DISPATCHES FROM THE EDGE:Nuclear Treaty’s Pluses & Minuses

By Conn Hallinan
Sunday April 18, 2010 - 06:32:00 PM

Amid celebrations around the signing of a new treaty between the U.S. and Russia on reducing the number of nuclear weapons, Hisham Badr, Egyptian ambassador to the United Nations conference on disarmament, played crow on the cradle: “We in the Middle East feel we have, short of a better word, been tricked into giving concessions for promises that never materialized.” 

Badr was speaking about the May 3-28 conference to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but his remarks underlined some of the weaknesses in the new agreement between Washington and Moscow. Badr was expressing the growing impatience of the 189 countries that signed the NPT on the promise that it would lead to a nuclear weapons free world and eventual disarmament. 

On one level, the NPT has generally stopped the proliferation of nuclear weapons. When it was first signed back in 1970, several countries were on the edge of developing nuclear weapons, including Brazil, Argentina, Iran, Turkey, Japan, South Korea, Egypt, Taiwan, and South Africa. The latter, in conjunction with Taiwan and Israel, actually produced and tested a nuclear weapon over the South Atlantic in 1979. 

However, several countries have joined the former exclusive club of the U.S., Russia, China, France, and Great Britain. Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea—none current signers of the NPT—all have nuclear arsenals, although Korea’s is thought to consist of no more than five or six warheads. 

What Badr is complaining about is that, while most of the world has kept up their end of the bargain, the great nuclear powers have abrogated their pledge to institute Article VI of the NPT: “Each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to a cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international controls.” 

The recent START agreement, signed in Prague on April 8, reduces warheads—not by as much as both sides claim—but, at best, it is a very modest step toward their elimination and says nothing about the issue of “general disarmament.” 

Both abolition and general disarmament are at the heart of the NPT, because non-nuclear countries only signed on under the condition that the great powers agree to abolish their nuclear weapons and conventional arsenals. As the most recent round of wars—Iraq, Afghanistan, the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the recent war in Gaza—illustrate, modern conventional weapons are capable of inflicting stupendous damage. 

The Prague agreement does step back from the Bush Administration’s 2002 Nuclear Posture Review by reconfiguring the conditions under which the U.S. would use nuclear weapons. While the 2002 Review envisioned nuclear retaliation for chemical and biological attacks, the Obama Review moves away from that, although it does reserve the right to employ nuclear weapons against countries that have not signed or “fulfilled” their obligations under the NPT—read Iran and North Korea. 

While the White House has been applauded for narrowing the conditions under which nuclear weapons can be used, the pledge is really just a restatement of a 1978 addendum to the NPT (reaffirmed in 1995) that nuclear nations cannot threaten non-nuclear nations with nuclear weapons unless those nations are an ally of a nuclear power. In short, this is plowing old ground. 

The Obama Administration says that the new agreement will cut the number of warheads by 30 percent, but as Pavel Podvig at the Center for International Security and Cooperation told the New York Times, “It’s creative accounting.” 

For example, a B-52 armed with 14 nuclear tipped cruise missiles, plus six nuclear gravity bombs, is counted as one warhead under the Prague agreement. “On paper, the White House has been saying it’s a 30 percent cut in warheads. Well, it is on paper,” Kingston Reif, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation director told the Times. 

According to Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, if both sides used “creative accounting,” the U.S. would only have to cut 100 strategic warheads and the Russians 190. Both countries have 4,700 deployed strategic warheads between them, and many thousands of smaller, tactical warheads. The agreement does not address this latter category of weapons, or warheads held in storage. 

The new START does set a limit of 700 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), submarine launched missiles and strategic bombers. The limits on the first two are important because they are potential first-strike weapons. 

In order to get a treaty through the Senate the administration will need 67 votes, a major reason the document is so watered down. For instance, while the White House did pledge not to modernize its nuclear force, it agreed to pump $5 billion into upgrading the U.S. nuclear weapon’s labs.  

That decision might well return to haunt the Obama administration. The labs are fiercely protective of their nuclear weapons programs and successfully torpedoed U.S. Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Robert Scheer’s 1988 “Thinking Tuna Fish, Talking Death” is a profile of how the labs operate as one of nuclear weapons most powerful—and unscrupulous—lobbies. Funding the labs also sends a signal that these nuclear establishments will be around for a long time to come. 

Rather than scaling back military spending, the White House has not only breached the $700 billion marker—the actual budget is $709 billion, but does not include almost $300 billion more in related military spending, including the cost of nuclear weapons—Obama agreed to pour extra money into “advanced conventional arms.” Some of these latter weapons replicate the destructive power of small tactical nuclear warheads that are likely to eventually be phased out. 

One of these “advanced” weapons is the Prompt Global Strike program (PGS) that uses Peacemaker III ICBMs armed with conventional warheads to strike targets worldwide within an hour of launch. PGS has generated considerable controversy because of the possibility that a conventional missile might be mistaken for a nuclear attack. 

“World states will hardly accept a situation in which nuclear weapons disappear, but weapons that are no less destabilizing emerge in the hands of certain members of the international community,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergi Lavrol April 6.  

The Russians gave in on their demand to withdraw an anti-missile system (ABM) from Europe, in part because at this point it doesn’t pose a threat to their missiles. But the parties may come to loggerheads in the future. Republicans in the Senate are pushing hard to build ABM systems, and the Russians made it clear that if those systems eventually pose a threat to its nuclear missile force, Moscow will withdraw from the treaty. 

The new agreement also failed to take nuclear weapons off of “hair trigger” mode, although the U.S. said it would try to find a way to increase the presidents “time frame” for making a launch decision.  

A number of arms control activists have hailed the agreement, which they see as creating momentum going into the May meetings on the NPT and a Washington conference on nuclear security. “This is a huge step forward in advancing the bipartisan nuclear security agenda that the President outlined in Prague in April 2009 to reduce the dangers posed by nuclear weapons,” said John Issacs, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. 

“This treaty will send a powerful, unambiguous message to the rest of the world that the United States and Russia are serious about reducing the nuclear threat,” said Sean Meyers of the Union of Concerned Scientists.  

Others are not so certain. Meeting in Libya, a summit of the 22-member Arab League urged reviewing the NPT “in order to create a definitive plan for eliminating nuclear weapons development” and called for holding a UN conference on making the Middle East a “nuclear-weapons free zone.” All Arab states have signed the NPT. 

The League also asked the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, to “terminate its technical assistance programs in Israel if that country does not join the NPT and allow inspections to begin.” Israel is thought to have between 100 and 200 nuclear weapons. 

The Egyptian, Badr, is also chair of the 118-member Non-Aligned Movement, and many of its members have expressed the same frustrations about what Badr calls “double standards and lack of political will.” 

The fact that the May conference will focus on the non-proliferation part of the NBT has caused growing resentment. Badr said he found it “puzzling” that the conference will target the obligations of non-nuclear states, rather than the failure of nuclear armed states to fulfill their obligations under Article VI. 

But the new agreement might create the momentum needed to tackle the hard issues of ridding the world of nuclear weapons and instituting general disarmament. The place to begin that process might be by reiterating the NPT’s preamble: “…in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, States must refrain in their international relations from threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State.” Adherence to the preamble would not only make nuclear weapons superfluous, but also lay the groundwork for reducing military spending across the board, something the world spent about $2 trillion on this past year.