By Haider Nizamani, Canada
Wednesday, 22 Apr, 2009
Courtesy: Daily Dawn, Karachi
The writer teaches at the School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
PRESIDENT Obama departed from a long-held US view on nuclear weapons in a speech delivered in Prague on April 6. Instead of treating nuclear weapons as essential for US national interest, he lent his support to the idea of complete global disarmament.
Disarmament, which aims at freeing the world of nuclear weapons, had almost disappeared from the nuclear discourse in the US where individuals and institutions mainly spoke in terms of non-proliferation. Non-proliferation, on the other hand, came to be mainly associated with efforts to control nuclear ambitions of states that were not permanent members of the Security Council. President Barack Obama has, therefore, tried to resurrect a phrase that had fallen victim to disuse atrophy. And this is no small deal.
He termed the existence of nuclear weapons as “the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War”. This assertion runs counter to nuclear lore that for over half-a-century has viewed atomic weapons as guarantors of security rather than a “dangerous legacy”.
Does this shift in lexicon make any difference? Yes, it does when we juxtapose it with the policy that successive US administrations have adopted. The US is the only nuclear power to have used deadly weapons against an adversary. America also retained the option of first-use of nuclear weapons against its nuclear-armed enemies during the Cold War. The peace dividend expected with the collapse of the Soviet Union did lead to a reduction in the number of nuclear warheads, but in essence it was US policies that built upon the Cold War doctrine. George Bush, Jr. went to the extent of propounding a nuclear policy whereby the US would not rule out using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states.
Obama turns the long-held US view on it head by seeking “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”. Such talk would be heresy to the champions of nuclear deterrence in the US and elsewhere in the world. Nuclear hawks would criticise voices calling for a world without nuclear weapons as naïve and utopian in vision. Pre-empting that criticism, Obama made it clear he is not naïve and that he was aware that the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons may not be realised in his lifetime. The difficulty and distantness of achieving such a world does not make the cause of complete disarmament less noble, especially when it is championed by a sitting US president.
Why should we give him credit? Shifts in such policies are often a result of well-orchestrated lobbying or massive public demand. Belief in nuclear weapons as insurers of the West’s security is so ingrained that an editorial in the Economist recently went in circles holding back its support for Obama’s policy shift. There is no grass-roots support in the US for a change in its nuclear policy either. Obama opposed the Iraq war as a junior senator when it was still a popular venture. By championing the cause of disarmament, Obama is again on the right side of history.
Will Obama’s words remain a pipe dream? What the president is proposing is a distant goal that can only be achieved incrementally and if his words are backed by concrete actions. His is not a popular position to adopt in the US security culture. US lawmakers have a history of reining in the ambitions of the country’s presidents. Woodrow Wilson was instrumental in the creation of the League of Nations in 1920s but the US did not become a member of the organisation because of the Senate’s refusal. Bill Clinton championed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) but failed to have the CTBT ratified by Senate in 1999.
Obama is not suggesting a new treaty to realise the goal of complete disarmament. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Let’s see if he can deliver his promise of reducing warheads and stockpiles by negotiating a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with the Russians this year. He is also pledging to immediately and aggressively pursue US ratification of the CTBT.
A year may be too short a time to achieve these two goals. Realistically it will signal appreciable progress if he can have the US ratification of the CTBT and a meaningful START in place by the end of his first term.
What are the implications of Obama’s pronouncement beyond the US? Russia and China are possible challengers to the US among the recognised nuclear weapons states. A change of mind in Washington will quite likely be tested by the Russians this year as Obama’s proposed START initiative gets under way.
Within Britain and France the re-usage of the word ‘disarmament’ as a policy objective by the present US president will give anti-nuclear voices a boost in these countries. Since the formation of Nato, Washington has provided a nuclear umbrella to its non-nuclear allies. Obama is not a unilateralist and that would allay any security concerns these allies may have about his disarmament plan.
For South Asia, Obama’s policy of taking the CTBT back to the Senate for ratification will be of significance. The Clinton administration was not happy with India’s decision to remain out of the CTBT. The Senate’s refusal to ratify the treaty took the sting out of Clinton’s position. Pakistan readily used India’s staying out as its grounds for not signing the CTBT. If Obama can secure US ratification of the CTBT he can become its crusader in South Asia.
So far, Washington’s practice has run counter to its preaching when it has come to the nuclear issue. Obama’s Prague pronouncement can be read as an oral correction of the US nuclear policy. Instead of dismissing it as rhetoric, as sceptics are prone to doing, one can see good grounds for supporting a shift in policy and the aim to rid the world of nuclear weapons.n
The writer teaches at the School for International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver.