The Obama disarmament paradox: A rebuttal

By John Isaacs | February 24, 2010

Greg Mello’s recent Bulletin article “The Obama Disarmament Paradox” distorts the Obama administration’s nuclear agenda by making unjustified assumptions that discredit President Barack Obama’s historic commitment to seek a nuclear-weapon-free world. Obama has committed to such a goal several times–both before and after his election in November 2008. But Mello calls that a “vague aspiration” rather than a commitment. Yet the evidence he provides to support his assertion isn’t persuasive.

In fact, the president has advocated for numerous initiatives in a comprehensive nonproliferation program. These include winning U.N. Security Council endorsement for a nuclear-weapon-free world; negotiating a new arms reduction treaty with Russia, which Obama considers an interim agreement toward further reductions; preparing a Nuclear Posture Review consistent with reducing the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy; pledging to secure all loose nuclear materials over a four-year period; and taking an active role at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.

As President Obama stated during his seminal Prague speech on nuclear disarmament, achieving a nuclear-weapon-free world is a long-term goal that might not be achievable in his lifetime, but that doesn’t minimize the necessity of taking interim steps to reduce the likelihood of nuclear proliferation.

Mello sees Obama’s requested increase in the fiscal year 2011 budget for stockpile stewardship and the construction of new facilities at the nuclear laboratories as a commitment to the production of new nuclear weapons. Yet the administration has made clear that there are no such plans underfoot; the 2011 budget request states unequivocally that “new weapons systems will not be built.” As such, the president’s requested increase in nuclear expenditures should be viewed in the context of seeking ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and further nuclear weapon reductions.

More largely, there is nothing inconsistent between a vision of a nuclear-weapon-free world and ensuring a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent in the interim, including refurbishment of aging systems, providing the labs with facilities to replace their deteriorating physical plants, and maintaining the essential expertise that the scientists at the labs provide. Nor does such a deterrent require “unending innovation,” as Mello claims. Our current nuclear weapons inventory, validated by extensive testing, is more than adequate to deter the use of nuclear weapons against the United States, our troops abroad, and our allies, provided sufficient resources are dedicated to the Stockpile Stewardship Program.

Mello also seems to forget that the pursuit of a nuclear-weapon-free world is both national and international law; the NPT, which the United States has ratified, includes a commitment to seek nuclear disarmament. Not to mention that the treaty has an important practical component: Its non-nuclear weapon states have conditioned treaty cooperation on the NPT’s nuclear weapon states fulfilling their obligations under Article VI to move toward full nuclear disarmament.

Thus, the “vision” of a nuclear-weapon-free world is essential as context for “the various nonproliferation initiatives” in Obama’s plan to reduce dangerous threats to our national security–e.g., nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

President John F. Kennedy’s June 1963 nuclear test ban speech at American University is famous not only for its rhetoric but also for its follow-through: Kennedy’s words led to the end of aboveground nuclear testing. While it is legitimate to be skeptical about how successful Obama will be in implementing his disarmament agenda, let’s hope Mello and others will wait to see how the follow-through progresses before they judge him too harshly. Anything else would be unfair.

Greg Mello responds: A “commitment” to a goal that a speaker says might not be achievable in his lifetime (let alone in his administration, the only germane period) is by definition an aspiration, at best. And if that “commitment” isn’t concrete and specific, it’s vague. Such were Obama’s few words in Prague pertaining to disarmament. Moreover, he has taken no significant actions since that speech.

In their reply to my op-ed, John Isaacs and Robert Gard simply reiterate the administration’s themes on these points. They supply no new information.

Additionally, my colleagues freely conflate disarmament with nonproliferation issues and initiatives. Many people do. But they are quite different. I nowhere argue against sound, just, and legal measures to prevent nuclear proliferation.

They also err significantly in saying “the pursuit of a nuclear-weapons-free world is both national and international law.” It is the achievement, not the pursuit, of this goal that’s a binding legal requirement, unanimously confirmed by the International Court of Justice. Attempting to substitute an alleged aspiration for achievement is a grave political disservice–especially when such an aspiration comes from the leader of the world’s largest military power and is followed by a large increase in nuclear weapons spending.

Further, I never said that a nuclear deterrent required “unending innovation.” The reverse is true. What I said was quite different: that the “deterrence of any adversary” to which Obama referred was unachievable, and therefore, its pursuit implied unending innovation. Investment itself, together with an ideology of technical “progress” (often expressed through fads such as the quest for greater device “surety”), creates the hope that a “credible” nuclear deterrent, relevant to “any” adversary, can someday be achieved.

Disarmament aside, the warhead complex, especially at the physics labs, is riddled with waste and unnecessary programs and missions. I and many others believe the complex is grossly overfunded for the mission of maintaining the present arsenal indefinitely. Beyond this, a much smaller U.S. arsenal is desirable from every perspective–including cost. Such an arsenal could be achieved by unilateral and loosely reciprocated bilateral action, with or without treaties.

If Obama wants to decrease the role of nuclear weapons in national security, and expects anybody to believe him, he must actually do so. Building thousands of significantly upgraded bombs (a process already underway) with new requests to develop and produce more types of upgraded bombs and the factories to make them isn’t disarmament. It’s the modernization of the country’s nuclear weapons complex, along with its arsenal, for the long run.

Robert Gard and John Isaacs reply: It’s gratifying to learn that Greg Mello agrees with us on the desirability of both sound measures to prevent nuclear proliferation and a “much smaller” U.S. nuclear arsenal. For our part, we agree with him that the increase in funds programmed for the nuclear laboratories is excessive, although we don’t see any inconsistency between ensuring a safe, secure, reliable, and effective nuclear stockpile and reducing its size.

We may have a basic disagreement regarding deterrence. It’s not clear whether Mello’s quote of deterring “any adversary” includes non-state actors or only nation states. If he is referring to nation states only, we believe even extended deterrence can be accomplished without “unending innovation” and with a smaller stockpile. If his definition includes non-state actors bent on terrorism, no amount of innovation or real investment can deter them from using a nuclear weapon should they acquire one.

We certainly concede the point that most measures designed to reduce the likelihood of nuclear proliferation wouldn’t qualify as disarmament, but they may facilitate reductions in nuclear stockpiles, which would qualify as disarmament.

Finally, let’s return to the basic issue of President Obama’s commitment to seeking, as a goal, a nuclear-weapon-free world. Even if it is an “aspiration,” that doesn’t reduce its importance. Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligates the nuclear weapons states, including the United States, “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament.” And although Mello might not consider the action “significant,” Obama did chair a U.N. Security Council meeting with other heads of state that resulted in a resolution affirming the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world. Additionally, to meet our obligation under Article VI, Obama has stated his intent to follow up the new START treaty with negotiations involving all of the nuclear powers to reduce stockpiles of weapons.

Coming full circle, these actions taken are essential to obtain the cooperation of the non-nuclear weapons states in measures to reduce the likelihood of nuclear weapons proliferation, which both we and Mello favor.

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