Will breath of fresh air in US generate winds of nuclear change?

nuclear-missileThe United States will need to match its rhetoric with action and move to eliminate its own nuclear weapons if the world is to make meaningful steps towards nuclear disarmament, according to Associate Professor Andrew O’Neil.

An expert in international relations at Flinders University and a contributor to a background concept paper for the new Australia-Japan International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, Associate Professor O’Neil said President Barack Obama signalled an important shift in America’s approach to nuclear weapons in a speech in Prague earlier this month.

“Pledging that the United States would throw its weight behind significant arms control initiatives – including ratification of the stalled Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty – Obama promised that he would ‘reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US national security strategy, and urge others to do the same’,” Associate Professor O’Neil said.

“Obama’s speech has been hailed by a number of observers as increasing the prospects for nuclear disarmament. Many see the new Democratic administration as a breath of fresh air after the prominent role accorded to nuclear weapons by the Bush administration and its general scepticism towards arms control,” he said.

“While any pledge to decrease the role of nuclear weapons in international relations should be welcomed, we should be cautious in assuming that the Obama Administration heralds a new dawn for nuclear disarmament.

“In the same paragraph in which he committed the US to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in its national strategy, Obama stated that he had no intention of disarming US nuclear forces ‘as long as these weapons exist’. In other words, America will not lead the world to zero as long as any other state still possesses nuclear weapons.  President Obama has not formally committed the US to eliminating its nuclear arsenal at any future point. Unless and until he does this, his rhetoric on nuclear disarmament will remain just that.

“Decommissioning and destroying nuclear weapons is a challenging, but technically feasible, assignment. Changing the mindsets of those whose support is necessary to begin this process with a view to zero will be much harder. My view is that while ridding the world of nuclear weapons is a commendable goal, it’s not one that should be viewed as a priority by governments or non-government organisations. For a country like Australia, which is widely respected for its work in the arms control realm but with limited diplomatic resources, it makes more sense to concentrate its efforts on reinforcing existing restraints to nuclear proliferation.

“During the 1960s, most analysts predicted that we would now have anywhere between 30-40 nuclear-armed countries. The fact that we only have nine such states owes a lot to the widening ambit of global arms control over the past 40 years, the sheer financial cost of going nuclear, and robust opposition to nuclear weapons within nuclear-capable countries. The bottom line is that a mere one-fifth of the countries that could have manufactured nuclear weapons by now have in fact done so.

“Hard core proliferators of the North Korean variety will do anything it takes to develop and retain nuclear weapons. But for the overwhelming majority of states, the costs to their reputations of defying international opinion and the massive economic cost of fabricating nuclear weapons infrastructure (assuming they are able to get the bomb in the first place) provide a potent disincentive to nuclear proliferation.”

Photo: A de-commissioned Titan II missile near Tucson, Arizona. Copyright: Telstar Logistics

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