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.

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.

Only those few little issues involved the stubborn problems of inspection and verification, and the Polish concession hadn't made a difference because now the Russians wanted the right to inspect the sea-based missiles that were to be substituted for the Polish interceptors and the Americans were having some problems with that, too. They didn't want any ballistic missile defense, or BMD, restrictions. The American negotiators knew that any concession that restricted BMD was anathema to the GOP, and would likely kill hopes of any treaty ratification by the two-thirds majority necessary. (No "nuclear option" for the nuclear option, so to speak.) Can you say "stalemate"?

And then out of the blue we learned that the Obama Pentagon was announcing last week that it was going to be installing interceptor missiles in Romania, of all places.

When the Russians protested, the Pentagon explained that the Romanian interceptors would only have a range of 900 kilometers and could not reach Russia's borders, which—surprise—the Russians did not find very reassuring.

Indeed, the timing and substance of the Romanian announcement may go down in nuclear history, should anyone be alive to write it, as the single stupidest act in the entire negotiation process and will perhaps sound the death knell for Obama's dream of Zero. Or, at least, stop the START follow-on.

Didn't it occur to someone in the Pentagon that the whole idea of missile bases of any kind and missiles of any range in Eastern Europe was anathema to the Russians? Having lost tens of millions of people to Hitler's panzers last century in that neighborhood, they turned out to be still touchy. Imagine!

In my August Slate piece, I had argued that Obama needed a "Zero czar" if he were to whip the entrenched nuclear establishment into line behind his dream of Zero. A zero czar might have averted the potentially fatal Romanian mistake.

Meanwhile, I was informed that "sources" in Washington were spinning or being spun by the idea that a speech by Joe Biden would change everything. (As if!) Biden's speech, the word was, would give the Republicans in the Senate more reason to vote to ratify a treaty (that had, needless to say, still not been signed and looked like it never would) by giving the Republicans nuclear "goodies" they wanted such as renewal of the "infrastructure" of our bomb-making capacity. And, indeed, Biden made a speech in which he trumpeted a puny 10 percent increase ($624 million) for renewing the physical and intellectual infrastructure of our nuclear capacity, but not the grail of the GOP, the "Reliable Replacement Warhead," a new generation of high-tech nuclear warheads they'd been lobbying for unsuccessfully since the beginning of the Bush administration.

The Biden speech was widely ignored, except for those arms-control advocates, like James Acton, who told me it epitomized a recurrent flaw in the Obama administration's negotiating strategy—both with the Russians and the GOP—that was to give pre-emptive concessions (like Poland, like "infrastructure") in bargaining which the other side would then pocket and then ask for more.

Still, the negotiators and their spinners tried to crank up the START follow-on optimism. On March 2, those of us who followed the global security newswire were told there is new hope!

Russian Leader Optimistic on START Progress

Russia and the United States are "close to agreement on practically all questions" over a pending successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expired in December, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said yesterday... Medvedev... suggested his nation and the United States could soon reach agreement on a successor to a key Cold War-era nuclear arms control treaty...

"In essence, we have reached the final part of negotiations," Reuters quoted Medvedev as saying. "I hope these negotiations will be finished in the very near future."

Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama pledged last July to cut their nations' respective strategic arsenals to between 1,500 and 1,675 deployed nuclear warheads under the new treaty. Negotiators have reportedly also agreed to reduce each state's arsenal of nuclear delivery vehicles — missiles, submarines and bombers — to between 700 and 800, down from the 1,100-vehicle limit set by the leaders.

After wrapping up a one-month negotiation session Saturday, Russian and U.S. officials plan to reconvene March 9 in Geneva, Switzerland, "with the aim of finalizing the future treaty and presenting it for signing by the presidents of Russia and the United States," the Russian Foreign Ministry stated yesterday (Denis Dyomkin, Reuters, March 1).

