On April 8, President Obama signed a nuclear arms treaty with the Russians, just two days after announcing revisions to U.S. nuclear arms policy, known as the Nuclear Posture Review. On April 12-13, the president hosts a nuclear security summit in Washington, D.C., with more than 40 heads of state. Then in May, delegates from nearly 200 countries will gather at the United Nations for a five-year review of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Jeremiah Sullivan, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois, has followed the politics and science of nuclear arms for decades as part of the university's Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security (ACDIS) and as part of the JASON Group, which provides science and technology analysis for the U.S. government on security and related matters. Sullivan was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
What explains all this attention to nuclear issues right now? How much are these events tied together?
The Obama Administration is now giving high-level attention to a long-neglected subject of enormous importance, namely what is the most effective way the U.S. can address the threats that nuclear weapons present to the safety and security of the United States, its allies, and humanity overall. Common threads run through all of these events.
The most threatening issue is the likelihood of further nuclear proliferation at the state level. In addition to the five nuclear weapon states defined in the NPT (the U.S., Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France), we also have three de facto nuclear weapons states, Israel, Pakistan and India, and the problematic states of North Korea and Iran, which appear to be on different courses of developing nuclear weapons and nuclear delivery systems.
The U.S. alone cannot reverse today's dangerous proliferation trend. It must work with other countries in non-proliferation initiatives. Moreover, it must continue to play a leadership role in UN and other international venues, especially in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The rising concern about terrorist non-state actors has further complicated the challenge. It is widely agreed that if a non-state actor acquired a nuclear weapon, the cold-war concept of deterrence would be meaningless. That concern has led many former U.S. military and state department officials to call for making global abolition of nuclear weapons the ultimate goal of arms control.
This utopian goal is frequently misunderstood. Numerous major changes will have to take place before the world will be close to eliminating nuclear weapons. No one alive today can expect to see that goal achieved in their lifetime. The value of making nuclear abolition the ultimate goal is that it gives a valuable check that policies or actions regarding nuclear weapons are going in the right direction.
None of the recent or upcoming events have anything to do with global nuclear abolition.
To the average person, "Nuclear Posture Review" can easily sound like a routine bureaucratic exercise. Why is it important?
Nuclear posture is the highest level of consideration of nuclear issues. Its primary function is to state why the U.S. needs to have nuclear weapons and under what circumstances the U.S. would use those weapons. It does not say how many nuclear weapons the U.S. should have, but it describes how the human science and technology of U.S. nuclear weapons will be retained, and how and the performance, safety, and surety of U.S. nuclear weapons will be maintained over time. Surprisingly, U.S. nuclear posture had changed little over the two decades since the Cold War era.
So what is significant this time around?
This new Nuclear Posture Review is truly a major achievement. An important element is the finding that the U.S. has no need to develop new nuclear designs and, moreover, the U.S. can maintain its science and technology expertise without further nuclear testing. In addition, the new posture states that science-based stockpile stewardship, which went into effect in 1995, continues to have the capability to ensure that the effects of aging in the U.S. nuclear stockpile can be handled without further nuclear testing.
The directors of the three major nuclear weapon laboratories (Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia), and the leadership of the National Nuclear Security Administration and of the U.S. military all support this. Independent U.S. experts in nuclear weapon physics previously reached the same conclusion.
One important change made in the new nuclear posture is undoing the mixing of conventional and nuclear weapons that occurred in the posture review done during the George W. Bush administration. Another breakthrough is that the new Nuclear Posture Review is unclassified.
What was the genesis of the new treaty between the U.S. and Russia, and why is it important?
The treaty is important for both security and symbolic reasons. The new treaty is a follow-on to the Strategic Arms Control Reduction Treaty (START) of 1991, one of many productive outcomes of the interactions between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid- to late-1980s. START was the first treaty to bring about actual reductions of deployed U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons. The net reductions were on the order of 30 percent.
The George W. Bush administration had made no effort to prevent the expiration of the treaty, which took place on Dec. 5, 2009. The Obama administration did much in a remarkably short time in comparison to the typical pace of treaty negotiations. It is a given that the U.S. and Russia have to show that they are in the process of significant reductions of their nuclear weapons before the non-nuclear weapon states of the NPT will become major parties in strengthening the NPT regime.
The Obama administration's success in getting a follow-on to START in a timely manner was no mean achievement even though the Russian leadership consistently stated they wanted a new bilateral treaty with the United States. During the negotiations, the Russians brought up a number of unrelated issues that slowed down the negotiation process.
The background of the Russians' behavior goes back to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which resulted in the massive reduction of Russia's conventional military forces and nuclear forces. From a Russian perspective, not having a bilateral nuclear treaty with the U.S. would be an ongoing reminder that Russia is no longer the superpower it once was.
The main benefits of the START follow-on is that the treaty provides a basis for ongoing productive interactions with Russia regarding nuclear weapons, in a framework that includes verification procedures. It will also help in getting Russian support for U.S. efforts to prevent further nuclear proliferation globally. The latter is the main thrust of the Obama administration's overall foreign policy regarding nuclear weapons.