"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
October 2009
Edition Date: 
Monday, October 5, 2009
Cover Image: 

Obama Shifts Gears on Missile Defense

Cole Harvey

The Obama administration announced Sept. 17 that it will not develop a planned missile interceptor field in Poland and radar facility in the Czech Republic, as envisioned by the Bush administration. Instead, the United States will implement a new missile defense program, designed around the Navy’s Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), to counter short- and medium-range Iranian missiles, according to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. In announcing the change, President Barack Obama said that the new missile defense architecture in Europe “will provide stronger, smarter, and swifter defenses of American forces and America’s allies” than the Bush-era plan.

The decision comes as a wider review of U.S. ballistic missile defense policy is nearing completion. According to Obama, it was the unanimous recommendation of Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Their recommendation was driven in part by a new analysis of the threat posed by Iranian missile capabilities. “The intelligence community now assesses that the threat from Iran’s short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, such as the Shahab-3, is developing more rapidly than previously projected,” Gates said at a Sept. 17 press conference. At the same time, Gates said, “the threat of potential Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities has been slower to develop than was estimated in 2006.” The new system is designed to focus on quickly addressing threats to Europe and U.S. military personnel deployed in the region, rather than on longer-term threats to the United States, he said.

Gates also said advances in missile defense technology enable the United States to rely on a distributed system of sensors, rather than the single radar site slated for the CzechRepublic, to detect incoming missiles. Similarly, Gates cited the flexibility and proven test record of the SM-3 as a replacement for the ground-based interceptors planned for Poland.

The United States expects to deploy sea-based SM-3 BlockIA interceptors to the region in 2011, six or seven years before the Polish and Czech sites would have been completed, according to Gates. The system would be upgraded in phases, with the SM-3 Block IB being deployed on land as well as at sea in 2015. The land-based interceptors would be stationed at two bases, one in northern Europe and another in the south, a senior administration official said at a Sept. 21 briefing for nongovernmental organizations.

In 2018 the United States would deploy the more advanced SM-3 Block IIA to the European land bases and partially replace the older interceptors at sea, the administration official said. The IIA model will be capable of defending the entire landmass of Europe from short- and intermediate-range missiles, according to Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who joined Gates at the Sept. 17 press conference. In 2020 the Block IIB version of the SM-3 interceptor, currently in development, would be installed. Unlike the other SM-3 versions, the Block IIB is intended to be capable of intercepting ICBMs that could threaten the United States.

Cartwright elaborated on the changed U.S. perception of the Iranian missile threat, saying, “We built the original system on the idea of a rogue-nation threat: three to five missiles that could come from either North Korea or Iran. The reality is, we’re dealing with hundreds of missiles in the [intermediate-] and medium-range capabilities…. What you can do with an SM-3 in affordability and in deployment and dispersal is substantially greater for larger numbers of missiles than what we have with a ground-based interceptor.” Under the new plan, two or three Aegis ships armed with missile interceptors would normally patrol the Mediterranean and North Sea, Cartwright said, and additional ships could be added as necessary. Each vessel can carry approximately 100 SM-3 interceptors, according to Cartwright.

The Obama administration intends the new missile defense effort to be a multinational one. “We will work with our Allies to integrate this architecture with NATO members’ missile defense capabilities,” a White House press release states. “We plan to deploy elements in northern and southern Europe and will be consulting closely at NATO with Allies on the specific deployment options.”

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen praised the shift, calling it a “positive step” in remarks quoted by Reuters. “I think it is in full accordance with the principle of solidarity within the alliance and the indivisibility of security in Europe,” he said. In a Sept. 18 speech, Rasmussen argued for greater cooperation between NATO and Russia, including in the field of missile defense. The alliance and Russia “have a wealth of experience in missile defense,” Rasmussen said. “We should now work to combine this experience to our mutual benefit.”

The original plan for Polish and Czech missile defense sites, first announced in 2007, drew frequent and vociferous Russian objections on the grounds that it would damage the strategic equilibrium between the two nuclear superpowers. According to Gates, the Russian leadership was concerned that the United States might covertly arm the European interceptors with nuclear warheads. If launched, such missiles could arrive at Russian targets with virtually no warning time, Gates said. Moscow was also concerned that the Czech radar installation would be able to see deep into Russia, he said. The new arrangement will not have these theoretical capabilities, the senior administration official said at the Sept. 21 briefing. In his statement, Obama denied that the previous plan had been aimed at Russia but welcomed Russian cooperation in the new missile defense architecture.

