Barack Obama's two speeches opening his second term--the Inaugural and the State of the Union--contained only the barest of mentions about reducing nuclear weapons and dealing with the legacies of the Cold War that still haunt us. Perhaps now is not the time. Certainly, these efforts take more than just a whim. They take enormous political willpower, and not only in the United States, but also in Russia and elsewhere.
Hopefully, the coming months will clarify whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has any interest at all in negotiations. Right now, the signs are not very good.
At the same time, if the president doesn't talk about an issue, if he doesn't build political support, then it will fade. That is why his recent speeches were disappointing. Obama has a lot he could talk about, even if the conditions are not particularly auspicious for negotiation. If he stops talking about nuclear issues, then support will diminish in Congress and in public opinion, and he won't have the political foundation for success if and when conditions change.
In March, 2011, the president's national security advisor, Thomas Donilon, delivered a keynote address at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference. At that point, two years had elapsed since Obama outlined his vision of a world without nuclear weapons in Prague. Those two years were "exceedingly productive," Donilon declared.
"Despite this progress, however, we will not rest on our laurels. And I can tell you with certainty that President Obama won’t. Despite the many pressing global challenges that are competing for his attention, he has directed us to keep up the momentum and lay the ground work for additional progress."
"… we’re making preparations for the next round of nuclear reductions. Under the President’s direction, the Department of Defense will review our strategic requirements and develop options for further reductions in our current nuclear stockpile, which stands at approximately 5,000 warheads, including both deployed and reserve warheads. To develop these options for further reductions, we need to consider several factors, such as potential changes in targeting requirements and alert postures that are required for effective deterrence."
"Once it is complete, this review of our strategic requirements will help shape our negotiating approach to the next agreement with Russia, which we believe should include both non-deployed and nonstrategic nuclear weapons. A priority will be to address Russian tactical nuclear weapons. We will work with our NATO allies to shape an approach to reduce the role and number of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, as Russia takes reciprocal measures to reduce its nonstrategic forces and relocates its nonstrategic forces away from NATO’s borders."
"In advance of a new treaty limiting tactical nuclear weapons, we also plan to consult with our allies on reciprocal actions that could be taken on the basis of parallel steps by each side. As a first step, we would like to increase transparency on a reciprocal basis concerning the numbers, locations, and types of nonstrategic forces in Europe. We will consult with our European allies and invite Russia to join with us to develop this initiative."
"Achieving the next round of strategic arms reductions will be an ambitious task that will take time to complete. No previous arms control agreement has included provisions to limit and monitor non-deployed warheads or tactical warheads. To do so will require more demanding approaches to verification. We are ready to begin discussions soon with Russia on transparency and confidence building measures that could provide the basis for creative verification measures in the next round of U.S.-Russia nuclear arms reductions."
Since Donilon's speech, a lot of work has been completed in government, including the military. Planning, doctrine, targeting -- all of it has been reviewed and discussed. The bottom line is that further reductions could be negotiated without weakening our nuclear deterrent. Supposedly there are memos which are almost ready for the president's approval -- or perhaps have already been signed. But the president has said nothing about it. All this work has been in secret. And there it rests.
If Obama didn't want to talk about that, he might have mentioned nuclear testing. The latest blast by North Korea is a good time to remind people that the rest of the world has stopped nuclear testing. Obama might have delivered a pitch for Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was signed by the United States but rejected by the chamber in 1999. At the time, there were doubts about whether it was possible to understand the behavior of nuclear weapons without periodically blowing them up. Now, we know, thanks to the stockpile stewardship effort and computational physics, that it is possible. The president has pledged his support for the treaty in the past, and the United States is not testing. But in his recent speeches, Obama didn't mention the treaty once. Why?
If the president could not bring himself to discuss testing, what about taking land-based nuclear-armed missiles off launch-ready alert? This is one place where risky Cold War practices could use some updating. Candidate Obama promised to do this in 2008--a step best taken jointly with Russia. The president seems to have abandoned the idea in 2010 with the Nuclear Posture Review. But it remains important. A detailed and careful study has just been published by United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, authored by Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists and Matthew McKinzie of the Natural Resources Defense Council. You can find it here.
By the way, would someone please slip this into the president's briefcase to remind him of what a good idea he once had? And stopped talking about?
Getty Images/John W. Adkisson
Twelve years ago, in October, 1999, the Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Only 48 senators supported the treaty, falling short of the 67 required. In the debate, serious doubt was expressed about whether the U.S. nuclear arsenal could be kept safe, secure and reliable without nuclear explosive tests.
At the time, six former secretaries of defense in Republican administrations wrote a letter saying that if the test ban were to be ratified, "over the decades ahead, confidence in the reliability of our nuclear weapons stockpile would inevitably decline, thereby reducing the credibility of our nuclear deterrent."
The six former secretaries also said the relatively young Stockpile Stewardship Program, started in the Clinton administration, "will not be mature for at least 10 years" and could only mitigate, not eliminate, a loss of confidence in the weapons without testing. Although the treaty was rejected, the United States has continued to abide by the test ban.
