Nuclear Summit: Upgrade or downsize?

As world leaders gather to discuss securing fissile materials, nuclear arsenals remain the elephant in the room.

It's good to secure nuclear materials, but is that the limit to the Obama administration's ambitions? asks Hudson [EPA]

US President Barack Obama touches down in the Netherlands this week to participate in the Nuclear Security Summit. Much vaunted as a crucial means of dealing with the threat of nuclear terrorism, this is the third in a series of such summits, kicked off by Obama’s iconic Prague speech in June 2009.

The NSS initiative has had some modest successes in securing highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, and in establishing means to combat illicit trafficking of nuclear materials. Yet it is sadly the exception that proves the rule when it comes to the list of what Obama hoped to achieve – that this very limited development is more or less all that remains of Obama’s great vision on that glory day.

The big issues

Few who heard Obama’s words that day could fail to have been moved – he spoke of freedom, peace and our common humanity. Perhaps the greatest message that people took away was the president’s vision of a nuclear weapons-free world.

I remember that moment so clearly: The hope, indeed expectation, that the world can change. “Yes, we can”, as Obama said, restating his most popular and empowering catch-phrase. But what were his commitments and what has been achieved?

The problem is that while steps certainly must be taken to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism, nuclear risks are not reducible to terrorism.

The president said that the United States “will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons”; that “to put an end to Cold war thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same”.

He pledged to negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia: To set the stage for further cuts, seeking to include all nuclear weapons states in that endeavour. He agreed to aggressively pursue US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and to seek a new treaty to end the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. And he asserted that the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would be strengthened as a basis for cooperation. The “basic bargain”, he said, was sound: “Countries with nuclear weapons will move towards disarmament, countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them…”

Finally, he said, we must ensure that terrorists never acquire a nuclear weapon – “this is the most immediate and extreme threat to global security”. It was at this point that he announced the nuclear security initiative, the third summit of which takes place this week.

So yes, Obama has made some headway in locking down the deadly detritus of a genocidal technology, but he has failed to deliver on the big issues, the game-changers which could break the cycle which will inevitably lead to war.

Early progress was made on the new START Treaty with Russia, but then almost derailed as the US insisted on pursuing its clearly destabilising missile defence system. This has put paid to any further bilateral reductions and the possibility of drawing other nuclear weapons states into a downward spiral of nuclear reductions.

Sadly there has been no ratification of the CTBT and no sign of a new Fissile Material Treaty.

The void

And what about strengthening the NPT – complying with that basically sound bargain where the US will move towards disarmament? As we learn from the Stockholm Institute (SIPRI), over the next decade, the US government intends to spend $214 bn to modernise nuclear delivery vehicles, warheads and production facilities.

World leaders meet for nuclear security talks

This includes designing a new class of ballistic missile submarines, a new long-range bomber and a new air-launched cruise missile; studying options for the next-generation land-based ICBM; deploying a new nuclear-capable combat aircraft; producing or modernising three types of nuclear warhead and building new nuclear weapon production facilities.

That sounds like serious re-armament, wholly at odds with NPT requirements.

So it’s hard to reconcile the vision with the reality. Of course it’s good to secure nuclear materials, but is that the limit to the Obama administration’s ambitions?

The problem is that while steps certainly must be taken to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism, nuclear risks are not reducible to terrorism.

Enormous state arsenals are the main problem, together with the seeming determination of those states to modernise and upgrade rather than downsize and disarm.

This will be the void at the heart of this week’s summit: The need to get rid of these weapons.

Dr Kate Hudson is general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and a leading anti-nuclear and anti-war campaigner.