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.

The shape of the START deal

The new START treaty was designed to change nuclear weapons deployments little, and to limit the development and deployment of other strategically relevant weapons systems even less. Mainstream arms control groups admit that the new START limits mainly changed the counting rules, allowing both the U.S. and Russia to continue to deploy about the same number of nuclear warheads as had been permissible under the Bush-era SORT treaty. As Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists pointed out, “while the treaty reduces the legal limit for deployed strategic warheads, it doesn’t actually reduce the number of warheads. Indeed, the treaty does not require destruction of a single nuclear warhead and actually permits the United States and Russia to deploy almost the same number of strategic warheads that were permitted by the 2002 Moscow Treaty.” The Treaty places no limitation on modernization of nuclear arms, providing explicitly that “modernization and replacement of strategic offensive arms may be carried out.” Regarding missile defense, as the Arms Control Association noted in an issue brief supporting START, “New START is a missile defense-friendly treaty. It does not constrain U.S. missile defense plans in any way.” New START also leaves U.S. “global strike” programs for delivery of conventional weapons with global range untouched.

The Obama Administration tried to preempt the inevitable demands for increased nuclear weapons funding in exchange for new START even before the treaty had been negotiated. The Administration’s February 2010 budget request for the 2011 fiscal year proposed an increase of almost 10% for Department of Energy nuclear weapons programs, and continuing increases over five years. By May, the administration had committed to budgeting a total of $180 billion over the next ten years for nuclear warheads and delivery systems, an amount that would assure significant increases over previously projected spending. The increases were of sufficient size that Linton Brooks, head of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration under President Bush, observed that “I’d have killed for that budget.”

Facing significant Republican gains in the Senate, the Obama administration continued to up the ante, anxious to obtain consent to START before the seating of an even more hostile Senate in 2011. In November the administration promised billions of dollars in additional increases for the weapons complex, while reiterating its “extraordinary commitment to ensure the modernization of our nuclear infrastructure.” Fearing tighter budget times ahead, the Senate negotiators on behalf of the weapons complex sought to accelerate spending on major projects like the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility (CMRR) in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Given its weak limits on weapons deployment, START was promoted by its advocates in the arms control and disarmament community for its verification provisions and as a first step towards further rounds of reductions. The verification provisions such as on-site inspections, while not without value, are considerably less important than they were during the Cold War, with neither Russia nor the United States currently engaged in large scale nuclear weapons production and frequent rollouts of new delivery systems. With satellite surveillance and other intelligence gathering means there is little reason to believe that any verification crisis or “yawning gap in the collection of strategic information” exists.

Perhaps the strongest argument for the treaty was that it provides a first step for going forward with further U.S.-Russia bilateral reductions. If one goes beyond the disarmament rhetoric of the Obama administration, however, prospects for significant U.S. reductions below proposed new START levels (which really means below current deployments) are debatable. Although U.S. officials use the language of “deterrence”in their public statements, the actual policy of the U.S. government is to pursue escalation dominance at all levels of warfare, with the world’s most powerful conventional forces operating world-wide under the “umbrella”of nuclear forces of sufficient size and flexibility to threaten everything from credible use of small numbers of nuclear weapons up to societal annihilation. So long as that policy prevails, “reductions” in the U.S. arsenal are likely to be of the new START variety–largely cosmetic, and leaving unchanged the fundamental danger that a nuclear arsenal of civilization-destroying size represents. Nor are other nuclear-armed states which see themselves as potential adversaries of the U.S. likely to give up their nuclear weapons so long as the U.S., with by far the most powerful conventional forces, continues to pursue global military dominance.

