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The Illogic of START

Gabriel Schoenfeld

On March 26, President Obama announced that the United States had reached a new strategic arms agreement with Russia. He explained that the new nuclear-arms treaty strengthens “our global efforts to stop the spread of these weapons, and to ensure that other nations meet their own responsibilities.”

The timing of the Russian-American agreement, and Obama’s urgency in signing it next week in Prague, is directly linked to these global efforts. For come this May, nuclear non-proliferation will be the subject of a major international conference—a review of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—at which the new treaty will be held up for all to emulate.

And not only to emulate. The Obama administration believes that the NPT mandates that we take steps toward a world without nuclear weapons. “The basic bargain,” of the NPT, Obama declared a year ago in Prague, “is sound: Countries with nuclear weapons will move towards disarmament, countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them.”

But the NPT has been in place for more than four decades. Has this bargain been kept? Here, by the Obama administration’s own remarkable accounting to the United Nations, is what the United States has done over the last several decades under Democratic and Republican presidents alike:

the United States has made extraordinary progress in reducing its stockpile of nuclear weapons, strategic delivery systems, fissile materials for weapons and the associated infrastructure. Reductions are continuing on all fronts. . . .

. . .[S]ince 1988, the United States has dismantled more than 13,000 nuclear warheads. The United States reduced its total stockpile by one half between 2004 and 2007 and has committed to continued reductions. . . . In 1991, the United States operationally deployed approximately 10,000 warheads. As of 2002, that number had dropped to approximately 6,000, and, as at 31 December 2008, the total was 2,246 . . . The United States has dismantled more than 3,000 non-strategic nuclear weapons and reduced non-strategic weapons deployed in support of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Europe by more than 90 per cent from cold war totals. In addition, the United States has removed all non-strategic nuclear weapons from surface ships and naval aircraft. It has withdrawn from Europe and dismantled all nuclear artillery shells, Lance missile warheads and naval nuclear depth bombs. . .

. . .[T]he United States continues to reduce its nuclear weapon types. The United States cancelled a number of its warhead development programmes at the end of the cold war, including the W-89 and W-91 nuclear missile warheads and the B-90 nuclear bomb. Overall, the United States has retired and eliminated all but eight nuclear weapon types from more than 100 designs that existed at the height of the cold war. Since 1992, 13 different nuclear weapon types have been retired and eliminated, including the last nuclear artillery shell design in the stockpile, the W-79, in 2003, and the W-56 warhead for the Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile, in June 2006.

. . . To date, the United States has retired more than 1,000 strategic missiles, 350 heavy bombers, 28 ballistic submarines and 450 intercontinental ballistic missile silos. The United States recently removed four modern Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines from strategic service, carrying a total of 96 Trident C-4 ballistic missiles, and is eliminating an entire nuclear weapon delivery system known as the Advanced Cruise Missile.

. . .[T]he United States ceased uranium enrichment for weapons purposes in 1964 and plutonium production in 1988, and has no plans to resume either. . . . The United States has declared more than 374 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and 61.5 tons of plutonium excess to defence needs and removed the material from defence stocks. . . . To date, the United States has down-blended nearly 110 tons of excess HEU into low-enriched uranium (LEU) and has prepared approximately 12 more tons for down-blending.

And so forth and so on.

This is a formidable record and it raises a question of cardinal importance: Has the rest of the world kept its side of the NPT bargain? The answer is a resounding no. We stand today on the edge of the abyss of a new round of nuclear proliferation.  In defiance of the NPT, North Korea has already tested nuclear devices. In defiance of the NPT, Iran is racing forward in the same direction. In permitting this to occur, the signatory states of the NPT have demonstrated a complete and total abdication of their basic responsibilities.

But none of this is enough to change minds. What we find instead is continued calls for the U.S. to disarm, as if the only thing driving nuclear proliferation is our failure to set an example. Here, for instance, is Strobe Talbott, Bill Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, explaining why Obama’s new START treaty is so important: “By demonstrating U.S. commitment to reduce its nuclear forces, it bolsters Washington’s credibility as it seeks to strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime at the NPT review conference in May.” A successful conference, continues Mr. Talbott, “puts greater impediments on the proliferation path that other nuclear aspirants might seek to follow.”

Hillary Clinton had drunk deeply from this particular gourd. The START treaty, she says, “shows the world—particularly states like Iran and North Korea—that one of our top priorities is to strengthen the global non-proliferation regime and keep nuclear materials out of the wrong hands.”

“Words must mean something,” Barack Obama said memorably last year in Prague.  Lewis Carroll has offered a far more memorable variation of that phrase:

When__ I __use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said . . . it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you__ can __make words mean so many different things.’

The real “impediment” to nuclear proliferation is not the existence of U.S. forces. And a “successful conference” is not going to block tyrants who seek the most destructive weapons known to man—except, of course, by Humpty Dumpty’s definition of “successful.” Arms control is a looking-glass world in which words mean nothing at all, and neither do facts, especially when they are disturbing.

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