Has the US given up on a nuclear-free world?

By Kate Hudson

Is Obama's New Start treaty on nuclear reductions enough to revitalise US resolve on disarmament?

The long-awaited New Start treaty, securing nuclear reductions between the US and Russia, enters into force this weekend. Hillary Clinton and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov are exchanging "instruments" at a security conference in Munich today.

This is an important moment for President Barack Obama, as despite the Republican resurgence in the US mid-term elections, he has finally been able to achieve the treaty, which has been one of his key foreign policy goals. Reducing the number of US and Russian deployed nuclear weapons, the treaty has been central to Obama's visionary goal – spelled out in Prague in April 2009 – of a nuclear weapons-free world. With the treaty's progress dogged by the vexed question of US missile defence plans and Russian hostility to them, the shift in the political balance in the US led to fears that it would fall at the ratification hurdle. In the event there was enough bipartisan support to get it through, subject to various provisos. In Russia, where the president's party has a huge majority in parliament, ratification proceeded smoothly.

Senate concerns focused on the right to keep developing US missile defence systems – excluded from the treaty text, but included in the additional paperwork, while Russia reserved the right to withdraw from the treaty if it considered its security impaired by such US developments. And coming up the political agenda was the question of Russian tactical nuclear weapons – landmines, artillery shells and short-range missiles. Russian stockpiles are larger than their US equivalents and Nato, as well as the Senate, has expressed renewed interest in the disparity, as revealed by WikiLeaks. As a Nato document notes: "Russia's tactical nuclear arsenal, estimated at 2,000-4,000 warheads, was cited as a particular threat, and Moscow's lack of willingness to engage in discussions on the issue was cited as troubling." Obama has recently told the Senate that he will seek to initiate negotiations with Russia on this matter within a year. But he may not get very far – Sergei Ryabkov, for the Russian foreign ministry, has said it is too early to talk about limiting tactical nukes.

So the question now is where Obama is going with his disarmament project – if indeed he can go anywhere, given the new political balance of forces. Although there is a strong establishment lobby to diminish the role of nuclear weapons in US military postures – Henry Kissinger and George Shultz are key exponents of this trend – nevertheless there are powerful forces at odds with this. There was much controversy about the deals Obama was reported to have made to secure New Start, including vast amounts of money for nuclear modernisation. So is there any mileage in further steps?

What Obama would like to do is clear enough, also set out in the Prague speech: to secure US ratification of the comprehensive test ban treaty, to work towards a fissile material cut-off treaty – ending the production of nuclear explosive material – and to secure nuclear materials worldwide to prevent terrorist access. Although some steps have been taken to achieve the latter point, notably at the April 2010 national security summit in Washington, what are the chances for the others?

Obama's recent state of the union address perhaps gives some pointers. While the president noted the achievements on nuclear reductions and security, he failed to indicate any forward programme of further reductions. And there was no reference to a world without nuclear weapons – the most popular feature of his Prague speech. Not surprisingly, Obama's address focused primarily on the US economy and matters of urgent domestic concern, but is the nuclear question just temporarily down, or is it out? US commentary suggests that the administration has not yet decided where it is going on the issue, but the outcome of its deliberations will be of major significance, and not just within the US. It would be a major setback for global security if the US reverts to the nuclear belligerence of former times.
The Guardian