Obama’s Nuclear Plans Face Daunting Obstacles

With this week’s signing of the follow-on to START and next week’s nuclear summit in Washington, President Obama hopes to advance his agenda to reduce the number and spread of nuclear weapons, but proliferation expert Henry Sokolski says the White House faces a gamut of obstacles.

April 05, 2010

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

This month, the Obama administration’s focus will be the start of a full-court press to reduce the number and spread of nuclear weapons, including the signing of the follow-on to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia on April 8 in Prague and a nuclear summit of forty countries in Washington beginning on April 11. Domestic political push-back from Republicans, resistance by other nations, and the complexities of drafting agreements without loopholes will make it tough for the administration to achieve its objectives, says nuclear proliferation expert Henry Sokolski. Even within the administration, he says, some are trying to lower their expectations.

What is it that the administration is trying to achieve with all this nuclear discussion?

The president is trying to achieve the vision that he laid out in Prague on April 5 last year. In that speech he laid out four general objectives. One was to reduce the number of nuclear weapons systems in the world and reduce the likelihood of their use. The second was to reduce or eliminate the prospect of any further nuclear testing. The third was to stop any further production of nuclear materials that could be used directly to make weapons. And fourth, he made a number of recommendations that he thought would strengthen the rules against the further spread of nuclear weapons capabilities, technologies, and materials.

Now, those four objectives were tied very closely in the speech to specific treaties. In the case of the first objective, he wanted to reach this initial START agreement and then keep reaching additional strategic arms reduction treaties, not only with Russia but other countries. In regard to nuclear testing, he wanted the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and to bring that into force internationally. The Senate failed to ratify it when President Bill Clinton brought it for approval. Third, with regard to blocking the further production of materials that could be used directly to make bombs, he wanted a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) to be negotiated and brought into force. And with regard to strengthening nuclear rules, one of them was this summit that we’re going to have in Washington on security of nuclear materials against theft. He wanted to strengthen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and he had a number of ideas there as well.

Is the administration likely to achieve these goals?

I think it’s going to be a stretch on two levels. First, treaties that are international can only be brought into force not only if we ratify them, but [if] a number of other countries do also. In the case of the CTBT, he needs the consent of countries like India, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, Egypt, Brazil, Mexico, and any number of other countries who, historically, have lots of questions and concerns that make ratification less than a sure thing. I would guess it would be a long, long time, even if the United States got these agreements ratified--and in the case of Fissile Material Cutoff treaty, drafted--before they would ever come into force. And some people think never.

I’ll give you an example. The Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty is supposed to be negotiated in Geneva at the Comprehensive Disarmament Talks. The Pakistanis are refusing to allow the matter to be brought up. And in the case of the Comprehensive Test Ban, you certainly have countries like Egypt that say, "We will approve but only if Israel joins the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as a non-weapon state." So, bringing these things into force is not a sure thing.

Then there is a second problem. If you rush these agreements into implementation, you could actually compound some of your problems.

Let me give you an example in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Then I’ll give you an example of the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty.

I would guess it would be a long, long time, even if the United States got these agreements ratified--and in the case of Fissile Material Cutoff treaty, drafted--before they would ever come into force. And some people think never.

Critics of the CTBT claim that the Russians have a more liberal view as to what the ban prohibits. These critics fear that Russia thinks that you can have low-level nuclear tests and still be compliant with the CTBT. Well, the Congressional Commission report that was produced by former Defense secretaries James R. Schlesinger and William J. Perry said that this in fact was a serious enough concern that the five recognized states that have nuclear weapons--the United States, Britain, France, Russia, and China--needed to reach an agreement not only on what was allowed but what was clearly prohibited under the treaty. Now, if you get an agreement that allows low-level testing, I’m not sure you want to bring that into force, because right now we at least have political moratoriums in all of these countries that don’t hold tests. It might actually weaken things if you don’t get a good definition of what’s prohibited.

In the FMCT you have another oddity. It only bans the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for military weapons. That means that you could still make those materials if you claimed they were for civil purposes.

Which is what Iran is doing?

But Iran is officially not a military weapons state. It [the Fissile Material Treaty] only bans states that are non-weapons states from continuing to make materials. The problem is that if you are Iran and you’re a non-weapons state, and you see weapons states being able to continue to make nuclear fuel for civil purposes under loose inspection procedures, you’ve got to raise your voice and say, "I don’t even have weapons, why can’t I make enriched uranium for civil purposes like the weapons states under the loose inspection procedures that they are obligated to? Why are you picking on me?" So, you’ve got to straighten that out, and I don’t know if we’re up to that.

