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A nuke-free world some day? Color me skeptically blue

President Barack Obama
REUTERS/Mike Segar
President Obama speaks at a U.N. Security Council meeting in New York Thursday.

Does anyone believe that the eight countries that have nuclear arsenals might agree to give them up?

Now? Soon? In 10 years? In 50? Ever? When?

How would such a deal be implemented and how would it be enforced, presumably in perpetuity, so no one nation could cheat and therefore enjoy the benefits, if benefits is the word, of being the world’s only nuclear power?

Thursday, at the U.N., with President Obama presiding over the Security Council (first U.S. president ever to do so), the council (on which five of the eight nuclear powers are permanent veto-empowered members) unanimously, rhetorically, embraced that goal, without answering any of the questions in the two paragraphs just above. So, perhaps embraced is not the word. Let’s go with Obama’s word choice: “enshrined.”

“The historic resolution we just adopted enshrines our commitment to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons,” Obama said after the vote.

It’s nice to believe in change we can believe in. But color me skeptically blue.

The Security Council can’t even agree on how to accomplish a smaller, but still important goal that all of the members truly want to accomplish, namely to prevent any more countries, and most especially North Korea and Iran, and even more especially Iran, from developing usable, deliverable nuclear bombs.

In fact, their differences on that score are so troublesome that they couldn’t agree on language to mention North Korea or Iran in the text of the resolution. You can tell what they are driving at, but not really how they intend to drive there.

Re-enshrined commitment

Perhaps mindful of the audacious arrogance of the nuclear powers seeking to declare (and not for the first time) that no more nations can join the club, they did agree to re-enshrine their commitment to giving up their arsenals.

Here’s how the L.A. Times reported it last night: “The United Nations Security Council approved a nuclear nonproliferation resolution this morning, granting President Obama an early, first step toward his ultimate goal of eliminating nuclear weapons.”

Please don’t take all this sarcasm wrong. As a parent and as a grateful earthling pushing 60, I would be thrilled to imagine that my children will live to see a nuclear-bombless world.  I’d be a bit less thrilled but still delighted to believe that nuclear proliferation could end with the current list of eight nations — United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan — and that those eight could continue the nearly miraculous 64-year streak of not using the bombs in anger against each other nor anyone else. It gives me hope that if all else fails, deterrence works. It has a more impressive track record than non-proliferation or disarmament.

And I’d be happy — yea even unto overjoyed — if the Perm Five could overcome their differing priorities and even just agree on a peaceful plan that would induce just those two nations — Iran and North Korea — to give up their bombly aspirations, although I harbor no serious hope that they would be the last two that will ever come knocking on the door of the nuclear clubhouse.

Here’s the obligation that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty imposes on the nuclear powers:

“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament.”

The treaty was adopted in 1968. The United States, Russia (formerly the Soviet Union) and the U.K. were among the original signatories and have therefore, you might say, been neglecting their obligations along the general and complete disarmament lines for 41 years (although if you read it lawyerly, the language above doesn’t require them to disarm, only to be pursue good faith negotiations along those lines). France and China signed in 1992. The other three club members — India, Pakistan and Israel (which, it should be noted, declines to confirm that it possesses nukes) — have never been parties to the treaty.

The signatories to the NNPT who are not nuclear powers agree not to acquire nukes. Perhaps the only nation that ever acquired nuclear weapons in violation of its membership in the NNPT was South Africa. South Africa is also the only state to acquire nuclear weapons and then verifiably give them up (unless you count places like Ukraine and Kazakhstan, where Soviet-era nukes were situated before the breakup of the Soviet Union). But the Apartheid/post-Apartheid situation makes the precedent of questionable value for countries in which governing power does not pass across racial boundaries.

The NNPT does, by the way, allow signatories to withdraw from the agreement, after giving 90 days notice and declaring that the “supreme interests of the country” require the withdrawal. (The withdrawing party is required to state those reasons, but no one is empowered to second-guess them.) I suppose such a provision was necessary to get some countries to join in the first place, but it does seem to undermine the value of the whole deal.

The case of North Korea

The only state ever to withdraw was North Korea, which did so in stop-and-start stages between 1993 and 2003. But it did ultimately withdraw, which means, by the strange logic of the loophole, that North Korea now has a legal right to develop nuclear weapons, although this doesn’t stop the United States and others from declaring that it cannot be allowed to do so.

Iran, if you are wondering, is an NNPT signatory and therefore does not have the legal right to develop nuclear weapons. Despite the understandable suspicions of the United States and most other nations, Iran asserts that its nuclear research activities are intended to develop peaceful nuclear energy. But Iran could, if it chose, to withdraw from the NNPT on 90 days notice.

Here is the full text of the NNPT.

