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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
Obama Sets New Course on Arms Control
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Cole Harvey

In recent public statements and congressional hearings, Obama administration officials have indicated that they will reverse Bush-era policies on a number of major arms control issues. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other Obama appointees have said that they will actively pursue ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) as well as a new strategic arms agreement with Russia and have revised the U.S. approach to negotiations on a treaty banning the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons.

The statements made clear that the new administration planned to press forward with the policies Obama advocated in an Arms Control Today survey and in other venues during last year's presidential campaign. (See ACT, December 2008.)

In response to written and oral questions posed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January as part of her confirmation process, Clinton confirmed the administration's intention to win Senate ratification for the CTBT, which the Senate rejected in a 51-48 vote during Bill Clinton's presidency. (See ACT, September 1999.) In order to win the two-thirds majority needed for Senate passage, Clinton pledged that the Obama administration would work "intensively" with senators to reassure them on such technical issues as the verifiability of a test ban. Clinton also stated that the administration would ask Congress to fully fund the U.S. contribution to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization's (CTBTO) International Monitoring System, a system of sensors and other technologies designed to detect even low-yield nuclear tests. Although the Bush administration abided by a moratorium on nuclear testing, it opposed the CTBT and did not fully fund its monitoring system.

The Bush administration also refused to fully fund the U.S. contribution to the CTBTO itself. The Obama administration "will want to ensure that [the CTBTO] is adequately funded," Clinton said, but she stopped short of saying that the administration will ask Congress for the full amount of the U.S. assessed contribution.

Clinton and other officials have said that the United States will pursue new reductions in nuclear arms with Russia, in advance of the expiration of the START this December. In her Jan. 13 confirmation hearing, Clinton identified nuclear nonproliferation and negotiations on START as her "very highest priority." She echoed Obama's position, taken during the campaign, that the United States would seek to reduce its total nuclear arsenal, including deployed and nondeployed weapons, in conjunction with Russia. Negotiations on an agreement to replace START foundered in the last months of the Bush administration. (See ACT, October 2008.)

The most important element of any new agreement, according to testimony by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy at a Jan. 15 hearing, is the continuation of the START monitoring and verification procedures. The administration has not taken a position on a Russian proposal to limit strategic delivery vehicles as well as warheads.

The Obama administration also intends to revive negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would outlaw the production of new fissile material-plutonium and highly enriched uranium-for use in nuclear weapons. Those talks have been stalled for more than a decade in the Geneva-based 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD).

Clinton noted in her confirmation hearing that the Obama administration planned to break with its predecessor by restoring U.S. support for a negotiating mandate calling for an eventual FMCT to include international monitoring and verification procedures. In May 2006, the Bush administration proposed a draft FMCT that lacked verification mechanisms, arguing that such provisions would be too expensive, overly intrusive, and unlikely to dissuade determined cheaters. (See ACT, June 2006.) Other members of the CD, which conducts its business by consensus, opposed the U.S. stance. Clinton stated in her testimony that abandoning the previous administration's policy is an essential step to resuming FMCT negotiations.

In her Senate testimony, Clinton claimed that the difference between the current and former administrations is a philosophical one. She asserted that the Bush administration disparaged arms control treaties and believed, in her words, that "good people don't need them and bad people won't follow them." By contrast, she said, arms control and nonproliferation are "passionate concerns of the [new] president."

The Arms Control Association maintains a list of new administration members who will be advising President Obama on issues relating to arms control. Click here to see the full list of filled and vacant positions.