Oh, Dmitry, stop being a tease! I'm beginning to wonder whether the whole thing has been a con game to make the United States look foolish. He "hopes" the negotiations will be completed in the "very near future." Just like they were going to be completed in several "very near futures" past. But now we've reached "the final part." But, wait, I thought we'd already gotten there, "95 percent" of the way two months ago. But two months of intense negotiations had failed to close that 5 percent gap?

In other words, minus the bogus spin, the first round of the Geneva negotiations have been a failure, and there's no reason to believe the next round, which has the "aim of finalizing the treaty" when the negotiators reconvene March 9 in Geneva, will do any better. Not after all the false hope and groundless optimism they've been feeding us since July '09. Now we're told further negotiations aim to wind up in April and present the treaty to the presidents of the United States and Russia sometime in May. Well, maybe it will happen. Keep hope alive and all that.

But the next GSN report—and the last one as I write (I have to kick my addiction to this charade at some point, but since I am working on a book about the new nuclear age, it's hard not to chronicle the slow-motion car wreck)—was dated March 3 and we learned that all the optimistic bonhomie actually concealed something "tough," and, worse, there were "niggling details" to be resolved: "Work on the pact has been 'very tough,' but 'I think we can do it,' said a U.S. official familiar with the talks," according to the GSN report. "The nations remained divided over terms for monitoring compliance with the pact, such as the use of audits to check the other side's nuclear-armed missiles, the official said. 'There are still some niggling technical details,' the source said."

As any student of negotiations knows, when you get to the point where you've spent a year haggling over "niggling details," the details are not "niggling."

What has gone wrong? Who's to blame? Is it zero hour for Zero or is Zero already dead?

I had a fascinating conversation with Carnegie's James Acton about these questions and the speculations that surround them. One theory going the rounds, he said, is that Vladimir Putin doesn't want to let Dmitry Medvedev to cover himself in worldwide glory (and thus bolster his stature viz-à-viz Vlad within Russia) by getting a nuclear treaty signed. And so Putin has allowed his minions among the Russian negotiators to raise objection after objection to the treaty. Almost all of them focusing on ballistic missile defense, which, ever since Star Wars, makes the Russians go ballistic.

Meanwhile, U.S. negotiators have made any incorporation of restraints on BMD a no-go area for negotiations, believing that any such restrictions would condemn a treaty to death in the Senate. In other words, they've capitulated to the Republicans pre-emptively on what could be a more ambitious treaty. Acton said what could not be known is just how substantive the differences were. If they were indeed "niggling details," Obama and Medvedev might step in and resolve them at the last minute. But if they involved ballistic missile defense, the problems might be insoluble.

When I asked Acton whether there was anything Obama could to break the logjam, he said he wasn't sure—the delay might turn out to be a symptom of what veteran arms control negotiators had told him was a Russian negotiating tactic: make concessions along the way and then just as it looked as if agreement could be reached, "put everything back on the table."

"Meaning?" I asked.

Take back the concessions and see what else you can extract from the pressure of what seems like proximity to finality.

Proximity to finality. Zero always was a long-term dream. But the first step has been so agonizingly difficult, it begins to seem less like a dream and more like an ever tantalizing, never approachable delusion.

Alas, "proximity to finality" may be the epitaph for the START Treaty, for Zero, for the prospects of avoiding a nuclear cataclysm. Proximity to finality, yes. Zero may be stopped in its tracks before it could get STARTed.

I would argue there is one thing Obama could do. Recognize that this is at least as important as health care in terms of the urgency with which he treats it. And that he has to get involved personally and politically. He has to find out whether the Russians are serious, whether the Pentagon is sabotaging him, whether there's any hope left. He has to realize that a nuclear war would be a rather substantial health care crisis, for instance, if he wants to put it in that framework. Recognize that this is truly the way he could make a mark on history unlike that of any previous president. And if he won't follow my advice and appoint a Zero czar, at this very late hour, he should become the Zero czar himself.

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