by Andrew Lichterman
In the United States, what public discussion there was in 2010 about nuclear disarmament centered on the new U.S.–Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The treaty, however, did little to reduce nuclear armaments. It changed warhead counting rules to allow both the U.S. and Russia to make minimal changes in their nuclear deployments while claiming more significant reductions in numbers. Further, the package of political commitments and conditions extracted by Senate allies of the military-industrial complex are designed to assure that the U.S. will be able to sustain a nuclear arsenal of world-destroying size for many decades, and to continue strategic weapons development on other fronts as well.
The principal players in the START ratification drama came to it with different agendas. The Obama administration, its lofty disarmament rhetoric aside, appeared mainly to be seeking to capture the polemical and diplomatic high ground, regaining at least some of the credibility lost by the Bush administration’s history of disarmament inaction and counter-proliferation prevarication. As the President put it in a radio address pushing the treaty, “[w]ithout ratification, we put at risk the coalition that we have built to put pressure on Iran, and the transit route through Russia that we use to equip our troops in Afghanistan.” The Senate representatives of the nuclear-military-industrial complex sought to obtain as much as possible in weapons budget increases and policy commitments. Bob Corker, Republican Senator from Tennessee (home of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, one of the largest U.S. nuclear weapons facilities) stated the trade-off clearly: “I saw this entire process as an opportunity to push for long overdue investments in modernization of our existing nuclear arsenal and made clear I could not support the treaty’s ratification without it.”
Given that the Obama administration in every other area of policy had proved willing to concede whatever was necessary in Federal dollars and corporate-friendly policies to obtain something that it could claim as a legislative “win,” these two agendas were by no means irreconcilable. The final element needed to seal the deal, however, was the absence of significant opposition to the buy-off insisted upon by the nuclear and military establishments in exchange for even the most cautiously incremental arms control treaty. This piece too fell into place. Most U.S. arms control and disarmament organizations obediently lined up behind the Obama administration, parroting its talking points and saying little that criticized the budget increases and policy promises provided to the nuclear weapons establishment.
A striking aspect of the affair was the absence of debate within the U.S. “arms control and disarmament community” concerning whether the START package as a whole constituted disarmament progress, given the massive political and economic reinforcement provided by the Obama administration’s commitments to the actual institutions that must be disarmed. This likely was the consequence of the kind of vote-counting and assessment of relative interest-group power that passes for “pragmatism”among the professionals who dominate the upper reaches of both the political and nongovernmental organization (NGO) worlds. Disarmament NGO’s in this regard are little different from those that focus on other issues. This predominance of a cautious, careerist professionalism that sees the limits of the politically possible as what those who hold power are willing to give, however, manifests a weak civil society that has lost the essential nourishment of a social movement base. Pushing a treaty whose disarmament benefits required a professional eye to perceive (and perhaps to believe), together with silent acceptance of sweeping plans to rebuild and replace both nuclear weapons systems and arms factories sufficient to sustain a very large nuclear arsenal into the middle of this century, did nothing to make disarmament movements stronger. (more…)