The Obama presidency and its recent diplomatic nuclear offensive seek to compensate for perhaps the greatest and potentially most dangerous strategic blunder of the Bush administration: its encouragement of nuclear weapons proliferation.
Since the 9/11 attacks, the first priority of US national security policy has been to prevent nuclear attacks against the country by nonstate terrorists. Two key elements of this policy are prevention of nuclear weapons proliferation, which includes securing the world's massive stores of radioactive materials and the political and psychological denial of Washington's history and current practice threatening first strike nuclear attacks as the ultimate enforcer of US global dominance. (As my book "Empire and the Bomb" documents, during at least 40 wars and international crises since Nagasaki, US presidents have prepared and threatened to initiate nuclear war.)
In addition to transforming the United States into a pariah nation with its wars and torture in Central Asia and Iraq, Bush administration hubris, its love affair with coercive and murderous military power and its disregard for international treaties compounded the nuclear dangers humanity now faces. Among its most dangerous campaigns was the subversion of the 2005 Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT) Treaty Review conference. The NPT was one of the seminal agreements of the 20th century, winning commitments from all nonnuclear nations except Israel, India and Pakistan not to obtain nuclear weapons in exchange for the nuclear powers' Article VI commitment to "good faith negotiations" to eliminate all of the world's nuclear weapons.
Rather than respond to international demands that it fulfill its Article VI obligation in exchange for tightening the inspection regime, Bush, Cheney, and their collaborators subverted the last Review Conference in 2005. They refused to agree on an agenda until the conference neared its conclusion. Then, they refused to engage in serious negotiations, resulting in the collapse of the Conference which, in turn, placed the nonproliferation regime that has prevailed for the past four decades in jeopardy.
Key figures of the US elite recognized this strategic blunder, prompting former Republican Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger to seek ways to reclaim US legitimacy and leverage in nonproliferation diplomacy. Thus, they called for limited arms control reductions and urged public reaffirmation of the country's Article VI commitment. This along with pressure from community based activists led Obama to announce his commitment to a nuclear weapons free world, albeit "perhaps not in [his] lifetime."
So, it was no surprise that it was during the run up to this May's NPT Review Conference that President Obama signed the "New START" treaty, issued his administration's Nuclear Posture Review and held his "Nuclear Security Summit." While serving a variety of agendas, the timing was designed to reclaim US legitimacy and negotiating traction on the eve of May's Review Conference.
Unfortunately, these policies and actions reflect more continuity than change, smoke and mirrors and hardly a bright new beginning.
"New START" is widely recognized as a "very modest step" that at best helps to stabilize relations between the world's two nuclear superpowers. Seven years after its ratification, the US and Russia will still possess more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. We are told that the two side's deployed arsenals will be reduced by roughly a third, leaving each with 1,550 thermonuclear warheads. They don't tell us these will have the destructive capacity on the order of 60,000 Hiroshimas. But, as The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists informs us, due to the arcane arms control counting methods, a fully armed B-52 bomber will be counted as a single warhead, resulting in smaller reductions than most anticipate. No cuts in US and Russian nuclear stockpiles of about 20,000 warheads are included. And the Federation of American Scientists tells us New START "doesn't force either country to make changes in its nuclear structure."
As a result of Pentagon intransigence, the long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review, with its ostensible reduction in US reliance on nuclear weapons, offers little more hope. So, too, the president's budget. What the Posture Review gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. While seeking to calm international fears by pledging that it will not threaten or use nuclear weapons against nonnuclear nations that comply with their NPT obligations, it includes a loophole providing for possible US nuclear first strikes against opponents threatening or using chemical or biological weapons. It asserts that "nuclear forces will continue to play an essential role" in US foreign and military policies. And despite the economic crisis and US spending deficits, it reaffirms the costly role of vulnerable land based ICBMs, as well as our nuclear armed submarines and bombers.
As if seeking to broadcast US double standards, President Obama's budget calls for a $2 billion increase to modernize the US nuclear weapons production infrastructure, more money to study development of the new nuclear weapon the Nuclear Posture Review rules out and $800 million to develop a new nuclear-capable cruise missile. And to hammer home continued US reliance on threats of first strike attacks, Secretary of Defense Gates reiterated that "all options are on the table" as the US seeks to roll back North Korea's and Iran's nuclear programs.
Finally, there was last week's "Nuclear Security Summit." While Chile's decision to ship its fissile materials to the US and Ukraine's commitment to pursue a similar path are to be celebrated, the world's nations have been unable to ignore the Obama administration's refusal to confront Israel, Pakistan and India. Israel's nuclear intransigence is the primary obstacle to a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone and it could lead to renewed deadlock during the NPT Review. Pakistan's drive to keep up with India is leading it to create still more fissile material.
It is in this context that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has decided to go beyond diplomacy as usual and to address the international peace movement conference being held in New York City days before the NPT Review. Like a growing number of people around the world, he apparently understands and is signaling that we can't leave human survival to governments and that the NPT Review must call for negotiations for the nuclear weapons abolition treaty to begin. Without committed popular actions, we cannot secure humanity's future.