Gates denied that the change in policy had been made in order to allay Russian concerns or to secure Moscow’s cooperation on other issues. “The decisions on this were driven…almost exclusively by the changed intelligence assessment and the enhanced technology,” Gates said.

In Moscow, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issued a restrained statement noting the change in U.S. policy. “I hope that we’ll be able to…intensify cooperation, including with European countries and other concerned states,” Medvedev said. “We will work together to develop effective measures against the risks of missile proliferation. Measures that take into account the interests and concerns of all parties, and ensure equal security for all countries in European territory.”

Obama took pains in his address to reassure the Czech and Polish governments that the United States remains committed to their defense. The United States, he said, is “bound by the solemn commitment of NATO’s Article V that an attack on one is an attack on all.”

The United States will still deploy a Patriot missile battery to Poland, according to Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, in accordance with a bilateral agreement signed Aug. 20, 2008. Sikorski, quoted by Reuters Sept. 17, said that “the American side has assured us that the Patriots will be armed and capable of being linked to our defense system.” Patriot interceptors are used to defend small areas from incoming missiles and airborne attacks. The battery is slated to be deployed in Poland permanently in 2012, according to the bilateral framework. A Sept. 17 Polish Foreign Ministry statement welcomed the U.S. pledge to fulfill the August agreement and said that Washington’s commitment to “the indivisibility of security of the entire North Atlantic Alliance and credibility of collective defense guarantees” should enhance Poland’s security.

Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer, in announcing the change in policy Sept. 17, said that the broader U.S.-Czech relationship would remain unchanged. Czech President Václav Klaus echoed that sentiment in remarks to the Czech News Agency. “I am one hundred percent convinced that this step by the American government does not mean any cooling of relations between the United States and the CzechRepublic,” Klaus said.

Although the official reaction in Prague and Warsaw was positive, other leading politicians in those countries were critical of the move. Former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek, who negotiated the radar agreement with the United States despite public opposition in his country, called the decision “not good news for the Czech state,” according to the Associated Press. Similarly, the president of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, wrote in a newspaper article that the new strategy placed Poland in a “gray zone of security” between NATO and Russia. The Polish presidency is mainly a ceremonial position.

Some critics of the new policy have warned that existing interceptor bases in Alaska and California are insufficient to defend the eastern U.S. coast against a long-range missile attack. Riki Ellison, chairman of the nonprofit Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, charged that the two western U.S. interceptor bases cannot protect the eastern United States with “high confidence.” Asked to address this point at the Sept. 21 briefing, the senior administration official said that the existing strategic missile defense sites are capable of defending the United States, including the East Coast.

In Washington, congressional Republicans roundly criticized Obama for what they characterized as capitulation to Russia and the abandonment of two eastern European allies. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) issued a press release calling the decision to cancel the Polish and Czech sites “shortsighted and harmful to our long-term security interests.” His counterpart in the House, Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), said that the decision “does little more than empower Russia and Iran at the expense our allies in Europe.” In a statement on the floor of the Senate, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) said that the change in policy will generate “a distinct lack and loss of confidence on the part of our friends and allies in the word of the United States” and will “encourage further belligerence on the part of the Russians.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton responded to such charges during a Sept. 18 address at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Much of that criticism is not yet connected to the facts,” Clinton said. “We are deploying missile defense sooner than the Bush administration planned to do so, and we are deploying a more comprehensive system.”

Gates likewise defended the decision, saying that the new approach “provides a better missile defense capability for our forces in Europe, for our European allies, and eventually for our homeland” than the previous program. “Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing,” he said.

The Obama administration announced Sept. 17 that it will not develop a planned missile interceptor field in Poland and radar facility in the Czech Republic, as envisioned by the Bush administration. Instead, the United States will implement a new missile defense program, designed around the Navy’s Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), to counter short- and medium-range Iranian missiles, according to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. In announcing the change, President Barack Obama said that the new missile defense architecture in Europe “will provide stronger, smarter, and swifter defenses of American forces and America’s allies” than the Bush-era plan.

