Discussing nuclear weapons control is never superficial
The Nuclear Summit in Washington concluded April 1 with a formal statement underscoring nuclear weapons control. These are particularly horrific weapons of mass destruction. Press commentary dismissing the exercise as just another diplomats’ talkfest is misleading.
The meeting called attention to the important, tangible United Nations framework to coordinate national efforts regarding the threat of nuclear terrorism. Specifically, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540, passed in 2004, and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT) provide a legal foundation for action, and facilitate cooperation.
Nuclear Summits have been held since 2010. Holding the 2016 meeting in the U.S. capital is especially important, given the uninformed — and at times stunningly reckless and immature — rhetoric from some U.S. presidential candidates in our troubled election year.
Unfortunately, Russia did not participate. This reflects disagreements regarding annexation of Crimea, support of Ukraine separatists and the Syria government, and other matters. Russia gives high priority to nuclear threats.
President Barack Obama has consistently urged cuts in nuclear weapons. He made the point in Prague in April 2009, and advocated abolition of nuclear weapons in a Berlin speech in 2013. Europe as location provided a dramatic and also calculated backdrop. In 2009 the U.S. was planning to deploy an antimissile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland. During the Cold War, Czechoslovakia challenged Moscow’s regional rule, leading to a brutal crackdown in 1968. In 1938, the nation was an early victim of Nazi aggression.
During the 1986 Soviet-U.S. summit in Iceland, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev surprised their staffs as well as the world at large by pledging themselves to the abolition of all nuclear weapons. Later, President Bill Clinton supported the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which has been ratified by a number of our allies and other nations. The U.S. has not detonated nuclear weapons since 1992.
Professor Lawrence S. Wittner of the State University of New York, a prolific author on disarmament, argued that Obama’s timing in 2009 was good in terms of both public and leadership opinion but emphasized the difficulty of successful arms negotiations. In fact, in 2010 a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the U.S. and Russia was signed in Prague. The U.S. Senate confirmed the treaty 71 to 26.
Reductions are desirable, but efforts to outlaw all nuclear weapons are fundamentally flawed. Destroying all known nuclear weapons would provide a decisive advantage to any power that decided — openly or secretly — to hold back even a few. Verification remains vexing.
After the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 and Moscow’s withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Cuba, President John F. Kennedy’s political standing rose considerably. During the Christmas season, JFK held a televised discussion with network correspondents. He referred to a world that would soon be populated with a number of nuclear powers.
In fact, proliferation has moved much more slowly than anticipated. Many nations, including close ally Canada, have decided that any conceivable benefits are simply not worth the expense and risks. North Korea today provides the principal nuclear threat.
Additionally, the International Atomic Energy Agency, an initiative of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, facilitates peaceful nuclear energy and provides a long-term drag on military pressures to get the Bomb. Ike understood realities.
That today’s nuclear threats emanate more from groups than from nations represents progress.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War.”