Obama’s pledge during the recent Nuclear Summit in Washington that the United States will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states has been hailed by his Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as a milestone in U.S. national security policy. But others think that the vow, and other aspects of Obama’s broader nuclear agenda, do little to solve age-old challenges and contradictions, and may even exacerbate them.
With New START, an arms reduction treaty just signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, paired with the release of the Nuclear Posture Review and progress with the Nuclear Summit, steps toward a future without nuclear weapons have been taken, albeit they’re baby-sized, some experts say. This reflects the political leanings of Washington at the moment and the Obama administration’s desire to keep any hope of real progress alive more than it does any substantive progress, according to Leonard Spector, deputy director of the non-partisan James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington.
“The real tricky detail is how to keep the deterrent viable,” Spector said in an interview. “Republicans say we need a new or refurbished nuclear weapon; Obama wants to refurbish facilities, but probably doesn’t want to see a new weapon. The politics are such that to get the START treaty ratified, they need Republicans and they don’t want to do something that would antagonize them.”
Obama’s comments are aimed not only at getting Republicans on board, but also at reassuring U.S. citizens, allies and partners that Washington will protect them from the threat of nuclear warfare. “A reliable deterrent is needed for politics, but it’s also just sound policy,” Spector said.
However, critics say the Obama administration’s actions expose the White House to charges of hypocrisy. They ask: how can the United States try and persuade other countries to dismantle or not pursue unapproved nuclear programs at a time when it refuses to take similar steps on its own? Some point to Article Four of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which offers the “inalienable right … to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” Others cite Article Six, which requires treaty parties to pursue disarmament “in good faith.”
“Nuclear newcomers take Article Six more seriously than Washington,” Steven Miller, director of Harvard’s International Security Program, said during a forum on the “Global Nuclear Future’’ at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in February. Such conflicting interpretations become particularly heated when nuclear energy capabilities are restricted on the grounds of nonproliferation, Miller said. In a time characterized by climate change and terrorism – two concepts that will surely grow to be more and more intertwined – determining how to move the world toward green nuclear energy and away from nuclear weapons capabilities is truly the challenge of this nuclear era, nuclear experts say.
The recently released Nuclear Posture Review , the Congressionally-mandated blueprint for long-term U.S. nuclear policy and strategy—dovetails with Obama’s stated desire to change the framework of the international nuclear energy debate. Suggestions include reducing incentives for countries to have their own uranium enriching abilities, establishing international fuel banks and pursuing an agreement of fuel suppliers to take back waste. There’s no hinting at allowing nuclear plant technology into countries where enriched uranium might be used for weapons, even if it is ostensibly for nuclear power.
“These ideas don’t work or they are infeasible,” said Sharon Squassoni, director of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Ultimately, I think this is a shortsighted policy that has its roots in the conundrum that we face under the non-Proliferation Treaty.”
Ellen Tauscher, secretary of state for arms control and international security, acknowledged in a recent speech prior to the unveiling of the new nuclear agenda that U.S. policy has created the feeling of a “chokehold” on other countries’ nuclear energy abilities, denying their NPT rights.
With the ambitious Nuclear Summit in Washington now closed, having served as the signing ground for several unprecedented promises, monitoring the actual implementation of these treaties will be the true test of whether a nuclear weaponless, green energy future is achievable, experts say. They note that signers of the NPT promised disarmament and access to nuclear energy 40 years ago, but the need for further disarmament and nuclear energy agreements continues today.