In Memoriam: Edward M. Kennedy (1932-2009)

Christopher Paine

With the recent passing of Edward Moore Kennedy, the arms control community has lost its longest-serving and most stalwart champion in the U.S. Senate. Although he sponsored and supported numerous arms control efforts, including the nuclear freeze resolution, that influenced U.S. policy, the Massachusetts Democrat never fancied himself a nuclear arms control “expert.” The dehumanizing arms control lexicon of force exchange ratios, throw weights, and strategic stability held no appeal for him. He left mastery of this arcane discipline to others, recognizing it for what it was—at best a temporary mechanism for containing the frightening risks and soaring costs of the nuclear arms race, at worst a lulling deception that ignored the mounting dangers of the world’s nuclear predicament. Kennedy knew full well that the nuclear strategists and weapons scientists did not have the answers and that it was the task of political leaders to find a way to bridge the Cold War divide and set the world on a saner path toward nuclear disarmament.

His basic approach to arms control was political, not technical, and grounded in his fundamental conceptions of morality, our common humanity, and common sense. The touchstone of his abiding commitment to nuclear arms control, a treaty outlawing all nuclear tests, was itself an unfinished inheritance from his older brother, President John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy’s pivotal speech at American University in June 1963, announcing that he was turning away from confrontation with the U.S.S.R. and sending Averell Harriman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, to Moscow to negotiate a test ban, was a canonical text in the senator’s office and encapsulates the younger Kennedy’s own approach to controlling nuclear arms:

[W]e are both devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combat ignorance, poverty, and disease. We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle, with suspicion on one side breeding suspicion on the other, and new weapons begetting counter-weapons. In short, both the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race. Agreements to this end are in the interests of the Soviet Union as well as ours. And even the most hostile nations can be relied upon to accept and keep those treaty obligations, and only those treaty obligations, which are in their own interest. So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.

Early Days

Drawing on the same Harvard-Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) brain trust that had influenced President Kennedy’s turn toward arms control after the near-apocalyptic confrontation of the Cuban missile crisis, as a young senator in the 1960s and early 1970s, Senator Kennedy supported ratification of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT); opposed deployment of the Sentinel and Safeguard anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems; supported the amendment by his Republican colleague from Massachusetts, Senator Edward Brooke, to bar flight testing of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs); and supported the ABM Treaty and the Interim Agreement on Strategic Arms (SALT I).

In 1974, he sought to advance a test ban treaty by traveling to Moscow. He sat down with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and presented point by point the elements of a draft agreement banning all nuclear tests.

In the late 1970s, Kennedy opposed development and procurement of the B-1 bomber and supported the Carter administration’s efforts to negotiate a SALT II agreement and a test ban treaty, but it was a dispiriting time. The quest for a test ban was being undermined by senior members of President Jimmy Carter’s own national security team, and a leading Democrat, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (Wash.), was spearheading the attack on SALT II.

Although Kennedy was, as always, a supporter of the pro-arms control position in these debates, he did not lead them. One possible reason is that SALT II, attacked from the right for its failure to reduce the Soviet Union’s “destabilizing” heavy ICBMs, had failed to rouse much enthusiasm among progressives on the left. The treaty was carefully wrapped around the continuing nuclear weapons modernization programs of both sides. Even some arms controllers were asking themselves whether the desire to gain leverage in the talks had become a perverse rationale for ever more dangerous and costly weapons “modernization,” which now threatened to overwhelm whatever slender benefits for world peace could still be eked out of the process. Carter’s nuclear war-fighting Presidential Directive 59 and his administration’s approval of a delusional, absurdly costly, and environmentally disastrous racetrack basing mode for the MX missile further alienated Kennedy from a president he was already leaning toward challenging on other grounds.

Although his quest for the presidential nomination failed, Kennedy’s style of political arms control leadership came into its own in the early 1980s, when the establishment arms control consensus, severely strained by the battle over SALT II, fell apart following the election of Ronald Reagan as president. Reagan had opposed negotiation and ratification of every nuclear arms control agreement ever entered into by the United States, including even the NPT. Reagan’s election seemed to suggest that a majority of Americans wanted a more muscular foreign policy. They got more than they voted for: loose talk from administration officials of “nuclear warning shots” and “prevailing with pride” in a “protracted” nuclear war; inane assurances that “with enough shovels, everyone’s going to make it”; large budget increases for nuclear weapons; and a prolonged 18-month stall in renewing any sort of arms control dialogue with the Soviet Union.

