By Ramesh Jaura
Despite protests by Republican congressional leaders and the heads of Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, President Barack Obama is garnering wide support for his reported plan to implement at least a part of his cherished nuclear agenda through a series of executive actions during the next months before leaving the White House.
None of the executive options Obama is considering require formal congressional approval. In fact, all of those actions would “fall under his executive authority as commander-in-chief”, says David Krieger, president of the Washington-based Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NPF).
Krieger is one of the nuclear disarmament pundits whose views IDN solicited in the aftermath of a report in the Washington Post on July 10, which said that executive options Obama is considering, include declaring a “no first use” policy for the United States nuclear arsenal and a UN Security Council resolution affirming a ban on the testing of nuclear weapons as envisaged by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
Obama is also pondering to offer to Russia a five-year extension of the New START treaty’s limits on deployed nuclear weapons, a delay on development of a new nuclear cruise missile, called the Long-Range Stand-Off weapon, and cutting back long-term plans for modernizing the nation’s nuclear arsenal, which the Congressional Budget Office reports will cost about $350 billion over the next decade.
The fact that Obama is considering such executive moves was revealed by his deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes in remarks to the Arms Control Association on June 6. He said that the president “will continue to review whether there are additional steps that can be taken to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our own strategies and to reduce the risk of inadvertent use”.
Such steps would not only result in implementing an important element of the nuclear policy agenda Obama spelled out in his April 2009 Prague speech, nuclear disarmament experts say. These would also go a long way in moving ahead on the Universal Declaration for the Achievement of a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2015 – at the initiative of Kazakhstan.
Among those whose opinions IDN sought on Obama’s plan are Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the the Arms Control Association (ACA), also based in Washington; Xanthe Hall, co-director of the German affiliate of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and a member of the board of ICAN Germany; and Alyn Ware, Global Coordinator of the Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (PNND).
Since President Obama is a staunch supporter of the entry into force of the global ban on nuclear testing, IDN also requested comment by Dr. Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) based in Vienna.
In an interview, Dr. Zerbo welcomed the strong support shown to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and the CTBTO by President Obama and his administration, adding: “I am grateful for his efforts.” Senior U.S. officials, including Undersecretary Rose Gottemoeller, had stated that the United States is considering “ways to affirm the international norm against nuclear testing”, he said.
Need to finish the ‘unfinished business’
“I also believe that any step reaffirming not just the United States’ commitment to a nuclear test ban, but that of the international community is a step in the right direction, and a resolution by the Security Council would clearly send a strong signal,” affirmed Dr. Zerbo.
“Nevertheless, we should not allow this to divert our attention from the real unfinished business: the fact that we have a Treaty which is operational, yet still not in force, after 20 years,” he pointed out.
“A Security Council resolution might be a good thing, but what really counts is the ratification of the remaining eight countries,” the CTBTO executive secretary stressed.
Dr. Zerbo’s concern is explicable. As Arms Control Association’s executive director Kimball noted, “the door to further nuclear testing remains open, in large part because of the U.S. Senate’s highly partisan and rushed vote to reject ratification of the treaty in 1999 and the United States’ failure to reconsider the treaty in the 16 years since”.
According to Kimball, “U.S. inaction has, in turn, given the leaders of the seven other states (China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan) that must ratify the CTBT for its entry into force an excuse for delay.”
However, he believes that a Security Council resolution focused on nuclear testing and the CTBT, especially if pursued in combination with a parallel UN General Assembly resolution, would be in the interest of all but perhaps one nuclear-armed state (North Korea) and all of the nonnuclear weapon states.
“This initiative would be entirely consistent with the letter and spirit of the Treaty. It would also help guard against the danger of treaty fatigue, including the possibility of the slow erosion of support for the CTBTO, including the maintenance and effective operation of the IMS and the IDC,” Kimball referred to his remarks at an event in Washington.
IMS is CTBTO’s coveted International Monitoring System which, when complete, will consist of 337 facilities worldwide to monitor the planet for signs of nuclear explosions. Around 90 percent of the facilities are already up and running.
IDC is the International Data Centre at the CTBTO’s headquarters in Vienna, which receives gigabytes of data from the global monitoring stations. The data are processed and distributed to the CTBTO’s Member States in both raw and analyzed form.
Not binding on a successor, but . . .
IDN asked whether the executive actions Obama plans and is being asked to take would be binding for his successor?
“Unfortunately, they would not be binding on his successor. He would have to make a strong case for the policy changes with the American people in order for the people to put pressure on his successor to maintain such policies,” said Nuclear Age Peace Foundation president Krieger. “In fact some of the policies might be challenged in the courts.”
Nevertheless, he said in an e-mailed comment: “I consider it very positive news that President Obama is considering making major changes to U.S. nuclear policy by executive action in his final months in office.”
He added: “At the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, we have urged President Obama to make the following changes in U.S. nuclear policy: Declare a No First Use policy; Eliminate launch-on-warning; De-alert the US nuclear arsenal; Remove US nuclear weapons from foreign soil; Eliminate land-based nuclear weapons; Zero-out funding for modernizing the US nuclear arsenal; Convene the nine nuclear-armed countries to commence good faith negotiations for total nuclear disarmament.”
Krieger added: “Were the president to take these bold actions, he would be demonstrating true leadership in the interests of all humanity and placing the world on a path to nuclear zero within his lifetime.”