Today, many fears voiced in the Senate debate have not materialized. That is the core message in an important report issued last week by a nine-member committee of the National Research Council. The panel, which focused on technical issues in the treaty, said the stockpile stewardship program "has been more successful than was anticipated in 1999."
They concluded that "the United States is now better able to maintain a safe and effective nuclear stockpile and to monitor clandestine nuclear-explosion testing than at any time in the past."
That is quite a milestone, and one that I have heard from other sources as well. Bruce T. Goodwin, principal associate director for weapons programs at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told me in an interview last year, "We have a more fundamental understanding of how these weapons work today than we ever imagined when we were blowing them up."
The Stockpile Stewardship Program includes such things as surveillance of the weapons -- taking them apart and checking them. It includes non-nuclear experiments, and periodic life-extension programs for the existing weapons.
There is also a massive supercomputing program to simulate nuclear explosions, which has advanced by leaps and bounds since the 1990s. According to the committee's report, the computing capability available to weapons designers "has increased by a factor of approximately one hundred thousand" since 1996. I wrote a story about this for The Washington Post in November. What I found in talking to scientists at Livermore is that they are using some of the world's most capable computers to create realistic models of what happens inside a nuclear explosion, when tremendous pressures and temperatures squeeze metals, including uranium and plutonium, to set off the nuclear blast.
The computer simulations produce a virtual window into what happens in an explosion. "This is millions of times finer than you could ever do in a nuclear test," Goodwin told me. "You could never see this process go on inside a nuclear explosion."
Such progress depends, in part, on the use of hard data from past nuclear explosions. Also, computer simulations are impressive, but they must be validated by modern laboratory experiments. All this is expensive: state-of-the-art supercomputers, advanced laboratory facilities, a modernized infrastructure and the need to recruit and sustain the best and brightest workforce. The committee said funding each of these is essential. But it seems a relatively small price to pay for an end to U.S. nuclear explosions.
We really have come a long way since 1999.
An important new book on biological weapons and nonproliferation is being published this week. Amy E. Smithson’s Germ Gambits: The Bioweapons Dilemma, Iraq and Beyond (Stanford University Press) is a carefully researched and fascinating study of the long struggle by United Nations weapons inspectors to uncover Saddam Hussein’s germ warfare program in the 1990s. Smithson has meticulously reconstructed the UNSCOM missions, using interviews and documents. Her narrative reveals how a group of smart, determined gumshoes eventually were able to piece together the truth about Iraq’s program, and dismantle it, long before the United States went to war. Today’s posting is a short excerpt from the book, by permission. Smithson is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
From GERM GAMBITS: THE BIOWEAPONS DILEMMA, IRAQ AND BEYOND, by Amy E. Smithson. (c) 2011 Stanford University. Reproduced by permission of Stanford University Press, www.sup.org.
After Coalition forces ousted the Iraqi army from Kuwait in a four-day ground offensive in late February 1991, the ceasefire conditions included Iraq’s unconditional agreement that the United Nations would remove, render harmless, or destroy its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. This disarmament mandate was directly linked with the lifting of trade sanctions. The UN established the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) to implement the disarmament mandate. Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus took the helm of UNSCOM, dispatching his seventh team of inspectors into Iraq in August 1991.
David C. Kelly, a former chief of microbiology in the United Kingdom’s chemical and biological weapons defense facility, led UNSCOM’s first biological inspection. To the task he brought field experience from inspections of dual-use facilities in the Soviet bioweapons program. Kelly became a mainstay of the inner circle that busted Iraq’s bioweapons program, the chief of thirty-seven UNSCOM missions to Iraq. A Welsh biologist who sported wire-rimmed spectacles, Kelly was known for his quiet methods and encyclopedia knowledge of biological weapons. On UNSCOM’s first biological inspection, this unassuming scientist began to demonstrate his knack for getting interviewees to divulge more than they intended.
Getty Images/Barry Williams
Only two countries on Earth possess thousands of nuclear warheads: the United States and Russia. Together, they account for 95 percent of the existing 20,500 weapons; no other nation has more than a few hundred. Despite the new U.S.-Russia strategic arms limitation treaty, there is plenty of room for deeper reductions in these two arsenals, including tactical nuclear weapons, which have never been covered by a treaty, and strategic nuclear weapons held in reserve.
This December will mark the 20th anniversary of the Soviet collapse and end of the Cold War, a largely peaceful finale to an enormous, costly competition between two blocs and two colossal military machines. Today’s threats are different: terrorism, cyber attacks, pandemics, proliferation and conventional wars. As Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing to be Secretary of Defense: “We are no longer in the Cold War. This is more like the blizzard war, a blizzard of challenges that draw speed and intensity from terrorism, from rapidly developing technologies and the rising number of powers on the world stage.”
Yet the United States and Russia, no longer adversaries, seem to be sleepwalking toward the future. Perhaps the drift is the result of the approaching election season in both countries. Unfortunately, politics makes it harder to embrace new thinking. But honestly, haven’t we learned anything in two decades?
Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.