The Rise of the Nuclear Freeze

Traveling around their home states of Massachusetts and Oregon during the congressional winter break of 1981-1982, Kennedy and Republican colleague Senator Mark Hatfield were both struck by their constituents’ interest, in the midst of the hardships prompted by the Reagan budget cuts and an economic downturn, in talking about the threat of nuclear war and whether the senators would support a “nuclear freeze” with the Soviet Union on the testing, production, and deployment of nuclear warheads and delivery systems.

“We heard from people at every stop who knew about the nuclear freeze proposal and wanted us to support it. ‘Why not?’ they asked. We found that question difficult to answer,” Kennedy and Hatfield later wrote in their book promoting the freeze proposal. It was their first real encounter with a grassroots campaign that had been percolating for two years in town halls and churches across America but had actually begun before the November 1980 election in Kennedy’s own backyard with a successful ballot initiative in three western Massachusetts state senate districts. Ignored by the press at the time, 30 of the 33 towns in these districts that voted for Reagan had also passed the freeze, suggesting that something more was at work than normal moral-witness politics practiced by ban-the-bomb activists. Exemplifying the complex and unpredictable interplay between leaders and led in a genuine democracy, the western Massachusetts referendum had actually been inspired by an obscure “strategic weapons freeze” amendment that Hatfield offered in 1979 during debate over SALT II.

A genuinely heightened concern about the threat of nuclear war was spreading in the United States, and it seemed to be transcending the political and party divisions that marked other issues. Kennedy and Hatfield noted later in their book about the freeze that by the time the Senate reconvened at the end of January 1982, they were convinced that “a new arms control initiative was needed to offer leadership in Congress and respond to the growing public concern.”

Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.), then a four-term congressman from a working-class suburban district north of Boston, had come independently to similar conclusions and had already introduced a “sense of Congress” resolution in the House based directly on a widely disseminated document, “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race.” This was the handiwork of another Massachusetts resident, Randall Forsberg, an MIT defense policy graduate student who had been crisscrossing the country for the past year speaking passionately about the need for citizens to step up and demand a halt to the arms race. Markey only had 28 co-sponsors, however, all of them liberals, and he readily agreed to join forces with Kennedy by introducing S. J. Res. 163, the “Kennedy-Hatfield Freeze Resolution,” in the House, with Rep. Silvio Conte, a western Massachusetts Republican, as the lead co-sponsor (H. J. Res. 434, the “Conte-Markey-Bingham Resolution”).[1]

The National Freeze Campaign had pressed Kennedy to follow the simple wording of its “Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race.” Although he was sympathetic to this view, Kennedy wanted a resolution that would go beyond merely echoing the campaign’s demands. He wanted to expand the base of support for the freeze concept to include professional arms controllers and former national security officials, people who could lend the proposal the stature and flexibility it would need to survive the shooting gallery of Washington political debate and national media scrutiny.

The quick move into the national legislative arena was not universally welcomed by grassroots freeze activists, who wanted to build a more extensive base among the grassroots before mounting an assault on Washington. Kennedy, however, knew some things that many of the younger activists did not: Because the political arena is inherently unpredictable and the opportunities for progress are fleeting, you have to go with the political tide when it is running in your direction. You have to go as far as you can before it ebbs, which it inevitably will. Kennedy crafted a freeze resolution that preserved all the basic aims of the “Call to Halt” but cast them in a way that official Washington could understand and accept.

Kennedy’s bold and wholehearted adoption of the freeze, his refinement of the concept in consultation with sympathetic experts, his unmatched network of contacts, and the organizational capabilities of his staff quickly catapulted the freeze concept to a new level of national prominence. Douglas Waller, a Markey aide who played a key role in the battle for the freeze resolution in the House, records in his 1987 book Congress and the Nuclear Freeze that, by March 10, 1982, the day the freeze resolution was introduced in the Senate, “the list of Kennedy-Hatfield freeze backers read like a who’s who from every walk of American life—from Clark Clifford to General James Gavin to George Kennan to Coretta Scott King to Paul Newman to Carl Sagan to Lester Thurow to Billy Graham.… The resolution was not merely introduced in Congress; it was launched as a national political issue.”