Out of the spin cycle and into the future

All sides claimed victory once the START deal was done and the treaty ratified. The Obama administration had another “win”that it could spin for a few news cycles, together with another formal marker of disarmament “progress” to raise as a shield in debates in other treaty forums and at the UN. The weapons establishment and their Senate advocates walked away with a bundle of policy promises and $185 billion in budget commitments, allowing Senator Corker to claim that “the New START treaty could easily be called the ‘Nuclear Modernization and Missile Defense Act of 2010.” National arms control and disarmament groups painted START as disarmament progress in celebratory e-mail blasts–which they could do more easily because most had chosen not to inform their constituencies about the Devil’s bargain made for the “win.” Having decided not to make an issue of the budgetary and policy promises made by the administration, the NGO’s were in no position to educate their constituencies about their meaning and likely effects, much less to offer a reasoned analysis of why the modest and in large part speculative disarmament gains the Treaty might offer were or were not worth their very large, quite concrete and material, price.

This approach did nothing to inform the public about U.S. nuclear weapons policies and programs, or to provide people with reasons that they might want to oppose them. The failure of less militarist elements in the U.S. Congress and most disarmament NGO’s to oppose the START bargain, or even to discuss its anti-disarmament aspects, also makes it more difficult to create effective opposition to the nuclear weapons establishment “on the ground,” in the regions where these immense and politically powerful institutions exist. When local opposition has played an effective role in stopping nuclear weapons facilities or deployments it typically has done so by creating multi-issue coalitions that also gained the support of some local federal elected officials. The START bargain captured legislators in commitments to the weapons complex, including funding for facilities like the CMRR and the UPF that are being fought locally. Furthermore, the public was presented with a contradictory picture, with local disarmament groups attempting to block new or modernized weapons facilities, pro-treaty politicians and the mass media portraying nuclear weapons “modernization” as necessary for Senate consent to ratification, and national disarmament NGO’s insisting that the treaty is an urgent priority while saying nothing about the massive new spending on nuclear weapons facilities that is part of the package.

With their agenda largely confined to reacting to the routine cycle of the Congressional budget process and to whatever the administration in power chooses to propose, U.S. arms control and disarmament groups are facing something worse than “losing”on one or another Congressional vote: they are risking political irrelevance. At this writing, the messages I am receiving from national groups regarding nuclear weapons-related budget matters are stressing two themes. One is to oppose nuclear weapons plant modernization (with no acknowledgment that this might be difficult given the political commitments made by the administration and democratic legislators to obtain consent to START ratification). The other is to promote restoration of cuts to the National Nuclear Security Administration’s “nonproliferation” programs, and to do so by attacking the cuts as contributing to the risks of “nuclear terrorism.”

The logic offered by some to reconcile this year’s opposition to the same funds Obama promised in exchange for START ratification with last year’s unconditional support of the deal is that Congress must approve a new budget every year, so such commitments always can be revisited. So far, however, all indications are that the Obama administration plans to follow through on its commitments to the weapons establishment. The President’s February 2011 budget request for the next fiscal year, calls for spending on such delivery systems as a new long-range bomber and a new ballistic missile submarine, as well as significant near-term spending increases for the UPF and CMRR, and for nuclear weapons programs overall. Congressional Democrats on the key House Strategic Forces subcommittee signed a letter to the Republican chair of the House Budget Committee, protesting proposed cuts to nuclear weapons spending in the still-pending FY2011 budget, stressing the importance of the commitments made in exchange for START and describing spending for nuclear weapons as a “national security priority.”

The main near-term impetus for military spending cuts comes not from the activity of disarmament groups but from the arrival of a block of “Tea Party” members in Congress, born by a wave of populist discontent channeled by organizations backed by large amounts of right-wing corporate money. Amidst the general anti- “big government”fervor, some calls for military cutbacks may result from a kind of ideological blowback when newly elected austerity crusaders discover how big a chunk of government spending the military-industrial complex consumes. In the larger scheme of things, however, dominant factions deploying concentrated wealth are engaged in a top-down, divide and rule class war that strives to pit American workers against each other and the poor for the fruits of the sparse remaining wealth-redistribution mechanisms of American government and equally endangered public goods. The most powerful players, perceiving fragmentation and weakness in the general population amidst continuing economic crisis, are intensifying the level of conflict in an effort to consolidate their wealth and power. The likely result of all this is growing economic and political instability. In this context, the technocratic adjustment of policies on the margin via legislative compromises that has been the familiar terrain for a generation of NGO professionals long removed from their social movement roots loses its relevance. The chances that a weak patchwork of expert-professional-dominated NGO’s will be able to prevail over against the concentrated wealth and power of the military-industrial complex in this volatile conjuncture are slim to none.

