Ban the Bomb!

By Jonathan Power

If in 2012 and 2013 the big nuclear weapons powers and UN Security Council permanent members – the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France – don’t make significant reductions with their nuclear weapons then an important opportunity will be lost.

Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev appear to be of a mind on this.

One has to go back to the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to get the full picture on the dismal progress on nuclear disarmament. Their Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara, told both presidents nuclear weapons were unusable. Henry Kissinger, when National Security Advisor to President Richard Nixon, publically said the same, chiding the Europeans for thinking that they were under an American umbrella. He told them bluntly that America would never sacrifice its own cities to revenge European ones.

Later President Ronald Reagan was quite clear that he could never push the nuclear button and that all nuclear weapons must be quickly abolished. He came close to striking a deal with the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, (another leader who said he could never push the button) at their summit in Reykjavik when only the intransigence of the Russians in refusing to lift their objection to testing missile defences in the laboratory and Reagan’s worry that if he didn’t get that concession the right wing would eat him alive and he would not be able to get such a treaty through Congress stalled the agreement on the last paragraph.

In recent years not only was Robert McNamara on the warpath on behalf of radical disarmament, so have been the former bastion of the nuclear weapons’ establishment, Paul Nitze, who was the chief negotiator on the old Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START), Henry Kissinger himself and a long list of ex military commanders and political figures, both left and right.

President Bill Clinton must suffer much of the blame for slowing disarmament talks down to a snail’s pace. It was an unforgiveable sin. Here was a president who inherited the peace brought about by presidents George Bush Senior and Boris Yeltsin and yet put it on the shelf for want of drive, even interest.

President George W. Bush quickly struck a handsome deal with President Vladimir Putin to shelve over a thousand big rockets and their warheads in storage. It took a lot of the most dangerous weapons off instant alert – an intolerable practice that still continues for reasons few understand- and it was done very quickly within months without the need for a laboriously negotiated treaty that would have to be slowly approved by both parliaments.

It is in fact the template for what should be done now.

Once the latest negotiations were wrapped up on renewing and extending quite dramatically cuts under the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty the two leaders should have met and decided to put the rest of their nuclear missiles on the shelf. They should initially keep a hundred or so out of the approximately 6,000 that used to exist in order to persuade Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel to join the bandwagon. All of them would find themselves- including North Korea- under irresistible pressure to disarm.

In the “in-club” there is a lot of talk these days of taking a step at a time. For example, to get the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty agreed – a cause that has been on the table since Kennedy embraced it. Under Clinton it did come before Congress for ratification, but Clinton made no big effort to get it through.

Another favourite is to work on the reduction of the smaller and simpler to discuss tactical (or battlefield) nuclear weapons, dangerously under the control of field commanders and often improperly stored in Russia. In some cases they have been found protected by a single barbed wire fence.

Then there is the campaign to hold both powers to a “no first use” pledge, a load of codswallop if there was real tension and life or death issues at stake.

Obama is temperamentally tuned to taking big leaps that ignore the conventional wisdom. A reading of his Nobel Prize winning speech with his accent on “love” between nations is path breaking. Medvedev comes across as a principled and idealistic man. His mentor Prime Minister Putin shows no sign he would want to hold him back on this issue.

Someone has to start the ball rolling. Best if they hold hands and do it together.

© 2012 Jonathan Power

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