Let me come back to the START treaty. Is it likely to be ratified this year?

No Republican has any appetite to hand a victory to the head of the Democratic Party. The practical truth is that although the administration wants to get the treaty ratified before the end of the year, and may succeed, it will most likely occur only in a lame duck session after the elections. The conventional wisdom is that after the elections, when there are more Republicans voted in, the Republicans will probably support the treaty if their key concerns are addressed.

And the key concerns are what?

There are three concerns raised by critics, and those are the three concerns that Republicans are going to focus on. The first is that the law currently requires the administration to lay out a ten-year plan with budget estimates about how they intend to keep our nuclear weapons reliable, safe, and up to date. The administration has not yet done this, as I understand it. So the Senate is going to ask for that almost certainly. Second, the numbers permitted are lower than what some people wanted them to be. The critics of this agreement are not happy that the numbers went a little bit lower than were forecast initially.

Do you know what the numbers are?

It’s a complex formula I’m told. But what you see in the press is that the number of warheads should be no more than 1,550, but they should be on delivery systems that when deployed are no more than seven hundred. You can have another hundred that are not operationally deployed. But we’re told the counting rules for what constitutes a weapon are a little complex. A bomber, for example, carrying many bombs would only count as one weapon. So we have to wait until the text is released to get the exact numbers of what’s being counted.

The critics say, "If you’re going to have tight restrictions like that, then we’ve got to be especially careful with the law to follow, and you need the layout, budget and the plans for the next ten years to keep the nuclear weapons force modern and reliable." So that’s point one.

The practical truth is that although the administration wants to get the treaty ratified before the end of the year, and may succeed, it will most likely occur only in a lame duck session after the elections.

The second thing that’s in the treaty--and, again, language has been leaked, but we haven’t actually seen it so we don’t know if that’s authentic--is that it says that both sides can engage in "limited missile defenses." The words "limited missile defenses" would be consistent with this treaty, and if one goes beyond limited missile defenses, [the other] would have the right to leave. So, first question is, "What is a limited defense program consistent with this treaty?" The answer almost certainly that the administration would give is, "Well it’s our program which we reported to Congress on recently, and it’s based on detection and further development of what’s called interceptor missiles." The question there would be, "Wait a minute, the standard missile systems that you reported on depends on being upgraded in ways which some technical critics of the system doubt may be possible."

All of that will be debated, I’m pretty sure, and fleshed out to make sure we know what the limited missile plan is that’s consistent with this treaty and that we have a good program to make sure that we achieve what the limited system is. And that it isn’t just dependent on some things that haven’t even been perfected yet, but that we have two or three ways to achieve those goals.

You believe the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty still won’t be ratified?

Given that we already have a moratorium on testing, the necessity of this is not clear, and some are actually eager to retain the option of testing, so that will be an uphill battle, particularly after November.

Can you talk about the limits on fissile material, which the president wants to raise in the Washington summit?

If he does, he needs to talk mostly to those countries that don’t even want to begin negotiations. Substantively, it’s not clear how that helps unless you figure out how to deal with all the civil production questions and the precedents this treaty might set for countries like Iran.

Strengthening the Nonproliferation Treaty is the focus of the conference in May at the United Nations. You’re not expecting anything really hard and fast to come out of this?

Well, it’s an assembly of the whole. There are key nations that will be out there as they are every five years, spoiling to block any kind of effort to get binding consensus on specifics, so you have to lower your expectations. I don’t know if it’s possible, but the Egypts of the world are going to demand attention be paid to denuclearizing Israel before they would agree to much, and they will have other supporters. There are countries that will demand that Iran’s right to get to the very edge of making bombs for nuclear fuel-making be recognized and not tampered with. And there will be a lot of undercurrents that will make reaching some new consensus difficult.

The hope is that the president’s various proposals might bear fruit. He laid them out in September when he chaired the Security Council, and they form the basis of Resolution 1887. One of them is to make withdrawal from the NPT, if you’re in violation, much more difficult. Another is automatic default sanctions of some sort for various levels of violations. All of those rather practical, sound things he hoped would get more of a hearing. But it will be difficult to get consensus for them. We will have to wait and see, but some people even within the administration are privately trying to lower expectations.