The U.S.-Russia nuclear agreement–A step toward a nuclear-free world

by Akira Tashiro, Executive Director of the Hiroshima Peace Media Center

Global nuclear disarmament and the prevention of nuclear proliferation will be impossible without the strong leadership of the two superpowers, the United States and Russia. This is the common view shared by all who seek nuclear abolition and nonproliferation, including governments, NGOs, and individual citizens. For this reason, the world paid close attention to the meeting in Moscow between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on July 6 to negotiate strategic arms reduction.

Late that night, Japan time, the outline of the agreement was announced: strategic warheads will be reduced to 1500-1675 and delivery vehicles, including missiles, to 500-1100. Although many had thought that the United States would face a difficult negotiation with Russia, which strongly opposes the deployment of the U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe, the two leaders produced, to a certain extent, the positive result that the world had hoped for.

The agreement was not so “drastic” in terms of the number of warheads reduced, since the 2002 Moscow Treaty had already set the limit of deployed warheads at 1700-2200.

Still, the talks were significant in that Obama and Medvedev have moved to establish a trusting relationship between the two nations, overcoming distrust and suspicions to break nearly ten years of deadlock in arms reduction due to the Bush administration’s unilateralism in diplomacy and military policies, which had chilled relations between the two.

During the Cold War era of the mid-1980s, more than 70,000 nuclear warheads were found on earth. The United States and Russia held more than 95% of them. Coinciding with the news of the U.S.-Russia agreement on arms reduction, the death of Robert McNamara also received widespread coverage. The former Secretary of Defense was one of the key architects of the crazed nuclear arms race.

McNamara was appointed Secretary of Defense when John F. Kennedy became President of the United States in 1961. During his roughly seven years in office, he advocated deeper U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and promoted building up the nuclear arsenal and its missiles based on the strategy of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD). This strategy was maintained by both the United States and Russia until shortly before the end of the Cold War.

When I interviewed McNamara in Washington D.C. in 1994, he told me that those policies had proven wholly mistaken although he had believed he was making the right decisions at the time.

“Our distrust fueled the nuclear arms race,” he said, emphasizing that true security could not be achieved by relying on nuclear arms but “through diplomatic efforts to promote détente, mutual trust, disarmament, and international cooperation.” His words were convincing as he himself, as a key decision maker, had closely witnessed the danger of nuclear war amid the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and at other times of peril.

President Obama clearly wants to avoid repeating the mistaken policies of McNamara and others and so made an earnest proposal to Russia, to which President Medvedev responded. The agreement was thus made possible to cut nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles.

This is, however, only a single step toward the world without nuclear weapons that Obama envisions. Confidence-building between the two nations will be crucial to promoting further reductions. U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) will have a positive impact on the outlook toward nuclear disarmament by all nations, including Russia.

Around the world, there is growing public opinion calling for nuclear disarmament and the abolition of nuclear weapons. In order to produce a meaningful outcome at the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference scheduled for May 2010 at United Nations headquarters in New York, the impetus toward disarmament, illustrated by the U.S.-Russia agreement, must be made into a more powerful momentum that can propel the earth toward a nuclear-free world. This will depend not only on the superpowers but on all countries, including the A-bombed nation of Japan, as well as the efforts of each one of us.

(Originally published on July 8, 2009)

Related articles
Obama, Medvedev agree on outline for new nuclear arms pact (July 7, 2009)
U.S. expects progress toward new nuclear arms pact at Moscow summit (July 6, 2009)
Group favors 4-step plan to scrap nuclear weapons by 2030 (July 1, 2009)