The START Treaty and US Disarmament Discourse

That new treaty did little to reduce nuclear armaments.
So what should we do next?

By Andrew Lichterman | 2011-04-01 13:00:00

In the United States, what public discussion there was in 2010 about nuclear disarmament centred on the new US-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The treaty, however, did little to reduce nuclear armaments. It changed warhead counting rules to allow both the US and Russia to make minimal changes in their nuclear deployments while claiming more significant reductions in numbers. Further, the package of political commitments and conditions extracted by Senate allies of the military-industrial complex are designed to ensure that the US will be able to sustain a nuclear arsenal of world-destroying size for many decades, and to continue strategic weapons development on other fronts as well.

Professional Pragmatism

A striking aspect of the affair was the absence of debate in the US “arms control and disarmament community” about whether the START package as a whole rep- resented disarmament progress, given the massive political and economic reinforcement provided by the Obama administration’s commitments to the actual institutions that must be disarmed. This likely was the consequence of the kind of vote counting and assessment of relative interest-group power that passes for “pragmatism” among the professionals who dominate the upper reaches of both the political and nongovernmental organization (NGO) worlds. Disarmament NGOs in this regard are little different from those that focus on other issues.

This predominance of a cautious professionalism that sees the limits of the politically possible as what those who hold power are willing to give, however, manifests a weak civil society that has lost the essential nourishment of a social movement base. Pushing a treaty whose disarmament benefits required a professional eye to perceive (and perhaps to believe), together with silent acceptance of sweeping plans to rebuild and replace both nuclear weapons systems and arms factories sufficient to sustain a very large nuclear arsenal into the middle of this century, did nothing to make disarmament movements stronger.

The new START treaty was designed to change nuclear weapons deployments little, and to limit the development and deployment of other strategically relevant weapons systems even less. Mainstream arms control groups admit that the new START limits mainly changed the counting rules, allowing both the US and Russia to continue to deploy about the same number of nuclear warheads as had been permissible under the Bush-era SORT treaty. As Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists pointed out, “while the treaty reduces the legal limit for deployed strategic warheads, it doesn’t actually reduce the number of warheads. Indeed, the treaty does not require destruction of a single nuclear warhead and actually permits the United States and Russia to deploy almost the same number of strategic warheads that were permitted by the 2002 Moscow Treaty.” The treaty places no limitation on modernization of nuclear arms, providing explicitly that “modernization and replacement of strategic offensive arms may be carried out.” Regarding missile defence, as the Arms Control Association noted in an issue brief supporting START, “New START is a missile defence-friendly treaty. It does not constrain US missile defense plans in any way.” New START also leaves US “global strike” programs for delivery of conventional weapons with global range untouched.

The Obama administration tried to preempt the inevitable demands for increased nuclear weapons funding in exchange for new START even before the treaty had been negotiated. The Administration’s February 2010 budget request for the 2011 fiscal year proposed an increase of almost 10 percent for Department of Energy nuclear weapons programs, and continuing increases over five years. By May, the administration had committed to budgeting a total of $180 billion over the next ten years for nuclear warheads and delivery systems, an amount that would assure significant increases over previously projected spending. The increases were of sufficient size that Linton Brooks, head of the US National Nuclear Security Administration under President Bush, observed that “I’d have killed for that budget.”

Facing significant Republican gains in the Senate, the Obama administration continued to up the ante, anxious to obtain consent to START before the seating of an even more hostile Senate in 2011. In November the administration promised billions of dollars in additional increases for the weapons complex, while reiterating its “extraordinary commitment to ensure the modernization of our nuclear infrastructure.” Fearing tighter budget times ahead, the Senate negotiators on behalf of the weapons complex sought to accelerate spending on major projects like the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility (CMRR) in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Given its weak limits on weapons deployment, START was promoted by its advocates in the arms control and disarmament community for its verification provisions and as a first step towards further rounds of reductions. The verification provisions such as on-site inspections, while not without value, are considerably less important than they were during the Cold War, as neither Russia nor the United States are currently engaged in large-scale nuclear weapons production and frequent rollouts of new delivery systems. With satellite surveillance and other intelligence gathering means, there is little reason to believe that any verification crisis or “yawning gap in the collection of strategic information” exists.

Not deterrence but escalation

Perhaps the strongest argument for the treaty was that it provides a first step for going forward with further US-Russia bilateral reductions. If one goes beyond the disarmament rhetoric of the Obama administration, however, prospects for significant US reductions below proposed new START levels (which really means below current deployments) are debatable. Although US officials use the language of “deterrence” in their public statements, the actual policy of the US government is to pursue escalation dominance at all levels of warfare, with the world’s most powerful conventional forces operating worldwide under the “umbrella” of nuclear forces of sufficient size and flexibility to threaten everything from credible use of small numbers of nuclear weapons up to societal annihilation. So long as that policy prevails, “reductions” in the US arsenal are likely to be of the new START variety—largely cosmetic, and leaving unchanged the fundamental danger that a nuclear arsenal of civilization-destroying size represents. Nor are other nuclear-armed states which see themselves as potential adversaries of the US likely to give up their nuclear weapons so long as the US, with by far the most powerful conventional forces, continues to pursue global military dominance.