IPPNW Germany’s Xanthe Hall said: “If the future President of the United States has an ounce of sense, she or he should welcome such policy changes.” As far as Donald Trump is concerned, she said, it remains to be seen what he would do when in power.
“He is highly unpredictable. However, other unpredictable Republican Presidents have successfully advanced nuclear disarmament in the past,” Hall recalled.
“It is always much harder for a Democrat to change nuclear weapons doctrine, but Obama should try. Both no-first-use and de-alerting would be major shifts in deterrence thinking and make the world a much safer place.”
She added: “As for Hillary Clinton, she has the added problem of being a woman who has to prove that she is able to make military decisions. Why this should be questioned is beyond me, but it is.”
However, it is unheard of that a Democratic President would revoke policy from a previous Democrat President. “So if Obama was to introduce these changes, she is unlikely to change them should she become President, but she might kick up a fuss beforehand to show strength,” IPPNW Germany’s Hall argued.
She believes that on the whole, it might be easier to make doctrinal changes than to cancel nuclear weapons programmes that involve large contracts and have a huge lobby. Executive actions would not directly affect the massive modernization programme that is underway in the U.S.
“But – if unilateral – they may act as a confidence-building measure towards Russia because they would reduce threat levels substantially. However, if they were indeed implemented unilaterally then many politicians in the U.S. may feel that it would make them more vulnerable,” Hall pointed out.
“At this stage, I think it is unlikely that Vladimir Putin would agree to also implement no-first-use and de-alerting in Russia, but it would be worth approaching him with the idea,” Halle added.
A fundamental shift
Commenting on executive action on a no-first use policy, PNND Coordinator for France, Jean-Marie Collin said: “If adopted, this would be a fundamental shift in policy and a monumental step toward a nuclear-weapon-free world. It could re-start the stalled nuclear reduction talks with Russia, and kick-start pluri-lateral negotiations, i.e. amongst the P5 (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States) along with India and Pakistan.”
P5 are five permanent members of the Security Council which also has 10 additional members elected by rotation each for a period of two years.
“Pluri-lateral nuclear disarmament measures are unlikely to take place if nuclear doctrines continue to include the option of first-use of nuclear weapons,” PNND Global Coordinator Alyn Ware stated.
“Such doctrines imply that these weapons will continue to be required to meet a range of threats including from conventional, chemical or biological weapons,” Ware noted. However, he said, if the purpose of nuclear weapons is changed to one of providing deterrence only against the nuclear weapons of a potential enemy, then nuclear disarmament becomes possible, as long as it can be verified.
“More simply put,” he explained, “if nukes are to deter all sorts of evil, regardless of whether or not they are effective against such threats, then we will hold onto nukes as long as there is evil in the world. But if nukes are just to deter other nukes, then we can work to eliminate the nukes together, jointly removing the reason for keeping nukes.”
President Obama made a commitment in his 2010 Nuclear Posture Review to achieve ‘sole-purpose’ deployment, i.e. that the only purpose for nuclear weapons would be to deter other nuclear weapons. “This is very similar to a no-first-use policy. India and China already have no-first-use policies, but this has so far not motivated the other nuclear-armed States to follow suit,” Ware argues.
Ware and Collin believe that if the U.S. adopted a no-first-use policy it would be a significant signal to Russia of U.S. good faith and could move Moscow to re-subscribe to no-first-use, a policy it held until 1993.
“In addition, the United Kingdom and France have both come under pressure from their parliaments to respond to the humanitarian initiative, which highlights the catastrophic impact of any use of nuclear weapons. Adopting a no-first-use policy is a confidence-building step they could take in response. However, they would be unlikely to do this alone,” says Collin.
The latest gesture of support for Obama comes from U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey, co-president of the Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (PNND). He and nine other senators sent a letter to President Obama on July 20 calling on him to cancel ‘launch-on-warning’, adopt a ‘no-first-use’ policy, and scale back the excessive nuclear weapons modernization program.
The senators note that during his visit to Hiroshima on May 27 – the first by a sitting U.S. President 71 years after the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on the two Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki – he called on nations that possess nuclear weapons to “have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them”.
Also Arms Control Association’s Daryl G. Kimball staunchly supports a no-first-use policy. “One very important step would be for Obama to declare that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons. Such a decision could unwind dangerous Cold War-era thinking and greatly strengthen U.S. and global security,” he wrote in an article published June 30 on the Association’s website.
Kimball argues: “By adopting a no-first-use policy, the United States could positively influence the nuclear doctrines of other nuclear-armed states, particularly in Asia. Such a shift in U.S. declaratory policy could also alleviate concerns that U.S. ballistic missile defenses might be used to negate the retaliatory potential of China and Russia following a pre-emptive U.S. nuclear attack against their strategic forces.”
Kimball refers to remarks delivered in Hiroshima by President Obama on May 27, 2016 in which he declared that “among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them”. He adds: “Yes, we must.”
“We must” because a U.S. no-first-use policy would reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe, improve the prospects for further Russian nuclear cuts, and draw China into the nuclear risk reduction process.
Further: “It would put a spotlight on the dangerous nuclear doctrines of Pakistan and North Korea, where the risk of nuclear weapons use is perhaps most severe, and challenge them to reconsider the first-use option,” says Kimball.
“By encouraging a new norm against first-use of nuclear weapons, Obama could help ensure, for this generation and those to come, that nuclear weapons are never used again,” says the Arms Control Association’s executive director Kimball.