The dead end of Obama's no-nukes dream?

Scrutinizing culture.
March 8 2010 5:19 PM

Zero Hour for Zero

Will the START treaty be the dead end of Obama's no-nukes dream?

Are we really close to Zero?
Are we really close to Zero?

Remember Zero? As in zero nukes, Obama's dream. The dream of "a world without nuclear weapons." The path he sought to start us down in his famous (and probably Nobel-winning) Prague speech in April 2009. The speech in which he seemed consciously to echo Martin Luther King when he said that we might not get there "in my lifetime" but that we must set forth on the path. Thereby construing nuclear abolition as something akin to the abolition of human bondage, freeing us from the plutonium shackles of annihilating weaponry the way the original abolitionists ultimately succeeded in cutting the shackles of slavery.

I remember it. I remember the Prague speech. I remember the joint Moscow press conference in July, held by Obama and Russian President Medvedev, in which they both agreed on the goal of a nuclear-free world and signed onto the first step to Zero: a renewal or "follow-on" to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that would sharply cut the number of deployed and operational nuclear warheads to "between 1,500 and 1,675 warheads, down from the 2,200-weapon limit the states are required to meet by 2012 under another treaty." "The leaders also pledged to restrict strategic delivery vehicles [i.e., missiles, subs, and bombers] on each side to between 500 and 1,100," according to the Global Security Newswire, a clearinghouse for nuclear-arms information.

I remember those numbers; it is often forgotten that, despite dramatic post-Cold War reductions, the superpowers still possess sufficient nuclear warheads to destroy civilization, if not the species itself. (For one thing, those numbers don't count the nondeployed warheads and those in the hands of other nations; one estimate of the total number of those, worldwide, is 23,000.)

I remember how much closer to Zero they seemed, those new numbers being negotiated. And yet how far away they've turned out to be. That first step, the renewal or renegotiation of a "follow-on" to the START Treaty—which was set to expire on Dec. 5, 2009—has stalled despite repeated assurances that all was going well. Indeed, over the months since that original announcement, the related failures to meet deadlines have made the negotiations begin to look like a tragic farce whose fate is seeming ever more grim as the weeks and months pass without a resolution of the constantly cropping up "niggling problems" that have prevented agreement.

Yet I remember the U.S. and Russian presidents and their chief negotiators exuding confidence last July that the Dec. 5 goal would be reached, no problem. Just a few details to iron out. And then, as Dec. 5 crept up, more little problems began to appear, and still they reassured us there was really no insurmountable difficulty, and, besides, if they missed the Dec. 5 deadline by a little bit, they'd just agree to a stop-gap extension of the current START treaty with all its provisions for inspection and verification of arms limitation intact.

And I remember how everyone said that Obama's cancellation of the Bush administration proposal to deploy ballistic-missile defense interceptors in Poland—if not on actual Russian soil but close enough to make them crazy—would ease the way to a friendlier climate, more conducive to concluding the START treaty and for walking hand-in-hand down the path toward the nuclear-free sunset beyond the START follow-on. The "follow-on to the follow-on," as it came to be known. The yellow brick road to Zero.

It was just a matter of shifting those interceptors (supposedly designed to protect Europe from Iranian missiles—but try telling the Russians that) to ship-based platforms in the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean. That would eliminate the problem, we were told.

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But I also remember having some misgivings as to whether the nuclear industrial complex and its allies in the Pentagon were really all onboard with the Zero goal, as I reported on in Slate after watching them gather in Omaha, Neb. Our nuclear commanders at Omaha's STRATCOM, the strategic command, had assembled a massive show of force of the civilian and military nuclear elite, most of whom delivered talks that treated Zero dismissively and even raised questions about the START follow-on's goal of a radical reductions in nukes—an implicit rebuke to their commander in chief.

And then I remember the sudden chilling dispatch from the Global Security Newswire (a subsidiary of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an NGO formed by Sen. Sam Nunn and Ted Turner) on Dec. 3, 2009:

New Arms-Control Pact Unlikely Before START Expires, Officials Say

Despite "tense, intense and substantive" negotiations taking place "practically around the clock," according to one Russian lawmaker, the sides remain notably divided over arrangements for verifying compliance with the new agreement.

Russian military officials and foreign policy planners have pushed to restrain monitoring terms they said were too invasive under the 1991 treaty.

"Russia is not interested in having the same scope of verification procedures that were in the earlier treaty. There is this conclusion that these measures were too much, and too extensive," said Anton Khlopkov, head of the Moscow-based Center for Energy and Security Studies.

One White House official said a final deal is "not going to happen" by next week, when Obama is expected to receive the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. "We are working this hard, but it will only get done if it is a good agreement that advances our national interests," the source said. ...

"The (new) agreement will not be signed on Saturday, but there is a possibility that it could be signed as early as mid-December," RIA Novosti quoted Alexei Arbatov, head of the Center for International Security Studies in Moscow, as saying.

Not quite Alexei, three months later and the talk is of May, maybe.

But then I remembered how, we'd been told that if the Dec. 5 expiration loomed, the negotiators had agreed to a no-conditions extension of START. And I remember how Dec. 5 came and went and there was no agreement, and I remember also how there was no formal extension and just vague assents to continuation. And no treaty ready for signing on Dec. 10 the day Obama received the Nobel Peace prize, a prize that specifically cited his goal of a nuclear-free world (and was probably the rationale for his winning it).

And I remember the photos of the American inspection team whose job it was (under the lapsed START Treaty) to sit outside a Russian missile factory and count the number of big and tall cylindrical objects that came out the doors. And how one day they were photographed happily picnicking together in front of the missile plant and the next ejected from Russia because the treaty they were monitoring was longer in effect. According to what James Acton, an arms-control expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, disclosed to me, their departure was a secret pre-emptive concession by the United States to get the START treaty ratified by expiration time. But that didn't quite work out, did it?

Now any future inspection and verification counting of nukes will be complicated by the gap in continuity of inspection surveillance, but it was no big deal, we were told; the two parties were "very close."

But after the New Year, once again we began to hear optimistic pronouncements. In January of this year, Russian President Medvedev was telling the world not to worry; we were "95 percent" there, just a few little issues to be ironed out.

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