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US leadership in non-proliferation
Is the Obama administration trying to lead the world in creating a new nuclear doctrine?
Last Modified: 19 Apr 2010 09:58
Obama's 'no first strike' nuclear policy applies only to countries which have signed the NPT [GETTY]

The recent nuclear-related moves of the Obama administration have generated no small amount of controversy and confusion among various politically-motivated observers in the US. 

To the US president's most virulent detractors, the various aspects of the Obama nuclear policy now coming into focus constitute an all-too-characteristic combination of grandiosity, hypocrisy, naiveté and fraud.

The additional reductions in both US and Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles called for in the "New Start" pact signed on April 8, they say, are hardly new at all, having been agreed to in principle many years before.

Further, they excoriate the changes called for under Obama's recently-completed "Nuclear Posture Review," which mandate at least the temporary establishment of a US "no first use" nuclear doctrine in response to a potential attack by a foreign country using chemical or biological weapons.

This doctrine is limited, however, to those nations which have both ratified the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and are honouring their international obligations thereunder. 

Response as deterrence

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Far from being pleased at the ostentatious exclusion of Iran and North Korea from the benefits of US nuclear forbearance, however, the president's mostly right-wing detractors are livid over his having introduced any such doctrine, no matter how limited. They claim that this is a feckless undermining of the studied ambiguity of response which they claim is a necessary underpinning of the whole concept of deterrence.

Finally, reacting as though it were a conscious attempt to add insult to injury, the administration's political enemies point to the disparity between the goals and results of Obama's Nuclear Security Summit (convened on April 12 and 13 with some 47 invited foreign heads of state and government in attendance) and those of the last such ambitious gathering of foreign leaders under US government auspices back in the 1940s. 

This time, the gathering of kings and potentates agreed to a non-binding series of "work plans" designed to make marginal, incremental progress toward better controlling nuclear materials, and the result was the establishment of the United Nations itself.

In the face of this determined onslaught, the far more numerous, if considerably more tepid defenders of the president's recent nuclear-related initiatives embrace the modest gains they represent, even as many among them quietly wish that they had gone further - for example, to include a sweeping and unqualified doctrine of nuclear 'no first use'.

Obama's consistency

In my view, however, neither Obama's opponents nor his defenders have given him sufficient credit for the degree to which these seemingly disparate nuclear-related initiatives in fact cohere in a consistent and mutually-supportive way. 

That is not the same as saying that their over-all result will be effective, but it is to suggest that the president's moves are consistent and well-thought-out.

It seems to me that the additional reductions in missiles and nuclear warheads called for under the "New Start" agreement, in addition to the intrinsic benefit they bring in reducing arsenals and ultimately placing fewer weapons at risk of misuse, are designed to re-invigorate a necessary part of the implicit international bargain which underlies the NPT. 

When first signed, the idea behind the NPT was that the established nuclear-weapons states would make steady and consistent progress toward eliminating their arsenals, in return for the agreement of others to place their nuclear programmes under international safeguards and abjure development of their own nuclear weapons. 

The established powers, to say the very least, have not shown anywhere near the energy and commitment in meeting their end of this grand nuclear bargain that they have demonstrated in trying to bar the admission of others to the nuclear-weapons club. 

In trying to reinvigorate international commitment to the overall goal of nuclear non-proliferation, Obama has correctly assessed the importance of reciprocity on the part of the two largest nuclear-weapons states.

Benefits of the NPT

Similarly, in making changes to the US nuclear posture which are admittedly small and difficult to understand or articulate, Obama is attempting to enhance the benefits of adherence to the NPT, while increasing the costs of non-compliance with its dictates. 

Moreover, he does so in a way which makes clear his willingness, at least in principle, to place further brakes on the US' unilateral freedom of action in the nuclear-weapons sphere. This is also a means of building greater international support for the whole dynamic of nuclear weapons control.

Finally, the stated goals behind the Nuclear Security Summit are unassailable, even if the specifics were somewhat vague and, at least at the moment, not very ambitious.

What responsible state would not want to see nuclear materials under better control, and the difficulty for violent or criminal non-state actors to obtain such materials increased? 

I believe the desired overall effect of US sponsorship of the nuclear security effort, however, in combination with the other measures noted above - over and above whatever intrinsic benefits they bring - is to create an impact greater than the sum of their parts. 

The larger goal is to reassert US leadership in the non-proliferation area; to build up a regime of broad international co-operation, at least in the context of initiatives to which nearly all concerned states can agree; and, in the process, to further isolate Iran, thereby creating a political climate more conducive of international support for meaningful economic sanctions against that country. 

Indeed, on the surface, these recent moves appear to have created a greater willingness on the part of Russia and China to cooperate with the US and other states in imposing more stringent international sanctions on Iran for its perceived refusal to cooperate completely and effectively with the IAEA and otherwise meet its global commitments under the NPT.

No crippling Iran sanctions

China and Russia are unlikely to agree to crippling sanctions on Iran [EPA]

So much for the intent, and at least the modest success of the Obama administration's comprehensive approach to nuclear-weapons policy.

There are two big caveats which apply here: The first is that the fundamental posture of both the Russians and Chinese, recent positive atmospherics notwithstanding, has not changed. 

Neither power will yet agree to even remotely "crippling" sanctions against the Iranian economy, nor will either sacrifice its parochial economic or political interests to international non-proliferation goals.

More fundamentally, for all the moderate success the Obama approach to nuclear non-proliferation may enjoy in reinvigorating the established international non-proliferation regime based on the NPT, this US-led process alone is unlikely to be successful in curbing Iran in the long run, because the old non-proliferation regime of which the NPT is the cornerstone is fundamentally flawed, and to a substantial degree overtaken by history.

The hard fundamental fact is that the global non-proliferation regime was made by and for the great powers, and over the years has evolved in a way which primarily supports their interests.

World-wide support for the original "grand bargain" was achieved because it appealed broadly to all nations' security interests; and while happily that may yet be true in most cases, it may no longer be true in the case of some. 

National security interests

Nations will not continue to support the non-proliferation regime if it does not conform to their national security interests.

Pakistan is a great case in point; India's development of nuclear weapons, effected through indigenous means which generally did not trigger US or international non-proliferation sanctions (especially as a non-signatory of the NPT), made it inevitable that Pakistan would do whatever it felt it needed to to build an offsetting capability, despite stringent US sanctions.

The obverse is also true. 

Brazil and Argentina, and later South Africa, set off on a nuclear-weapons path and then ultimately dismantled those efforts, not because of international leverage, but because a rational calculation of their national security interests dictated that they should do so.

This is not the forum in which to examine the complicated calculus of global and regional interests which in the end is likely to determine Iranian nuclear policy. 

I would strongly suggest, however, that unless the Iranian regime finds itself in a position where full and whole-hearted compliance with its "international obligations" under the NPT is seen by Iranian nationalists as manifestly in its national security interests, all the cleverness in the world demonstrated by Obama or any other US administration is unlikely to bar them from at least achieving a nuclear option. 

And should Iran develop such weapons, the same would apply to its regional neighbours. 

Thus, it seems to me that the critical dialogue ought to take place within the region, and not just in the context of a US-led non-proliferation regime which may no longer be fundamentally relevant.                 

Robert Grenier was the CIA's chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of CIA's counter-terrorism centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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