After just two years in office, the administration of President Barack Obama has put the United States back in the role of global nuclear risk-reduction leader. In April 2009, Obama recommitted the United States to the goal of a “world without nuclear weapons,” beginning with overdue reductions in U.S. and Russian stockpiles, steps to strengthen the beleaguered nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), reconsideration of the long-delayed Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and action toward a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT).
By last summer, Obama and his team had guided the 2010 NPT Review Conference to a successful conclusion, negotiated and signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and hosted a historic nuclear security summit.
The nuclear risk reduction effort got another big boost last month when 13 Republicans joined 58 Democrats and independents to approve ratification of New START, which will verifiably cut deployed arsenals to 1,550 warheads each. The strong vote for the treaty is remarkable in this time of hyper-partisanship in Washington. As Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry (D-Mass.) noted, “[I]n today’s Senate, 70 votes is yesterday’s 95.”
Kerry and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), along with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, pursued a smart, patient plan to consult with Republican senators and take their concerns into account. They turned back treaty-killing amendments from a small group of obstinate treaty critics led by Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) that would have required renegotiation with Russia.
In the end, New START won the Senate’s support because it makes sense and had strong support from the U.S. military and national security establishment. Passage of New START will boost U.S.-Russian cooperation to contain Iran’s nuclear program and secure vulnerable nuclear material, and open the way for further Russian and U.S. nuclear arms reductions.
The next steps will not be easy, but they must be pursued. Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, it is in the best interests of Russia and the United States to reduce their huge strategic nuclear stockpiles further, phase out their Cold War-style targeting plans, restrict the role of nuclear weapons solely to deterring nuclear attack by others, account for and reduce tactical nuclear bombs, and, as Obama has promised, engage the other nuclear-armed states in a dialogue on nuclear disarmament.
Further U.S.-Russian reductions should cover all types of nuclear weapons and, ideally, be secured through a follow-on treaty. In the interim, the two governments should consider unilateral reciprocal actions that accelerate the reductions mandated by New START and go further—by cutting their deployed strategic stockpiles to 1,000 or fewer warheads before the 2017 New START implementation deadline.
Not only must the United States and Russia further reduce their arsenals, they must work harder to prevent other states from building up and improving their nuclear arsenals. To succeed, the United States needs to revive efforts for a global ban on fissile material production for weapons and solidify the global moratorium on nuclear test explosions by ratifying the CTBT.
In 2009, Obama pledged to “lead a global effort” to negotiate a verifiable FMCT, but talks at the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD) remain blocked due to opposition from Pakistan, which is locked in an arms race with India.
If talks at the CD do not begin soon, the Obama administration should pursue parallel, open-ended talks involving the eight states with fissile material production facilities that are not legally required to be under international safeguards. Even if talks do begin, they will likely drag on for years. To hasten progress, all states with facilities not subject to safeguards should agree voluntarily to suspend fissile material production.
The New START vote suggests it is possible for the Senate to reconsider and come together around the CTBT, which cannot enter into force without U.S. ratification. The case for the test ban treaty is even stronger than it was when the Senate considered it in 1999. Nearly two decades after the last U.S. nuclear test explosion, it is clear that the United States no longer needs or wants nuclear testing and further testing by other states could help improve their nuclear capabilities.
The Obama administration’s robust, $85 billion, 10-year plan for upgrading the nuclear weapons complex should give skeptical senators greater confidence that nuclear testing is no longer needed to maintain the effectiveness of the U.S. arsenal.
The New START vote shows that controversial treaties can be approved without the support of top Republicans when the White House, backed by the military and the national laboratory directors, pursues a sustained, high-profile campaign. It is time for Obama to launch such a campaign to explain how the CTBT strengthens U.S. security.
The American people expect their leaders to take action to reduce the nuclear weapons threat. Doing nothing or delaying action on pragmatic nuclear risk-reduction steps is not an option.