All sides claimed victory once the START deal was done and the treaty ratified. The Obama administration had another “win” that it could spin for a few news cycles, together with another formal marker of disarmament “progress” to raise as a shield in debates in other treaty forums and at the UN. The weapons establishment and their Senate advocates walked away with a bundle of policy promises and $185 billion in budget commitments, allowing Bob Corker, Republican Senator from Tennessee (home of Oak Ridge National Laboratory) to claim that “the New START treaty could easily be called the ‘Nuclear Modernization and Missile Defense Act of 2010.’”

National arms control and disarmament groups painted START as disarmament progress in celebratory e-mail blasts—which they could do more easily because most had chosen not to inform their constituencies about the Devil’s bargain made for the “win.” Having decided not to make an issue of the budgetary and policy promises made by the administration, the NGOs were in no position to educate their constituencies about their meaning and likely effects, much less to offer a reasoned analysis of why the modest and in large part speculative disarmament gains the Treaty might offer were— or were not—worth their high price.

This approach did nothing to inform the public about US nuclear weapons policies and programs, or to provide people with reasons that they might want to oppose them. The failure of less militarist elements in the US Congress and most disarmament NGO’s to oppose the START bargain, or even to discuss its anti-disarmament aspects, also makes it more difficult to create effective opposition to the nuclear weapons establishment “on the ground,” in the regions where these immense and politically powerful institutions exist. When local opposition has played an effective role in stopping nuclear weapons facilities or deployments, it typically has done so by creating multi-issue coalitions that also gained the support of some local federal elected officials. The START bargain captured legislators in commitments to the weapons complex, including funding for facilities like the CMRR and the UPF that are being fought locally. Furthermore, the public was presented with a contradictory picture, with local disarmament groups attempting to block new or modernized weapons facilities, pro-treaty politicians and the mass media portraying nuclear weapons “modernization” as necessary for Senate consent to ratification, and national disarmament NGO’s insisting that the treaty is an urgent priority while saying nothing about the massive new spending on nuclear weapons facilities that is part of the package.

Congress Approves Budgets

The logic offered by some to reconcile this year’s opposition to the same funds Obama promised in exchange for START ratification with last year’s unconditional support of the deal is that Congress must approve a new budget every year, so such commitments always can be revisited. So far, however, all indications are that the Obama administration plans to follow through on its commitments to the weapons establishment. The President’s February 2011 budget request for the next fiscal year, calls for spending on such delivery systems as a new long-range bomber and a new ballistic missile submarine, as well as significant near-term spending increases for the UPF and CMRR, and for nuclear weapons programs overall.

The Cold War confrontation between the Western and East bloc nuclear powers was grounded in a distinctive set of antagonisms that now lies in the past. Many of those who do “disarmament work,” however, behave as though the only reason nuclear weapons ever existed was the Cold War and its particular dynamic. Two decades later, ruling elites in the majority of the world’s most powerful states still consider nuclear arsenals—although less immense and baroquely varied than Cold War arsenals—to be useful implements of state power. We are in a time of accelerating history, in which the fundamental drivers of conflict among the elites who control the most powerful states have re-emerged with new intensity: competition over key resources, growing political tension within states over wealth distribution, and general collapse of a prevailing “normal” order of international economic and political relationships. We have not seen a period like this since before the dawn of the nuclear age. We must consider the possibility that little real disarmament progress is likely to be achieved by inter-elite bargaining under these conditions.

This is Not the Cold War

If disarmament work is to remain relevant, we must focus on the relationship between the causes of the persistence of nuclear arsenals in a global conjuncture quite different from the Cold War, and the causes of the ills addressed by other struggles that are attempting to build a more fair and peaceful world amidst the quickening pace of overlapping global economic and ecological crises.

The path to the elimination of nuclear weapons likely runs not through attempts to lobby a government firmly in the grip of anti-democratic, interpenetrated state and corporate elites, but through the equivalent of many more Tahrir Squares, each closer to the places where the powers lie that sustain and are sustained by the existence of nuclear weapons.

The question we should ask ourselves is: how can we become a useful strand in the broader fabric of the movements needed to create the conditions that could make disarmament possible? I hope those who work for disarmament are willing to re-examine familiar ways of working in light of the evidence of crisis, of danger and perhaps of opportunity, that now is all around us.

Andrew Lichterman is a lawyer and peace activist living in Pleasant Hill, California. He is a member of the boards of the Oakland-based Western States Legal Foundation and the Albuquerque, New Mexico based Los Alamos Study Group. The opinions expressed here are his own.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2011

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2011, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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