Banning nuclear bombs

By Jonathan Power

January 7th 2015

“Ban the Bomb!” When we were students many of us marched behind that banner, stamped with the now iconic image of the white outlines of a rocket on a black background. Even the ex-prime minister of Britain, Tony Blair, who later joined President George W. Bush in going to war against Saddam Hussein, supported the cause when he was young.

Many of those students, now in their seventies, have given up the struggle. After all it seems unending with not too much to show for it, except it may have raised consciousness among Western leaders to attempt to limit proliferation.

President Barack Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, which cited his anti-nuclear efforts while a senator, has made cuts in nuclear weapons at a slower pace than preceding presidents, even than George W. Bush. Ironically it is Republican presidents- Reagan (who made a big push to abolish all of them) and father and son Bush who have cut the most. Conservatives have a better chance of carrying the day with popular, visceral, untrusting, opinion, the Congress and the military-industrial-academic complex than the liberals.

Critics of Obama point out that he is spending more than previous administrations to modernize the remaining arms and for authorizing a new generation of weapon carriers. It is the largest expansion of funding on nuclear weapons since the fall of the Soviet Union.

This sets a bad example to the other nuclear bomb nations, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, China, Israel, the UK and France. Ironically, Obama has said, “We have more nuclear weapons than we need”.

The White House defends its record. It argues that at the President Vladimir Putin shows no interest in negotiations, even. Today Congress, (overwhelmingly the Republicans), has fought the president tooth and nail on the reductions he wants and made it impossible for Obama to take any initiative. Only the promise to modernize persuaded its members to ratify a modest 2010 arms treaty with Russia. The White House points out that if one looks at percentages of the stockpile rather than absolute numbers the cuts are more significant than the critics say.

But Obama has cut by 10% while Bush junior cut by 50% and Bush senior by 41%. The two of them cut 14,801 (not a typo) warheads from the active stockpile. Obama has cut only 309.

Into the fray last month has stepped the Democrat senator, Dianne Feinstein. She has recently swung in a more liberal direction. She chaired the senate select committee on intelligence that recently published its long report on torture in the time of Bush junior. Now last month she said in a speech critical of Obama that nuclear weapons are “a threat to global security”.

“Furthermore our stockpile is competing for our limited defence spending. The US maintains 4,804 nuclear weapons. We plan to spend one trillion dollars on new weapons, submarines and long-range bombers over the next three decades. The US nuclear program hasn’t seen this level of funding since the 1980s when we were designing, testing and building new nuclear weapons and the stockpile was three times larger than it is today. Even our generals are telling us we have too many nuclear weapons.”

She concedes that negotiations with Russia in its present state of mind might be difficult even though the US far outspends Russia on nuclear weapons, a fact that the present Russian rearmament program will not make much of a dent in. She suggests, “We can reduce weapons that are kept in reserve without the painstaking task of negotiating further arms-control treaties. We can do so without negatively affecting our national security or our global deterrence”.

This would make a substantial difference to the stockpile.

In two recent issues of Foreign Affairs a long-time expert on nuclear weapons, Barry Blechman, argues that tactical nuclear weapons based in Europe (these are meant for short-range use against an advance of Russian troops) should all be withdrawn without waiting for an agreement with Russia. They are getting old. Within ten years they will be rusting in their silos.

To avoid that nine billion dollars would have to be spent. Then European defence would be left to conventional troops, both European and American. The US is committed to defending Europe. “Russian leaders would be insane to test that commitment by invading a NATO ally”, he writes.

Obama has two years left to justify his winning of the Nobel Peace Prize. He could go down in history as a hypocritical president. Despite the tension with President Vladimir Putin the Ukraine issue must be quickly put behind them. (I have demonstrated how this could be done in last week’s column.) Meanwhile Obama should take unilateral cuts.

It’s in Russia’s interest as the military inferior nation and one reeling from economic decline to agree to serious cuts.

Copyright Jonathan Power 2015

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