On the stage to speak on behalf of the freeze at AmericanUniversity, picked for its symbolic connection to President Kennedy’s path-breaking speech 19 years earlier, were the presidents of the National Council of Churches and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Harriman, and the former director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Paul Warnke. Less than two weeks after the introduction of the resolution, the Kennedy juggernaut had organized, in Waller’s words, a “media-rich” forum in which “Hiroshima survivors and religious leaders were called in to testify to the horrors of nuclear war and the immorality of the nuclear arms race” and “a panel of defense and foreign policy experts pronounced the freeze sound arms control policy.”

By mid-April, Bantam Books had released a 267-page Kennedy-Hatfield mass market paperback, Freeze! How You Can Help Prevent Nuclear War, that conveyed the essential facts about global nuclear arsenals, the devastating consequences of nuclear attacks, the Reagan administration’s dangerous nuclear doctrine and costly buildup, the case for a nuclear freeze, and how to become a citizen freeze activist. An appendix listing prominent endorsers of the resolution as of late March 1982 already ran 25 pages of small type. One measure of what we have lost with Kennedy’s passing is that nothing like this astonishing effort on behalf of nuclear disarmament has ever been attempted, much less achieved, by another U.S. politician before or since.

After 14 months and three extended debates on the House floor—the longest debate over a nuclear arms issue in U.S. history—a much-amended freeze resolution finally passed the House in May 1983. Although he knew it would go down in the Republican-controlled Senate, Kennedy offered his freeze resolution in late October 1983 as a rider to a Senate bill to increase the federal debt ceiling. It failed by a vote of 40 to 58, but he wanted the vote anyway to put senators on record going in to the November 1984 election. This was the final act of the freeze movement on the national political stage. Thousands of “freeze voter” campaign volunteers were credited with providing the margin of victory in about a dozen close House and Senate contests in which nuclear freeze proponents won the election.

The real impacts of the freeze were more diffuse and longer lasting. Its wide public appeal and support in Congress stood as a decisive rebuke of Reagan’s initial quest for nuclear superiority, and the protracted debate it provoked in the House mobilized and educated a core of activist members who went on to battle the Reagan and Bush administrations through the 1980s on other arms control issues, such as the “Star Wars” missile defense plan, procurement of MX missiles and B-2 bombers, testing of anti-satellite weapons, and ending underground nuclear tests.

In response to the shift in public mood and expectations, Reagan was compelled to tone down his calls for nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union, and he even dropped hints during his re-election campaign that his second term would not be as bereft of nuclear arms control accomplishments as the first. In March 1985, arms control talks resumed; and soon, Reagan was off to Geneva for his first summit with a Soviet leader, who fortuitously happened to be Mikhail Gorbachev, someone quite different from his Soviet predecessors. Although Kennedy’s policy disagreements with Reagan were varied and vast, they had a friendly personal relationship; and in 1986, with Reagan’s blessing, Kennedy traveled to Moscow, meeting with Gorbachev and serving as a go-between on arms control issues.

The political struggle to restore, deepen, and extend arms control beyond mere efforts to stabilize the nuclear balance did not end with the demise of the freeze movement after the 1984 election. Kennedy continued throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s to push the envelope of nuclear arms control, assisting U.S.-Soviet citizen-scientist arms control initiatives that helped bring an end to the Cold War, successfully fighting a costly government project to resume production of weapon-grade plutonium using laser isotope separation, pressing for an immediate bilateral agreement ending U.S. and Soviet fissile material production for weapons, and laying the political and technical groundwork for a legislated moratorium on U.S. nuclear test explosions. In the fall of 1992, Congress finally adopted that moratorium, which continues to this day.

His work on the nuclear freeze, however, most vividly showed Kennedy’s ability to apply his political gifts to arms control. Among his Senate peers, Kennedy was unique in perceiving the necessity of a Washington insider-grassroots alliance that would work together to blunt the dangerous lurch toward nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. Only now, with access to previously secret Soviet archives, are we fully able to appreciate how acutely fearful the aging, insular Soviet leadership had become of a pre-emptive U.S. nuclear attack during Reagan’s first term, and thus how close the world came to inadvertent nuclear war. Kennedy sensed how dangerous this situation was, and he had the connections, resources, energy, and commitment to act swiftly on this insight. In so doing, he boosted the budding national freeze movement far ahead of its own timetable, to a level it probably would never have attained on its own, and made it immediately relevant, when it was most needed, to abate the Reagan administration’s  mounting nuclear confrontation with the “Evil Empire.”