And here is the lovely, eloquent statement by President Obama in which he acknowledged that there will always be cynics like me:

“The next 12 months will be absolutely critical in determining whether this resolution and our overall efforts to stop the spread and use of nuclear weapons are successful.  And all nations must do their part to make this work.  In America, I have promised that we will pursue a new agreement with Russia to substantially reduce our strategic warheads and launchers.  We will move forward with the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and open the door to deeper cuts in our own arsenal.  In January, we will call upon countries to begin negotiations on a treaty to end the production of fissile material for weapons.  And the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in May will strengthen that agreement.

“Now, we harbor no illusions about the difficulty of bringing about a world without nuclear weapons.  We know there are plenty of cynics, and that there will be setbacks to prove their point.  But there will also be days like today that push us forward — days that tell a different story.  It is the story of a world that understands that no difference or division is worth destroying all that we have built and all that we love.  It is a recognition that can bring people of different nationalities and ethnicities and ideologies together.  In my own country, it has brought Democrats and Republican leaders together — leaders like George Shultz, Bill Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn, who are with us here today.  And it was a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, who once articulated the goal we now seek in the starkest of terms.  I quote:

‘A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.  And no matter how great the obstacles may seem, we must never stop our efforts to reduce the weapons of war.  We must never stop until all — we must never stop at all until we see the day when nuclear arms have been banished from the face of the Earth.’

“That is our task. That can be our destiny. And we will leave this meeting with a renewed determination to achieve this shared goal. Thank you.”

And below, from the esteemed “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” is a less snarky report on yesterday’s historic Security Council action.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 09/25/2009 - 11:21 am.

    Skepticism is one powerful quality in a journalist; and certainly there is a need for cynicism to survive with or without some or all of our nukes. My great Aunt Berta would say “Obama means well” whatever the outcome. And one could say “at least he tried”..which doesn’t say much either, however…

    The village where I spent my formative years is now a hotbed of buried nuclear warheads. And plains telegraph tells me the prairie dogs and meadowlarks are cheering Obama on with some degree of hope that at least some of the 1100-1700 missiles buried in North Dakota may be even partially removed? The local Chamber of Commerce will be upset I bet, so embedded is commerce with the military, but…

    Considering the track record of the Minot Airforce Base lately, it’s not a safe place to roam. Another truck carrying missile components (sans fuel this time) tipped over while rolling down a back country road with soft shoulders – sleep at the wheel or just texting? – and it’s happened before.

    Accidents happen I suppose, but all things considered, remember the fairly recent, infamous Minot-to-Barkesville Louisiana cross country trip carrying real nuclear warheads, by mistake; would you believe it?

    I do agree cynicism around any nuclear cutback may be justified. But it is also justification to question the whole madness of finding an enemy and expecting to feel safe in the process as we continue stumbling around trying to protect ourselves. Cutting back may never happen, but I’m with the prairie dog and the meadowlark with their booster buttons saying “Take Back the Prairie!”

    One cynic deserves another:
    As a companion piece to Eric Black’s skepticism, don’t miss reading Julian Delasantellis, “Missile Madness Targets the Money” over at Asia Times online…lead story this morning. Eric and Julian compliment each other.

    Call J.D’ story hilarious, raw counterpoint to our attempt to protect ourselves from the enemy without or the enemy within. I used up my last print cartridge just to preserve a copy. It’s worth it whatever one’s political sensitivities…keep the fate,eh?

  2. Submitted by Gregory Stricherz on 09/25/2009 - 01:04 pm.

    It’s interesting to keep seeing all the blather about Iran with nukes. Especially from a country that dominates the nuclear weapon scene and is the only country to ever use one. It would be great to see in such articles a statement like this:

    The U.S. intelligence community’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities states that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003.

  3. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 09/26/2009 - 05:39 pm.

    You can put me in the skeptic column too. The actions necessary to keep the bad uns from getting nukes are clearly beyond what the non-nuke folks are willing to go with. Iran is a perfect example. Is anyone willing to do more than continuing sanctions or giving a harsh UN glare? The reality is that any state that is willing to risk a rather toothless response can get nukes.

  4. Submitted by John E Iacono on 09/28/2009 - 10:25 am.

    I’m afraid I share EB’s view on the likelihood of complete nuclear disarmament.

    The day the mushroom cloud rose over the Nevada sands marked the end of an old era of warfare, and a line was crossed that will never be undone until or unless a nuclear conflagration destroys all the scientific knowledge that has been gained.

    Even if every weapon were destroyed tomorrow, the knowledge that one could be made, and how to do it, cannot be erased from humanity’s collective mind, and mankind’s collective fear of attack and urge to dominating power can be relied upon to reconsitute the arsenal.

    Fear of retribution has proved reliable in the past, and — I expect — will continue to be the only viable preventive for the indefinite future, or at least until the lion lays down with the lamb.

    Utopias seldom are born in the real world, and never last when they do.

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