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Legacy quest for a safer world

Passionate: “No one who has listened to Mr. Obama’s inspiring Prague speech in 2009 will doubt his sincerity in seeking a world without nuclear weapons.” File photo of the U.S. President at Hradcany Square in Prague.  

As all cricket fans know, in one-day cricket the leading batsman in the side often finds himself unable to score freely in the first 45 of the allotted 50 overs. He finally lets loose with his bat in the last five “slog” overs to make up for lost time, permitting himself bold and unconventional shots without fear that he might get out since the innings will end in five overs anyway.

Not all U.S. Presidents view their last few months in office as “slog” overs and turn hyperactive to reach their promised targets. Mostly they act like lame ducks, as they are derisively referred to, engaging in warm and fuzzy non-controversial activities like presidential visits abroad, planning their presidential libraries and so on. But recent reports suggest President Barack Obama has decided to break out of this mould. He is said to be considering taking some serious steps to push forward his disarmament and arms control agenda which, after a lot of promise and considerable initial success, had stalled in subsequent years.

Goals in the home stretch

Prominent goals he could be targeting in his remaining months are reported to include introducing a no-first use (NFU) policy on nuclear weapons; bringing the U.S. strategic forces to a state of de-alert; reaffirming the international norms against nuclear testing despite the Senate’s refusal to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty; extending the term of the New START arms reduction treaty by another five years; and cutting back long-term plans for modernising the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

Each of these measures would be a significant step in reducing nuclear dangers, especially de-alerting the U.S. strategic forces from their current fully alert, launch-on-warning status. Nuclear folklore contains numerous instances, confirmed by reliable sources, of when the world was just a few minutes away from a holocaust either because of false alarms of enemy attack or excessive nuclear brinksmanship. De-alerting of nuclear weapons by any country, especially a major power like the U.S., would be a big step forward in lowering the risk of a nuclear catastrophe.

The value of adopting a policy of NFU, apart from lowering tensions at times of crisis, would be more on the diplomatic side. Recall that India’s own declaration of NFU soon after the Pokhran-II explosions, in 1998, did much to assuage the world community’s concerns over our having gone manifestly nuclear. Similarly, U.S. attempts to control nuclear weapon proliferation around the world cannot carry much credibility if it continues to retain its own option of a first strike with a trigger-alert arsenal. The same argument holds for weapon modernisation programmes.

No one who has listened to Mr. Obama’s inspiring and almost evangelistic Prague speech in 2009 will doubt his sincerity in seeking a world without nuclear weapons. Furthermore, in objective terms he has already made important strides in reducing nuclear dangers. His successful negotiation of the New START treaty with Russia and the four Nuclear Security Summits devoted to securing nuclear materials are major examples. But the burden of shepherding the post-2008 economic recovery and introducing a comprehensive health-care programme in the face of an increasingly hostile Congress made further progress on arms control difficult. If there is an impression that President Obama has “failed” in his disarmament agenda, it is only when measured against the very high expectations he himself had set up early in his presidency. The premature award of the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2009, only further contributed to these expectations.

Executive action or consensus?

Clearly, at this stage Mr. Obama can make further progress on his arms control agenda only through executive action, given the shortage of time and the mood and composition of the current U.S. Congress. Technically speaking, all the actions listed earlier can be taken by invoking executive authority. For instance, keeping the nuclear weapons in a state of full alert or on some partial de-alert is a matter of force deployment strategy — a prerogative of the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, which is the President himself. Similarly, organising a multinational resolution in, say, the UN, banning nuclear weapon tests is something the executive branch can initiate. The same holds for re-proportioning the budgetary allocations towards modernisation of its nuclear arsenal.

But even if prior or immediate approval by the elected legislators may not be strictly needed for adopting these measures, the prospects of them being effective and continuing to survive the transition to the next presidential regime after six months will depend on their acceptability to the Congress and the public.

There have already been reactions pouring in, both for and against the proposed moves. The House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on Strategic Forces has already held hearings on “President Obama’s Nuclear Deterrent Modernisation Plans and Budgets: The Military Requirements”. Four of the most senior officers dealing with strategic command were questioned for nearly two hours. The opposition of the Congressmen, mostly Republicans, to declaring NFU or the de-alerting of deployed weapons was abundantly clear from their questions. It was also pointed out, with reason, that extending the New START by five more years would take it into 2025 — covering the next two presidential terms and tying his successor’s hands on this important matter.

There has also been support from important quarters. Ten very influential U.S. Senators led by Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Dianne Feinstein of California wrote to the President in mid-July urging him to take many of the measures listed earlier. The signatories also included Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren whose names figured so prominently in the recent run-up to the Democratic Party nomination. Support has also come, not surprisingly, from NGOs committed to arms reduction, such as the Arms Control Association, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, and Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, and even from countries under the U.S. nuclear umbrella such as Japan.

One does not know which, if any, of these arms control steps the President will decide to take. Presumably when the White House put out word of these proposed changes, it was not done merely to test the waters but with the serious intent of going ahead with at least some of them. That is worth doing even if the measures end up not surviving beyond the Obama presidency. Let the onus of repealing them lie with the incoming leadership. Meanwhile, even their brief existence will set a precedent, making it easier to introduce similar measures in the future.

R. Rajaraman is Emeritus Professor of Physics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


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