America’s Speed Bumps on the Road to Nuclear Zero

by Blake Narendra

The decades-long visionary dream of global nuclear arms control is at risk because of the hurdles posed by American domestic politics – but cultivating the support of moderate voices in the U.S. Congress may be able to save it. The United States and Russia together own over 90% of the world’s existing nuclear weapons, so progressing toward disarmament will require mutual cooperation from both Washington and Moscow.

Article VI of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) requires nuclear weapon states to pursue disarmament. As in the 1960s, perceived multilateral compliance on disarmament remains a major source of contention as the two former rivals ask less powerful nuclear states to reduce their own stockpiles. America’s task of leading by example to entice other states, particularly non-NPT signatories, to reduce their stockpiles, is hindered by its own domestic political dynamics. The United States is not a unitary state—this puts the onus on President Obama to persuade Congress to join him in taking a leadership role in advancing the NPT goals. Failure to resolve these domestic tensions could imperil the entire nonproliferation regime.

The U.S. Senate: Friend or Foe?

The super majority requirement for bilateral and multilateral arms control agreements in the U.S. Senate slackens the pace of disarmament progress. Arms control treaties have historically been insulated from partisan politics, but that paradigm changed with the partisan bickering during Senate consideration of the New START Treaty, and partisanship in the Senate renders further treaty-based arms control exceedingly hard.

In order to secure eight or more Republican votes for ratification of New START, the Obama Administration promised to fund modernization of the U.S. nuclear complex at significantly increased levels, relative to past years. Republicans, particularly Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ), argued that reductions in the U.S. nuclear stockpile should coincide with anOffice of Management and Budget (OMB) pledge to fund life extension and infrastructure work along with modernization of nuclear delivery systems over the next decade. In this era of austerity, however, the House of Representatives did not appropriate the President’s full request in FY 2012 for weapons activities, which led Senator Corker to insinuate that the Administration did not negotiate in good faith.

The fight over New START, more than a year after its entry into force, is the best example of how a historically non-partisan issue no longer generates broad consensus. Contained in the Resolution of Ratification of New START are obligations the Administration must abide by treaty implementation. Article 9(c) of the Resolution of Ratification conditions entry into force on securing financial resources for modernization that are included in the 10 year funding plan submitted by the Obama Administration. Several GOP lawmakers have argued that the funding below that level would constitute a breach of the Resolution of Ratification and could be grounds for U.S. withdrawal from the New START Treaty. The U.S. House of Representatives version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) contains a provision limiting the ability of the President to unilaterally determine the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal through presidential directive. Even if the Senate adopted the House NDAA language, President Obama would never sign a bill that ceded a power authorized for every U.S. President since Dwight Eisenhower.

Opponents of further arms control are primed to up their assault on the President. The President’s Nuclear Posture Review Implementation Study will reportedly direct additional unilateral U.S. stockpile reductions. Early indications are that it will reflect opposition to additional arms control and disarmament efforts on future treaties, beyond New START. Senate consideration of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as well as a bilateral nuclear arms reduction treaty that encompasses all types of warheads with Russia are likely to be dominated by peripheral issues including the President’s NPR Study. Leaving these issues unanswered will stall U.S. momentum on arms control.

The Obama Administration should deliver on its full promise of nuclear modernization to assuage reluctant handful of Republican New START ratifyers, and assuring Senators, that the President’s “hot microphone” incident in Seoul was exactly as it sounded—a frank acknowledgement of how the domestic political cycle dictates the timing and substance of complex negotiations on issues like missile defense.

Why U.S. Leadership Matters:

Beyond just giving rhetorical ammunition to states shirking their nonproliferation obligations, the myopic belief that the United States has not done enough on disarmament imperils the entire nonproliferation regime. For as long as internal division thwarts bold action on arms control, the United States will have lost its moral high-ground to demand action from other states. While there is no way to prove direct causality linking U.S.-Russian disarmament to cooperation on nonproliferation by the non-nuclear weapon states, the signing of New START and release of the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review Study in early 2010 did coincide with heightened support from  nonnuclear weapons states at the Nuclear Security Summit and at the NPT Review Conference.

More importantly, the perception of good faith efforts towards disarmament could undermine Pakistan’s stated rationale for refusing to engage in negotiations on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) in Geneva. Pakistan has long asserted that substantial U.S. and Russian disarmament must predate their participation in FMCT negotiations. Further U.S. progress on disarmament does not guarantee Pakistan and other non-NPT nuclear states will come into the fold—but a lack of U.S. leadership will only embolden defiant states that resist changing their tune on nonproliferation. With an issue as potentially cataclysmic as nuclear weapons, let us hope arms control won’t be subsumed by politics.

About the Author

Blake Narendra graduated from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in May 2013. Prior to studying at Fletcher, he worked at the National Nuclear Security Administration. His views are his own.

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