) going to welcome spending $185 billion for new nuclear weapons facilities?  Certainly groups with domestic spending priorities, plus peace and disarmament groups, are going to press congress to move the money from funding wars and weapons to meeting social needs.  Perhaps they will succeed.

Thus, in the next two years, the Republicans may end up choking off the opportunities for negotiated disarmament and opening the floodgates to unilateral action.     

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Arnold Shcherban - 1/17/2011

No, I can't "Capisce" how even slightly reasonable folks can persist in a totalitarian-like dogmatism of a Cold War era by calling today's Russia, "Soviet", "KGB", etc., as if nothing changed for the last 20 years: USSR and Warsaw pact still exist, Soviets (not Americans) occupy Afghanistan and about to implement anti-missile system not far from the Russian borders, as if Soviet socio-economic system still in place, or Russia, not US essentially, i.e. in practice, supports totalitarian, communist regime in China (and vice versa), and as if US military might currently not 20 times greater than Russian one, skipping already a dozen of other important and big American advantages.
"Hence"? You demonstrate iron-clad logic, indeed... although human majority would more likely call such a logic a raving of deadly drunken schizophrenic.
"US obediently observing" any international agreement? Since when?
Did it observe the UN charter and multititude of other international aggreements, including the OAS' one, signed and ratified by this country when aggressed at different times against Grenada and Panama, Afghanistan and Iraq. The so-called Evil Empire, that apparently still exits and active in your sick imagination, has not started a single war of aggression after WWII, but this most democratic, peaceful, and maintaining the greatest military might in the world exclusively (as we are told) for defensive purposes country attacked about dozen of countries that never even indirectly
threatened, not already mentioning
attacking it.
When do such folks like you are going to look straight in face of facts, without any predetermined conclusions dictated by ideological and nationalistic prejudices?
Currently, and for last two decades by now, the majority in the world fear not Russia and China, but the US, headed by it NATO, and Israel.
End of factual, in difference with conspiracy and Hollywood movies' phantasm, story.

Arnold Shcherban - 1/17/2011

First of all, Obama or Clinton, or any other US Presidents have never been "my" Presidents, since I (despite being US citizen) have never voted or supported on any major socio-economic issues any presidential candidate who had good chance to win in this country. Personally I would like to see Kusinich win (though my support for him based just on his anti-war and anti-militaristic stance, without any assurance that he would manage any big domestic socio-economic changes this country spo desperately needs.)

As far as it concerns my prediction about the use of nuclear weapons, we'll see, provided still alive by that time.
So far, my big-scale political and social predictions (and there were quite a few of them) have been right on the money - more than anyone can say about the great majority of
"outstanding" US conservative or liberal pundits.

Peter Kovachev - 1/12/2011

It's funny to see how Obama is between a rock and hard place, what with conservatives and far-left liberals squeezing his...margin, I think would be the more polite term.

I'm curious to hear from you, Arnie, how your president would fulfill your socialist dreams. By anulling your mid-terms, suspending congress and your constitution and follwing the dictat of the wingnuts in his party, perhaps? And just how does status quo predicate "the unilateral use of nuclear weapons by US or/and Israel in the next 10 years ?"

Peter Kovachev - 1/12/2011

I agree that unilateral disarmament is crazy...actually, profoundly stupid and utterly bonkers, unless suicide or self-imposed subjugation is desirable.

But he issue, Arnie, is that Obama is offering to tie US' hands by obediently observing any agreement to the letter, with the eager help of "progressive watchdogs" and peaceniks no doubt, while unable to properly verify Soviet...I mean KGB...I mean, Russian compliance. Hence the unilateral bit. Capisce?

Arnold Shcherban - 1/9/2011

The political zealots of Pax-Amerikana in indivisible cahut with US military-industrial corporate complex have been getting upper hand in the American politics in the course of the last twenty or so years.
That's why such a "theoretical" liberals as Obama, whose main concern is the preservation of political power to feed their narcissistic popularity longing, invariably yield to the pressure of that destructive to the world and this country insatiable monster.
This reality not only damps all hopes for effective nuclear disarmament, but
actually almost predicates the unilateral use of nuclear weapons by US or/and Israel in the next 10 years.

Arnold Shcherban - 1/9/2011

"Unilateral disarmamment"? Can anyone make crazier statement?

Peter Kovachev - 1/3/2011

"Thus, in the next two years, the Republicans may end up choking off the opportunities for negotiated disarmament and opening the floodgates to unilateral action." {Lawrence S. Wittner)

Or, "in the next two years, the Republicans may end up choking off the Obamis' rush to unilateral disarmament and closing the floodgates of multilateral sabre-rattling." (Nuclear Enthusiast)