“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” –Albert Einstein
Earlier this year on January 14, the board members of the “Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS)” moved the minute hand of the “Doomsday Clock,” back from five to six minutes to midnight. The clock, a symbolic representation of how close the world is to annihilation (or a way of predicting the potential of nuclear war), was established by the Bulletin in 1947 near the beginning of the Cold War. Midnight is therefore, symbolic for the end of civilization.
The Bulletin itself was begun by physicists from the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb at the University of Chicago (site of the world’s first man-made nuclear reaction). It was to be a non-technical magazine meant to educate the masses about the dangers of these newly conceived weapons. In the decades since, it has been amended to include articles about other global security issues of a scientific nature such as climate change, military spending, and similar topics threatening humanity and the globe.
Over the years, the Bulletin’s clock hands have been reset 19 times. The symbol itself shows only the upper left corner of a clock face (the last fifteen minutes of an hour). The closest it came to midnight was in 1953 (two minutes until midnight), when both the United States (code name “Castle Bravo” at the Marshall Islands’ Bikini Atoll) and Russia (code name Sloika or “Layer Cake” in Kazakhstan) exploded thermonuclear devices within nine months of each other. In 1991, five months before the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic’s (USSR) collapse, Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START 1) was signed, and the Doomsday Clock was pushed back to 17 minutes until (two minutes outside the clock display), the furthest from midnight documented since the clock’s inception.
This latest decision to move the hand back one minute reflects the relative optimism stemming from President Barack Obama’s efforts to reach a global agreement restricting the existence of nuclear weaponry. In the months that followed the January action, this optimism gained momentum as the United States and Russia signed a treaty in Prague on April 8 limiting the number of strategic weapons.
Like the debate on health care, negotiations involving the nuclear arsenals of these two countries have been a global focal point. The White House press organ however, heralds this latest agreement as a milestone amidst all the scores of accords, conferences, forums, pacts, summits, and treaties that preoccupied the diplomacy of 10-plus administrations. At the press conference announcing the clock change, the BAS issued a statement citing “a change in the U.S. government’s orientation toward international affairs brought about, in part, by the election of Obama.”
Setting the stage
These latest developments are a validation of the president’s administration, since stopping weapons proliferation was an Obama campaign pledge. As the presidency eases towards the mid-point of its tenure, there has been no shortage of drama, with domestic policy arguably generating the lion’s share of the media’s attention. Even as issues closer to home dominated the government’s attention, preliminary steps were initiated on an international level. That might be seen as the appetizer leading up to the main meal consisting of substantial agreements for long-term reductions.
In a May 2009 speech in the Czech capitol of Prague, as he outlined objectives of the upcoming Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, President Obama stated that the reduction/abolishment of nuclear arms was key to global security in the 21st Century. In July at the annual Group of Eight Summit amidst discussions about African development, environmental issues, and so on that overshadowed this gathering, plans were announced for a global summit on nuclear security the following year in Washington, D.C. Then on September 24, Obama became the first U.S. President to chair the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council; at that time U.N. Resolution 1887 was unanimously adopted. It addressed the spread of nuclear weaponry, reduction of existing stockpiles, and control of fissile material (matter that can be used to effect a nuclear explosion).
Following the months-long concentration on health care, foreign affairs have come back into focus with the dawn of the new year. The U.S. held a meeting of leaders in Washington, D.C. Heralded as the largest gathering of world leaders since President Franklin Roosevelt assembled a group of 50 WWII allies in San Francisco circa 1945 for the formation of what would become the United Nations, the Global Nuclear Security Summit boasted representatives from 40-plus countries, and is perhaps more notable for those nations not invited: Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Belarus.
Belarus, a former republic of the USSR, is notable for its strained relationships with the European Union and the United States, evidenced by the recall of its U.S. ambassador following the expulsion of his Belarusian counterpart in America, because of human rights concerns in that East European country. With its independence in 1991, Belarus transferred its nuclear armaments to Russia (in compliance with the START I accords), and is now considered a non-nuclear weapons state. The other three nations specifically pose nuclear threats because 1) they already have these types of weapons (North Korea); 2) are known to be developing them (Iran); 3) or are suspected of seeking them (Syria).
“It will be surprising to many to know that Ronald Reagan has been the only President other than Obama to embrace the idea of completely eliminating nuclear weapons.” –Roger Molander, Ph.D., nuclear engineer and Rand Corporation fellow.
This latest development of START, is a follow up or re-negotiation of a proposal originally submitted by Ronald Reagan to his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1982 under the moniker START I (officially signed in July 1991 by President H.W. Bush). START I was considered a significant step forward from the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I and SALT II) pursued during the tenures of Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter.
Proponents of the Reagan legacy credit him with ending the Cold War (although that landmark was the result of political maneuvering over several administrations), through his efforts in tandem with President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev. Their historic 1986 summit at Reykjavik, Iceland, reportedly stalled over Reagan’s refusal to concede the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), an intricate array of ground and space-based laser, missile and particle beam protective systems that became better known as Star Wars, after the trendy movie of the era. The system was scoffed at as impractical or impossible, and was never actually implemented, but has since been credited as being a stepping stone to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) signed in 1987. This led to the removal of Pershing missiles in West Germany.
Since then, arm-chair historians of the Republican persuasion have pointed to this as an example of Reagan’s stellar statesmanship–using the illusion of technological superiority to get the Soviets to submit to his will. Regardless of its relative feasibility, the possibility of outer space militarization is allegedly a threat that still casts a shadow over global diplomacy.
