04 April 2009

Does President Obama really want a nuclear-free world?

President Obama and President Medvedev need to do more than limiting the size of their nuclear stockpiles

Patrick Comerford

There was wonderful news this week: the United States and Russia have agreed to cut their stockpiles of nuclear missiles.

At their first meeting in London on Wednesday, President Barack Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev committed the US and Russia to a three-month goal of negotiating a new, legally-binding arms control treaty, with a long-term goal of “achieving a nuclear-free world.”

It is for campaigns like ours and others around the world to ensure that this joint statement moves from being a rhetorical press release to real action to making our world a nuclear-free world.

To this day, the US and Russia between them have 95% of the world’s nuclear bombs, with over 19,000 warheads today: the US has 5,200 nuclear warheads, 2,700 of which are operational; Russia has 14,000 nuclear warheads, of which a similar number, 5,200, are operational.

The existing joint nuclear reduction agreement – the May 2002 Strategic Offensive reductions Treaty (Sort) – committed Moscow and Washington to cutting their “operationally deployed strategic warheads” to 2,200 each. They have failed to reach that target, and even that agreement falls short of past agreements, as it has no effect on warheads in reserve stockpiles or under repair, no roadmap beyond 31 December 2012 –the date that compliance is required and the treaty itself expires – and no verification procedures.

This week’s statement contains pro-verification language consistent with US-Russian arms control agreements predating the last administration.

Although the statement gave no numbers, US and Russian officials are talking about a ceiling of 1,500 warheads for each nuclear arsenal. That total is significant, as it forces US military commanders to readjust their nuclear targeting plans.

In 2000, the New York Times revealed that the US air force has about 2,260 so-called vital Russian targets on the list today, with a few hundred other targets in China, Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

This week’s statement also represents a theoretical down payment on Mr Obama’s pledge during his election campaign as a presidential candidate to “make the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide a central element of US nuclear policy.” Sustained co-operation between Moscow and Washington could be the single most important test for Mr Obama if he is to turn this pledge into reality.

But the world cannot wait the decades it may take the negotiators to get to that stage. The danger is so overwhelming, so overpowering, so awesome, that the negotiations must not be allowed to stall, to delay, to falter, or to lose sight of and betray the ultimate goal and ideal of a nuclear-free world.

If the negotiations start off in good-faith, the treaty due in three months will be an historic first step, even if it is only a first step.

After years of an artificially prolonged Cold War, I think we all agree that the climate in international relations at last appears to offer a glimmer of hope.

I for one am pleased that in his first few weeks in office President Obama has already accepted the need to reduce the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons and that he has made the first tentative steps – even if they are only tentative steps – towards taking countries like Iran and North Korea out of international isolation, and reducing yet another set of fears about the use of nuclear weapons.

In addition, the welcome decision to close the horrible torture centres in Guantanamo Bay contributes further towards easing global tensions, is (hopefully) a recognition of the need for reinforcing international standards on human rights, and hopefully too will put an end to US military over-flights in Ireland and the Shannon stopover.

I hope that when the new US Ambassador to Ireland, Mr Dan Rooney, has settled into residence in Dublin, he will provide an opportunity for the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, to express some of these views to him, positively and constructively.

However, we in CND must never lose sight of the ultimate goal of a nuclear-free world. Any talk of a ceiling of 1,500 warheads for each nuclear arsenal – in other words, 3,000 nuclear warheads shared between the two superpowers alone – is dangerous. It still leaves them with the capacity of massive overkill, of wiping us all off this planet.

As the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would tell us after two generations: One nuclear missile is one nuclear missile too many!

In the meantime, President Obama has a lot of work to do to convince me of his credibility in this area. After making his announcement in London, he immediately went to Strasbourg to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

It is no coincidence that the G20 summit and the NATO celebrations were timed to coincide. Once again, we have seen the needs and demands of the global economy being relegated to secondary status when it comes to the sick celebrations of the military-industrial complex.

For too long, the evil shadow of NATO has hung over every European state, depriving Europe of the opportunity of developing a common strategy for peace and disarmament.

NATO relies on nuclear arsenals, nuclear stockpiles, and the ultimate threat of nuclear annihilation.

Mr Obama needs to decide: is his priority tackling the world’s economic meltdown, working on behalf of the economically powerless and marginalised and ending global poverty? Or is his priority continuing to find and divert financial and economic resources towards the military-industrial complex, which still relies on nuclear overkill, and which continues to try to deceive us with the outdated and fraudulent superstition that deterrence works.

World peace can only come about by removing suspicion and fear. Removing the world’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons will help remove that suspicion and fear. And, at this time, allow us to redirect and redeploy valuable resources and funding.

These are the messages Mr Rooney needs to hear from Irish CND when he arrives in Dublin.

Canon Patrick Comerford is President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. This address was given at the annual general meeting of Irish CND in the Mansion House, Dublin, on Saturday, 4 April 2009.

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