President-elect Obama and US Nuclear Policy

by Robert Jacobs, assistant professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute

As an American historian of nuclear issues, living in Hiroshima, this is a very exciting time. Watching this American election from my hometown of Chicago, the political home of Barack Obama, many thoughts have been on my mind. Obama’s historic victory promises some rather dramatic changes from the Bush presidency, especially in international affairs and nuclear weapon policy. A dramatic heightening of international tensions, preemptive wars of aggression, and a dangerous embrace of nuclear weapons marked the Bush era. Bush scuttled the ABM treaty in 2001, and in 2002 asserted the American right to the “first-use” of nuclear weapons.

By contrast, President-elect Obama pledged in 2007 that he would take the US nuclear arsenal off of “alert” status, and has publicly articulated the goal of the abolition of nuclear weapons. At the same time an article written by four former high-ranking US defense hawks calling for the worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons created quite a stir in the anti-nuclear community. The article, co-authored by Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn claimed that in a world rife with nuclear proliferation, the only path to national security was for all nations to eliminate nuclear weapons.

The idea that these figures could call for nuclear abolition struck some as signaling the possibility of real movement towards abolition. I am sad to report that I am not among those who were excited by the article. Notice that there is no one in a policy making position listed as a co-author. This article was written by people who have spent much of their lives advocating for the stockpiling and potential use of nuclear weapons. Why would this call come from retired war hawks, and not current policy makers? How much will the opinions of these former war hawks, and even the desires of the popular new American president move the United States towards the goal of nuclear abolition?

I would argue that this alone will do little to actualize abolition. The US has not remained a nuclear-armed state for over 60 years because of the arguments that these leaders challenge. The forces that work to keep the United States armed with nuclear weapons are not based in a belief that nuclear weapons are useful, or that they are a legitimate (and therefore allowable) weapon, but rather, that they are a means for making enormous amounts of money for those who produce them. I believe that the reason that the United States has such a large nuclear arsenal is because certain sectors of American society have made billions and billions of dollars from the nuclear weapon industry.

These forces are currently working hard to convince the US government that it is time to purchase a new “safer” generation of nuclear weapons. There is a lot of money at stake in such policies. Those who have and continue to reap great fortunes from selling nuclear weapons to the US government will not simply cede defeat because of some convincing arguments about security and morality.

I feel that as long as we in the anti-nuclear community continue to believe that we can achieve abolition by being “right” the longer it will take for us to succeed. We need to begin to see that until we fight pro-nuclear forces on an economic basis, we will never directly confront the power behind nuclear weapon production. Nuclear weapon manufacturers have been happy to have us talking about whether nuclear weapons are right or wrong for over 60 years: as long as we are talking about that, we are not talking about whether profiting from their manufacture is right or wrong.

I am not saying that there is no hope with the President-elect Obama, who shares the idea of a nuclear-free world with us. Indeed, I think that we are at a moment of great opportunity. But President Obama will face a tremendous number of challenges as he assumes power. The depth of the current economic crisis will limit the number of fronts on which he chooses to rally the US citizens. Perhaps he will choose affordable health care, an issue that affects the daily lives of Americans, as his top priority rather than nuclear abolition.

But I think that if a popular president does choose to make the issue of nuclear abolition a top priority, and he effectively rallies public opinion against those who profit from war, and from the production of nuclear weapons, it is possible that real progress will follow.

Let us hope that President Obama does make nuclear abolition a top priority, and that he leads a public movement against the nuclear weapon industry. But lets not wait for that. We need to refocus our anti-nuclear efforts towards those who produce and profit from these horrible weapons, rather than the policy makers who merely do their bidding. Let us make the manufacture of nuclear weapons unprofitable by making them pay a larger price in public condemnation than the profits that they continue to make in selling mass, global death in return for riches.

Robert Jacobs
Born in 1960, Robert Jacobs is an assistant professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute. He is an American historian working on issues of nuclear weapons and nuclear warfare during the Cold War. His edited book, funded by HPI, on the response of art and popular culture to nuclear weapons in the US and Japan will be published next year.

(Originally published on November 9, 2008)

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