A final testament to what the freeze movement, with Kennedy’s help, accomplished is that a younger generation of potential leaders and opinion-makers, including a politically aware undergraduate at Columbia University named Barack Obama, was touched by it and became sensitized to the dangers of nuclear weapons and the compelling logic of arms control agreements to reduce and eventually eliminate this terrible risk to human survival.

Kennedy’s last major battle for nuclear arms control came in 2004, near the end of  President George W. Bush’s first term, when he joined with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to oppose proposed programs to develop new low-yield nuclear weapons and a “Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator” warhead. Some Bush partisans had come to believe these concepts foretold nuclear weapons that could destroy Saddam Hussein in his bunker or incinerate buried stocks of bio-weapons without taking out the settlement or city next door. Just as he had 23 years before, when Reagan’s nuclear warfighters swept into the Pentagon, Kennedy went after those who had fallen prey to the tactical nuclear illusion:

“Is the Senator…truly suggesting we should have used a nuclear weapon to hit Saddam Hussein’s bunkers last May? Baghdad is a city of over 5 million Iraqis. We would have killed hundreds of thousands of people, including American aid workers and journalists. We would have turned the entire area into a radioactive wasteland…. It would have poisoned our relations with the rest of the world and turned us into an international pariah for generations to come…. By building new nuclear weapons, the President would be rekindling the nuclear arms race that should have ended with the end of the Cold War.”[2]

The world survived the Cold War nuclear arms race that is now finally sputtering to a close, thanks, in no small measure, to the efforts of Edward Moore Kennedy. We will have to continue the passage to a nuclear-weapon-free world without him. He was our true compass. He will be missed.

Christopher Paine is nuclear program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He worked with Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) on nuclear arms control initiatives from 1981 to 1991 and was a member of his staff from 1987 to 1991.


1. A facsimile of the original S. J. Res 163 can be found in Douglas C. Waller, Congress and the Nuclear Freeze: An Inside Look at the Politics of a Mass Movement, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press,1987), p. 309.

2.  Congressional Record, June 15, 2004, p. S6752.


Corrected online November 5, 2009. See explanation.

With the recent passing of Edward Moore Kennedy, the arms control community has lost its longest-serving and most stalwart champion in the U.S. Senate.

Learning From the 1999 Vote on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty

Daryl G. Kimball

When President Bill Clinton described the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) as “the longest-sought, hardest fought prize in arms control history,” he was not exaggerating. In the face of international outrage over their rapid-fire pace of Cold War testing, U.S. and Soviet leaders attempted in 1958-1959 and again in 1963 to negotiate a comprehensive ban on all nuclear test explosions. They came close but were unable to agree on the details for inspections and had to settle for the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited atmospheric testing. The United States, Russia, and other states conducted hundreds more nuclear tests underground, which enabled further arms racing and proliferation.

Not until the end of the Cold War three decades later did Moscow (in 1991) and Washington (in 1992) manage to halt testing, unilaterally. In 1994 the two countries launched multilateral negotiations on a treaty banning all nuclear weapons test explosions in all environments.

The CTBT is crucial to disarmament and nonproliferation. By prohibiting all nuclear test explosions, it impedes the ability of states possessing nuclear weapons to field new and more deadly types of warheads, while helping to prevent the emergence of new nuclear-armed states. Moving forward on the CTBT remains an essential step toward restoring confidence in the beleaguered nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime. The nuclear-weapon states’ commitment to achieve the CTBT was a crucial part of the bargain that won the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 and the 2000 NPT Review Conference document.

Since it was opened for signature on September 24, 1996, 181 countries have signed the CTBT, and 150 countries have ratified it. The roster of ratifiers includes three of the five NPT nuclear-weapon states: France, Russia, and the United Kingdom. The other two, China and the United States, have signed but not ratified the CTBT. Under the treaty’s Annex 2, 44 specified countries must ratify the treaty to bring it into force. The United States is on that list and is one of nine such countries that have not ratified the treaty.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Senate’s brief debate and 51-48 vote against CTBT ratification on October 13, 1999, coupled with the Bush administration’s opposition to the treaty, has slowed the momentum toward the pact’s formal entry into force. Consequently, 13 years after the CTBT was opened for signature and exactly a decade after the Senate’s first vote on the treaty, the goal of CTBT entry into force remains unfulfilled and U.S. test ban policy remains in a state of limbo.

