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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Disarmament Efforts Get New Impetus
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Cole Harvey

In a major disarmament step, Russia and the United States appear poised to negotiate a significant new agreement on strategic arms reduction as the clock ticks toward the December 2009 expiration of the 1991 START. At the same time, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued a report detailing proposed steps for an eventual ban on all nuclear weapons.

Speaking at the 45th Munich Conference on Security Policy Feb. 7, Vice President Joe Biden reiterated the Obama administration's commitment to a new strategic arms agreement with Russia. The two countries should "renew the verification procedures in the START...and then go beyond existing treaties to negotiate deeper cuts in our arsenals," he said.

The Russian response to Biden's address and to other overtures from the Obama administration on the issue has been largely positive. After meeting with Biden in Munich Feb. 8, Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov said that the new administration's stance "inspires optimism." Ivanov agreed with Biden that Russia and the United States should extend the START verification procedures and agree to reduce their nuclear arsenals.

Working out the details of a new arms agreement between Russia and the United States promises to be a thorny process. Ivanov, in his address to the Munich conference, argued that any new agreement should limit delivery vehicles as well as warheads and should ban the deployment of strategic weapons beyond national borders. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in her Jan. 13 confirmation hearing that the Obama administration "will seek deep, verifiable reductions in all U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons-whether deployed or nondeployed, strategic or nonstrategic."

U.S.-Russian relations have been strained by the Bush administration's plan to install elements of a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, presenting an obstacle to any new arms deal. In his Munich speech, Ivanov claimed that the European sites of the U.S. missile defense program are part of a system "aimed at deterring Russia's nuclear missile potential." U.S. officials have maintained that the system is intended to counter a potential nuclear attack from Iran.

Obama administration officials have not explicitly backed away from deploying missile defenses in Europe but have indicated that the previous administration's policies are up for review. In his Munich address, Biden declared that the United States will continue to develop missile defense capabilities "provided the technology is proven to work and cost effective."

Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, in a Feb. 13 interview with Interfax in Moscow, held out the possibility of a revised missile defense policy in exchange for Russian cooperation on Iran's nuclear program. Burns stated that the Obama administration could reevaluate the need for missile defense systems in Europe if "through strong diplomacy with Russia and our other partners, we can reduce or eliminate [the Iranian] threat." Burns also declared that the administration is open to the possibility of "new missile defense configurations" that incorporate Russian assets as well as those of NATO allies.

In a joint press conference with the Czech foreign minister on Feb. 10, Clinton reiterated that the United States reserves the right to develop a missile defense capability in Europe if the threat from Iran continues to mount. "If the Iranians continue on this path," she said, "one of the options of free countries...is to defend ourselves."

Separately, the British Foreign Office released a report Feb. 4 detailing proposed steps to rid the world of nuclear weapons. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, noting that Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Obama have each pledged to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons, wrote that the time has come to move from "a decade of deadlock to a decade of decisions."

The British report lays out six "attainable" steps toward abolishing nuclear weapons. These steps are designed to curb proliferation, decrease stockpiles, and build confidence.

The international community must agree to more stringent measures to prevent proliferation, according to the report, while working with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to help states develop peaceful nuclear technology.

Next, the report urges Russia and the United States to make substantial reductions in their total nuclear stockpiles, not simply in deployed weapons. IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei echoed this call in a Feb. 16 editorial in the International Herald Tribune, suggesting that Russia and the United States could reduce their stockpiles to as few as 500 warheads each.

Fourth, the British Foreign Office calls for the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the Obama administration supports. In her Jan. 13 testimony, Clinton said that she and President Barack Obama are "strongly committed to Senate approval of the CTBT and to launching a diplomatic effort to bring on board other states whose ratifications are required for the treaty to enter into force." The CTBT has been ratified by 148 countries, but the United States and eight other specific states must still ratify the treaty before it can take effect.

In order to lay the groundwork for an eventual ban on nuclear weapons, the report also calls for the negotiation and implementation of a treaty banning the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for use in nuclear weapons.

Lastly, the report urges those states possessing nuclear weapons to begin a strategic dialogue to explore the political and security issues that would arise during the transition from low numbers of nuclear weapons to zero nuclear weapons. The British government has proposed a 2009 conference of the five nuclear-weapon states recognized in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to discuss these issues.

As Russia and the United States seem prepared to negotiate substantial reductions in their nuclear arsenals and with the Obama administration supportive of the CTBT, there is an emerging consensus on many of the points listed in the British plan. As Ivanov noted in Munich, however, "[T]he devil is in the details."