Obama Set To Bring Nonproliferation Case To UN
By Heather Maher, RFE/RL
WASHINGTON -- On September 24, Barack Obama will
become the first U.S. president to preside over a meeting of the United Nations
Security Council, and he plans to use the opportunity to bring before its
members a resolution advancing his goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.
It's an idea the U.S. president first laid out in April in Prague in a speech
that was remarkable for its vision.
"So today, I state, clearly and with conviction, America's commitment to seek
the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons," Obama said.
But the speech was also tempered by pragmatism.
"I'm not naive," he said. "This goal will not be reached quickly, perhaps not in
my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we too must ignore
the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist: Yes, we
The Development and Proliferation of
Today eight countries
are possessing nuclear weapons. The five nuclear weapons states
United States, Russia (former Soviet Union), United Kingdom, France
and China, are the only countries allowed to have nuclear weapons
according to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) from 1970. All
members of the United Nations except Israel, India and Pakistan have
signed the NPT.
Obama's appearance at the Security Council is
part of the White House's attempt to repair its partnership with the UN after
years in which the George W. Bush administration often pursued its global agenda
without building consensus within the world body.
Iran's nuclear program is the subject of intense
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week that Obama plans to use
his few hours at the Security Council to "emphasize the importance of
strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime."
Joseph Cirincione, president of the anti-nuclear Ploughshares Fund, says Obama
goes into the meeting with a strong hand and in lock step with at least one
major international partner: Britain.
The British position was outlined in an op-ed in the September 20 edition of the
"Guardian" newspaper by Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who called the
nonproliferation issue "one of the most critical issues we face."
"[If we] get it wrong...," he wrote, "we face the spread of nuclear weapons and
the chilling prospect of nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists."
The View From Moscow
Cirincione says Russia is also on board with Obama's goals.
"The Russians are also committed to this, perhaps not as eloquently as the
Americans or the British," he told RFE/RL. "But Dmitry Medvedev has expressed
his interest, echoed by Vladimir Putin, to seek a world free of nuclear weapons
and to go forward on negotiated treaty reductions with the United States."
At least eight countries are known to have nuclear weapons: the United States,
Russia, the United Kingdom, China, France, North Korea, India, and Pakistan.
Israel has a long-standing policy of not disclosing whether it is or is not a
nuclear power, but it is widely assumed to be.
A draft of the resolution Obama plans to bring to a vote was given to the
permanent members of the Security Council last week, at the start of the 2009
Revisions have since been made and a final draft is said to indicate that the
council will stop short of endorsing a call for the eventual phasing out of all
France is said to have insisted on more ambiguous wording that instead
references the creation of "conditions" for a world free of nuclear weapons.
But the precise wording may not matter that much.
James Lindsay, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says the resolution is aimed
at jump-starting the moribund nonproliferation movement.
"In the short term what the administration is trying to do is to reinvigorate
the bargain that had existed at the heart of the NPT -- [the] Nonproliferation
Treaty -- which is that countries that don't have nuclear weapons pledge not to
obtain them and countries that do have nuclear weapons pledge to reduce and
eventually get rid of their nuclear weapons," Lindsay said.
In the long term, Lindsay adds, the White House is looking to gain momentum for
the major international conference it will host next spring to discuss the NPT,
which is up for review in 2010.
A Tale Of Three Treaties
The NPT is just one of three international weapons treaties under debate or up
for renegotiation that in one form or another come into play on the
nonproliferation and disarmament issue.
The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is another, which the United States adheres to
informally but has never ratified.
Arms control experts say Obama's desire for the United Statesto lead the world
in nuclear disarmament -- as he says its status as the only nuclear power to
have used a nuclear weapon morally compels it to do -- will be weakened if he is
unable to persuade Congress to ratify the test ban treaty. The world's nuclear
arsenals.The last attempt to do so, by former President Bill Clinton, ended in
defeat on the Senate floor.
But the Council on Foreign Relations' Lindsay warns that Obama will need to
decide which foreign policy issues are worth a fight in Congress, or risk
looking politically ineffective.
"Disarmament is an issue that I think is close to the president's heart,"
Lindsay said, "but right now he faces very difficult decisions about
Afghanistan, about Pakistan, the Middle East, and [one is] tempted to say:
'Well, they're all important problems. We should try to do them all at once.'
But the reality of life in Washington is that if you don't pick priorities, you
end up in a great deal of trouble."
The third weapons treaty in the mix is the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or
START, which is due to expire at the end of the year.
Russian and U.S. negotiators resumed talks this week in Geneva on a new version
of what has long been considered the most important arms agreement between the
Securing a new START agreement is at the center of White House efforts to "reset
relations" with Russia and represents a key component of its hope to restart
international nonproliferation efforts.
In July, Obama and Russian President Medvedev agreed to slash their deployed
nuclear arsenals to between 1,500 and 1,675 warheads. Both countries are
currently bound to a limit of 2,200.
Obama has already begun to fulfill the U.S. side of that agreement. Last week he
ordered the Defense Department to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the
country's nuclear strategy, arguing that the nation's nuclear arsenal falls
within the president's purview.
U.S. and Russian negotiators have been meeting for months now, and Obama and
Medvedev are expected to meet on the sidelines at the UN on September 23, but
Kremlin foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko recently said that
"contradictions remain" between the two sides.
Major differences reportedly include Russian desires for deeper cuts in
nuclear-capable launchers and bombers and U.S. attempts to leave out of the
treaty nuclear-capable delivery systems that have been reconfigured as
There are reports that officials on both sides have abandoned plans to seek
ratification of a new version of the treaty before its expiration and instead
are looking into temporarily extending it.
Showdown On Iran
On at least one key related issue, though, Russia and the United States may soon
be in agreement.
Thursday's UN meeting will take place exactly one week before the five permanent
members of the Security Council -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain,
and France -- plus Germany are due to meet with Iran's top nuclear negotiator in
It will be the latest attempt by the international community to get Iran to halt
its uranium-enrichment program, which they suspect is aimed at producing nuclear
weapons. Tehran insists its nuclear program only exists to generate electricity.
The ongoing tug of war has taken on added urgency with last week's release of a
report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that says Iran now has
enough knowledge to make a nuclear warhead and had already tested one component
of such a device.
If the October 1 meeting fails to produce a breakthrough, as most observers say
it will, the next step will likely be a multilateral sanctions program by the
Security Council. In the past, Russia has blocked or watered down such attempts.
But Obama's decision last week to scrub the Bush administration's plan for a
missile-defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic was welcomed by
Russia, which from the start has viewed the plan as a hostile move against it.
Speculation is high that if another round of sanctions is initiated against Iran
following the October 1 meeting, Russia may have fewer objections.
Obama himself has hinted at that possibility. In a statement issued shortly
after the new missile policy was announced, he said: "We welcome Russia's
cooperation to bring its missile-defense capabilities into a broader defense of
our common strategic interests, even as we continue...our shared efforts to end
Iran's illicit nuclear program."
Copyright (c) 2009 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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