The situation is self-defeating and counterproductive. Given the U.S. signature of the CTBT and the Bush administration policy to maintain the U.S. nuclear test moratorium, the United States bears most CTBT-related responsibilities. There is neither technical need nor any political support for the renewal of U.S. nuclear testing. At the same time, it is vital to reduce the risk that other countries might conduct nuclear tests that could improve their nuclear capabilities. Yet, the U.S. failure to ratify the CTBT has diminished Washington’s ability to prod other nations to join the treaty and improve its ability to detect and deter clandestine nuclear testing.

There is cause for optimism. The prospects for U.S. ratification are better than they ever have been. Technical developments since 1999 have strengthened the arguments of treaty proponents, and the political alignment in the Senate has changed significantly. One key factor, though certainly not the only one, is that President Barack Obama pledged in his April 5 nuclear weapons speech in Prague that his administration “will immediately and aggressively” pursue U.S. ratification of the CTBT. In May, Gary Samore, the top White House adviser on arms control and proliferation, said the administration is “moving very deliberately in terms of doing the necessary technical and intelligence work to look at the important questions of verification, questions of American stockpile stewardship.”[1] This puts the administration on a pace that could allow for reconsideration of the treaty as early as mid-2010 or possibly later if sufficient Senate support does not emerge. To make sure their efforts are successful this time, the Obama administration and its Senate allies must understand the course of events that led to the 1999 debacle.

What Went Wrong in 1999

The record of the CTBT in the Senate from 1997 to October 1999 suggests that the October 13 vote was not simply “about the substance of the treaty,” as then-Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) claimed in a press conference after the vote and as Senate opponents such as Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) claim today. In fact, the “no” vote had less to do with the substantive issues and was more a consequence of the political miscalculations of treaty proponents; the failure of many senators to explore and understand core issues; the deep, partisan divisions in the nation’s capital; and the president’s failure to organize a strong, focused, and sustained campaign for the treaty.

Following Clinton’s transmittal of the CTBT to the Senate in September 1997, treaty opponents initially pursued a blocking strategy. They were well positioned to pursue such a strategy. Treaty approval requires a two-thirds majority, so opponents of a treaty need to muster only 34 votes. In addition, as members of the majority party at the time, they were able to exercise a great deal of control over the Senate calendar.

In January 1998, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) announced that he would not hold hearings on the CTBT “until the administration has submitted the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty] protocols and the Kyoto global-warming treaty.” The delaying strategy stifled debate and led many proponents and opponents to postpone preparations for the CTBT debate because they believed that the Republican Senate leadership would not agree to schedule time for debate and a vote.

In the early weeks of 1998, the Clinton administration made repeated statements supporting the CTBT and urging timely Senate consideration of the treaty. The administration also secured valuable support for the treaty from four former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the directors of the nuclear weapons laboratories, and the members of NATO, but it failed to build on the strong base of expert and public support for the CTBT and to take the case for the treaty directly to the Senate.

In January 1998, national security adviser Samuel “Sandy” Berger called the CTBT “one of the president’s top priorities,” but the administration had other concerns to which it gave precedence. Domestically, the White House was keen to pursue several policy objectives in the run-up to the midterm elections, and Helms’ “hostage-taking” strategy had raised the political cost of pushing for the CTBT.[2]

For its part, the administration’s national security team was preoccupied with securing Senate approval for NATO expansion. Instead of appointing a coordinator to build CTBT support, national security officials relied on the possibility that Russia would ratify START II, thus enabling them to send the ABM Treaty and START II protocols to the Senate for consideration and breaking Helms’ stranglehold on the CTBT. However, the Duma did not ratify START II, and other crises emerged. Through the first half of 1999, the CTBT remained on the political back burner as the Clinton administration and Congress were immobilized by the impeachment hearings and trial related to the Monica Lewinsky affair and soon after by NATO’s air war against Yugoslavia and charges of espionage at the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories.

Following the end of hostilities in the Balkans in the late spring of 1999, Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and pro-treaty nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) redoubled their efforts to raise attention to the plight of the CTBT and to press the Senate leadership to begin the process of considering the treaty.

On July 20, a bipartisan group of nine senators held a press briefing, citing overwhelming public support for the treaty and calling for prompt Senate action. That same day, all 45 Democratic senators wrote to Lott, asking for “all necessary hearings...to report the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to the Senate for timely consideration” before the October 1999 international conference on CTBT entry into force. In a separate letter, Republican Senators Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Jim Jeffords (Vt.) also urged the Senate leadership to begin the process of CTBT consideration.

