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Assessing Obama's nuclear weapons agenda

Barack Obama (L) Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague (08/04/10)
The US and Russia have some 5,000 nuclear warheads between them

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News wesbite

With the end of the nuclear security summit in Washington, it is time to do an audit of President Obama's nuclear weapons agenda set out in Prague a year ago.

He listed the following aims in his Prague speech, in this order:

1. "The United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons... We will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy."

2. "We will negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians this year."

3. "My administration will immediately and aggressively pursue US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty."

4. "The United States will seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons."

5. "Together we will strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT]"

6. "We must ensure that terrorists never acquire a nuclear weapon."

So, how far have these ambitions been achieved?

1. Reduce reliance on nuclear weapons

The Nuclear Posture Review, issued on 6 April, does "reduce the role of nuclear weapons" in US strategy by stating that they will be used only in "extreme circumstances" and not against non-nuclear states in compliance with their obligations under the NPT. The review also ruled out the construction of new US nuclear warheads.

It is debatable however whether the US has taken steps "towards a world without nuclear weapons" or has just taken steps to reduce its stockpile of and reliance on nuclear weapons, while retaining a massive arsenal.

2. Get new arms treaty with Russia

The new Start treaty with Russia has been achieved (albeit not quite "this year" as hoped) and was signed in Prague on 8 April. It cuts the number of deployed warheads by 30% to 1550 on no more than 700 launchers (missiles, planes, submarines) by 2017. It is probable that President Obama's decision to abandon the anti-missile defence system (which came after his speech) helped the Russians to agree to this treaty. The "resetting" of relations with Russia is an important element in his nuclear agenda.

Both sides will now consider moving to further talks. These could include several thousand stockpiled warheads, which do not come under Start 2. More immediately, tactical nuclear weapons also remain to be discussed. The US still has an estimated 500 of these in Europe and the Russians have about 2000. Some way to go, therefore, on the "further cuts" President Obama envisaged.

3. Start ratifying test ban treaty

As with all US treaties, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty needs ratification by the US senate. However, the CTBT will probably take second place to the new Start treaty. Debate and ratification of that will take months and so the CTBT's turn is unlikely to come this year, therefore after the next mid-term elections. The delay in agreeing Start 2 is having a knock-on effect. Will the senate agree to the CTBT? President Clinton failed to get it ratified in 1999. With the Start 2 deal now done, the senate might be more amenable, though any Republican mid-term gains could lessen its chances.

4. Push for fissile material treaty

A Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty remains elusive. The idea is to get an agreement to stop the production of material (weapons-grade uranium and plutonium) that can be used for nuclear explosions and make it verifiable. Last year, resisting pressure from the world's nuclear weapons powers, Pakistan blocked a work-plan to take this forward. President Obama still has some hard negotiating to do on this.

5. Strengthen non-proliferation treaty

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (file photo)
The issue of Iran's nuclear programme is yet to be resolved

The NPT will be the subject of a conference in New York in May. The president's aim is to strengthen it by getting more intrusive inspection procedures and by penalising those who are judged to violate the rules, like Iran, or who leave the treaty, like North Korea. He has no proposals, however, for those nuclear-armed states - Israel, India and Pakistan - who never signed up at all. To lessen the chances of states enriching their own uranium, as Iran is doing, he wants to set up an international fuel bank. He is also hoping to head off criticism that the nuclear-weapons states are not doing enough to disarm by pointing to the new Start treaty and to the other agenda items he laid out.

6. Secure nuclear materials

Nuclear security was the subject of the just-finished Washington summit. There is a four-year timeframe for this, but it has got seriously under way, building on work already achieved in clearing up the nuclear leftovers in former communist states. The fear identified is that terrorists will get hold of weapons-grade material and make a bomb. The answer proposed is that states should tighten their control over such material, often the by-product of civilian nuclear power, and agree and enforce relevant international conventions.

The Washington meeting did agree on a tightening of security and safeguards and produced some individual initiatives, but the test of the agreement will be in its implementation. A review conference will be held in 2012.

President Obama said in Prague: "Some argue that the spread of these weapons cannot be stopped, cannot be checked - that we are destined to live in a world where more nations and more people possess the ultimate tools of destruction. Such fatalism is a deadly adversary."

His agenda, as can be seen, is being tackled. Whether it is ambitious enough is another argument.

Europeans demand more

A statement released to coincide with the Washington meeting from forty European statesmen and women supports the broad Obama nuclear plan but also suggests that more should be done.

It calls, for example, for a "weapons of mass destruction free zone" in the Middle East and for "urgent and more radical initiatives from the nuclear weapons states" to follow up the new Start agreement. www.rusi.org/ELN/statement/

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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