Another theme-of-the-current-news-cycle in U.S. disarmament circles is a call to oppose cuts in the “nonproliferation” portions of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget. The suggested talking points stress the dangers of “nuclear terrorism.” Here too, the goal seems to be paper “wins”rather than actions that reflect any discernible long-term strategy for disarmament. Much of the “nonproliferation”spending in the NNSA budget constitutes cross-subsidies to the nuclear weapons and power industries, mainly in the form of technologies to transform weapons useable materials into one or another kind of less-weapons-useable nuclear reactor fuel. The “nuclear terrorism”trope has been a losing gambit not only for disarmament but for democracy. In the militarist climate of early 21st century America, it is far less likely to build support for getting rid of nuclear weapons than to stoke fears that will be assuaged with yet more military spending and further erosion of human rights in the name of “security.” Meanwhile, the Middle East, the region that has been painted 24/7 for decades as the place from which that “nuclear terrorism”will come, is being swept by waves of largely nonviolent movements demanding democracy. Against this background, banging the “nuclear terrorism” drum seems profoundly out of touch, a kind of desperate groping in the flotsam of past propaganda campaigns of the powerful for some talisman that can magically confer political significance on those lacking any convincing vision of their own.

The Cold War confrontation between the Western and East bloc nuclear powers was grounded in a distinctive set of antagonisms that now lies in the past. Many of those who do “disarmament work,” however, behave as though the only reason nuclear weapons ever existed was the Cold War and its particular dynamic. Two decades later, ruling elites in the majority of the world’s most powerful states still consider nuclear arsenals–although less immense and baroquely varied than Cold War arsenals–to be useful implements of state power. We are in a time of accelerating history, in which the fundamental drivers of conflict among the elites who control the most powerful states have re-emerged with new intensity: competition over key resources, growing political tension within states over wealth distribution, and general collapse of a prevailing “normal” order of international economic and political relationships. We have not seen a period like this since before the dawn of the nuclear age. We must consider the possibility that little real disarmament progress is likely to be achieved by inter-elite bargaining under these conditions.

If disarmament work is to remain relevant, we must focus on the relationship between the causes of the persistence of nuclear arsenals in a global conjuncture quite different from the Cold War, and the causes of the ills addressed by other struggles that are attempting to build a more fair and peaceful world amidst the quickening pace of overlapping global economic and ecological crises. The path to the elimination of nuclear weapons likely runs not through attempts to lobby one or another government firmly in the grip of anti-democratic, interpenetrated state and corporate elites, but through the equivalent of many more Tahrir Squares, each closer to the places where the powers lie that sustain and are sustained by the existence of nuclear weapons. The question we should ask ourselves is: how can those who work for nuclear disarmament become a useful strand in the broader fabric of the movements needed to create the conditions that could make disarmament possible?

Almost 30 years ago, in a collection of essays with diverse contributors intended to spark debate adequate to the nuclear dilemma of that time, E.P. Thompson wrote, “We are at the end of an epoch, when every old category begins to have a hollow sound, and when we are groping in the dusk to discover the new.” The same surely is true of this moment or perhaps simply has remained true, and so far we have not sufficiently risen to the challenge. I hope those who work for disarmament are willing to re-examine familiar routines and ways of working in light of the evidence of crisis, of danger and perhaps of opportunity, that now is all around us.

A shorter version of the article appeared in Peace Magazine (Canada) April-June 2011.