It should be noted that Star Wars research is still being conducted, including one well-publicized test in which a navy cruiser launched an interceptor missile over Hawaii in November of 2005. Other successful tests involve a laser mounted on a 747, which gives credence to the idea that Star Wars is more than a myth.
Reagan’s name has been brought up recently by political observers (including moderate Republicans) who compare his global approach to Obama’s, in direct opposition to advocates of the extreme right who object to any association with the GOP’s sacred cow (Reagan). These politicians will represent a formidable hurdle, when the just-signed Prague treaty goes through Senate ratification. Significantly, Reagan’s former Secretary of State George Shultz has come forward to lend support to the present chief executive’s weapons reduction efforts, as has Henry Kissinger, who served in the same position for Richard Nixon.
Briefly, the treaty calls for present arms munitions stores to be reduced by 30 percent, meaning that America will be left with about 1,500 warheads within the next seven years. Counting weapons is, in itself, a daunting task because an individual delivery system (a single aircraft or missile) may contain several separate weapons, each configured to hone in on a distinct target. Also problematic are the constant upgrades, either of the missiles or of the launch system technology, where succeeding arms become more efficient than their predecessors, possibly rendering past arms treaties obsolete or ineffective as a nuclear safeguard. Republicans generally favor modernization of existing weapon systems, which, echoing concerns of the Reagan era, aggravates Russian anxiety about the West’s scientific advantage.
To its credit, the new pact seeks to address the problem of securing weapons and fissionable materials, the “critical building blocks” of nuclear weaponry, according to Roger Molander, a nuclear warfare research expert with Santa Monica’s Rand Corporation. Steps have already been taken to limit access to these components, notably the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTRP), originally sponsored by Senators Sam Nunn [D-GA] and Richard Lugar [R-IN]) in 1991. Its agenda provides for $1 billion per annum for collection and disposal of nuclear weapons primarily in the former states of the Soviet Union. These included efforts like the previously classified Project Sapphire, in which the U.S. government paid hundreds of millions in “foreign aid” to secure tons of weapons-grade uranium from the Kazakhstan republic, then covertly transported it via black C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft to the Department of Energy’s National Laboratory at Oak Ridge, Tenn., for safe keeping at the direction of then-President Bill Clinton in 1994.
Molander’s experience as a government nuclear adviser goes back to 1969, when then-President Richard M. Nixon initiated the first of what would become known as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreements (SALT) in Helsinki, Finland. Over the next four decades, he has continued as a consultant, when America and the Soviet Union periodically came to the table to negotiate the size of the world’s nuclear stockpiles.
Attorney Jonathan Granoff is the current president of the Global Security Institute, which seeks to eliminate nuclear armaments. Reached via cell phone as he left the United Nations Building in New York where the 2010 Review Conference for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was in session, he was quick to explain that the quest for nuclear disarmament was a bi-partisan effort prior to the election of George W. Bush. The eight years of his administration were a period of stagnation or even regression, as the Neocon (Neoconservative) Movement, a right-wing philosophy present for decades, finally gained footing within the government to push its doctrine of using economic and military power to spread democracy and other social platforms on to the rest of the world.
Consequently, April’s “New START” breaks the ice by re-opening the possibilities of renewed communications between nations working for global security. While President Obama’s is the most prominent name attached to these proceedings, other, less visible officials were charged with much of the actual negotiations consolidating the agreements.
More signs of good faith
Rose Gottemoeller is one of those people. She does not have the name recognition of LeBron James or entertainment figures with whom the media has an ongoing infatuation, but Gottemoeller commanded the world’s attention as the lead negotiator in the give-and-take between the two super powers that dominated the second half of the 20th century. Officially, her title is the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance and Implementation, but Gottemoeller’s expertise in nuclear proliferation and Russian and Eurasian politics were honed during tenures at the Department of Energy, the National Security Council during the Clinton Administration, in “think tanks” including Washington, D.C.’s Carnegie Endowment, and at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, before appointment to her present position by President Obama in March 2009.
Her skills were put to the test at the NPT Review Conference held in April, and will be exercised again at the follow-up in six months. As a prelude to the current review, the Obama administration recently made the unprecedented step of revealing the exact number of weapons (5,113) in its arsenal, a fact that previously had been among the most jealously guarded of national secrets. As expected, this figure is close to previous estimates by various arms control groups, but the gesture of disclosure is, in itself, an indication of America’s commitment to transparency, according to involved individuals and informed onlookers. These include Paul Carroll of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation dedicated to preventing the spread and use of nuclear and other weapons of war, who emphasizes that the administration’s move towards openness is a mark of its commitment to global peace and stability. In addition, the U.S. made available annual stockpile numbers from 1962 to the present, along with details on activities at the Pantex Ordnance Plant in Amarillo, Texas, the only facility where warhead assembly and dismantlement is done.
Lifting the veil of secrecy is all well and good, Carroll continued, but long-term success depends on Senate ratification here in the U.S. along with approval by the Duma, the Russian parliament. Other obstacles to the agreement involve the previously mentioned technical advancements, as President Obama reportedly is facing the decision whether or not to develop a new missile system that can deliver a conventional weapon anywhere in the world in an hour with such accuracy that it would negate the benefits of nuclear weapons. This could complicate the peace process by once again playing on the opposition’s fear of being unable to counter an American arms advantage, real or imagined, and that could impede efforts to retire the “Doomsday Clock” once and for all.