As he had done for nearly two years, Helms rebuffed his Senate colleagues, sarcastically writing to Dorgan, “Inasmuch as you are clearly concerned about the need for swift Senate action on treaties, perhaps I can enlist your support in respectfully suggesting that you write to the President urging that he submit the ABM Protocols and the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate? I will be very interested in any response you receive from him.” The Raleigh News & Observer characterized Helms’ letter as a “playful response to supporters of the treaty [that] underscores his failure to take any of those concerns seriously. That’s a very unbecoming and dangerous attitude to have toward the serious problem of nuclear proliferation.”[3] The exchange simply reinforced attitudes on both sides.

Nongovernmental CTBT advocates accelerated their public education and Senate lobbying efforts. They encouraged concerned citizens to call their senators about the treaty, pushed newspapers to editorialize on the topic,[4] and collected support from former military and government officials, independent nuclear weapons scientists, and hundreds of public interest organizations.[5]

By late August 1999, news reports suggested that the White House and Senate Democrats were preparing for a pitched battle and were threatening to bring the Senate to a standstill unless Republicans agreed to hold hearings on the CTBT.[6] The renewed effort by CTBT proponents to jump-start Senate consideration of the treaty appeared to be all the more credible to CTBT opponents because of the appearance of White House-led coordination. In reality, most in the Clinton administration remained dubious about the prospect of real action on the treaty, and little more was done to build support.

Through August and September, treaty opponents responded by accelerating preparations for a possible vote on final passage. James Schlesinger, who once headed the Defense and Energy departments, and Kyl, in consultation with Lott, stepped up their lobbying efforts, which were aimed at uncommitted Republican senators. In addition, a number of prominent former national security officials were urged to voice their opposition. At the same time, Lott continued to try to prevent the scheduling of a vote. He told Dorgan and other Senate treaty supporters that he would speak with Helms about allowing hearings but that “this is a dangerous time to rush to judgment on such an important issue.... If it is called up preemptively, without appropriate consideration and thought, it could be defeated.”[7] Lott would soon propose a schedule that allowed less than five working days for consideration of the treaty.

In late September, apparently without information about the opposition’s quiet lobbying effort, Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.), along with other leading Senate CTBT proponents and the White House, decided to try to advance the issue by introducing a nonbinding Senate resolution that called for beginning the process to consider the CTBT and scheduling a vote on the treaty by March 31, 2000. The plan to press for the resolution, which was never introduced, was agreed to at a meeting between Berger and the Senate Democratic leadership on the evening of September 22. At the meeting, participants weighed the possibility that Lott might try to schedule a vote on the treaty on short notice, but they considered the possibility low and decided to press forward.

On September 29, having been informed of the Democrats’ intention to introduce their resolution, Helms and Lott abandoned their blocking strategy and proposed a vote on final passage of the treaty by October 7. Lott calculated that the Democrats might not agree to his terms for a truncated debate and that even if they did, he could assemble the votes needed to block ratification. According to Kyl, 34 senators had been persuaded to vote against ratification by September 14.[8]

Indeed, Lott’s initial proposal for 10 hours of debate on the treaty with only six days’ notice was not accepted by the Democratic leadership. Some Senate supporters, the White House, and the NGO community criticized the offer, calling it a “rush to judgment” because it did not provide sufficient time for hearings and a thorough and informed debate. In consultation with the White House, Senate Democratic leaders negotiated for more time and a more thorough series of hearings. On October 1, however, they decided to accept Lott’s final “take it or leave it” counteroffer for a vote as soon as October 12.

The decision to accept the offer was apparently motivated in part by the belief that the negative effect of continued inaction on the treaty could be as severe as outright defeat. It was very likely that if a vote were not scheduled before the end of 1999, and therefore before the 2000 election season, the treaty would not come before the Foreign Relations Committee and then the full Senate until the middle of 2001 or later. As Biden said on October 2, “The question is: If you are going to die, do you want to die with no one knowing who shot you, or do you want to go at least with the world knowing who killed you?”[9]

With the final vote on the CTBT just days away, Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Secretary of Defense William Cohen finally launched a high-profile, high-powered effort to win Senate support for the treaty. The White House highlighted the fact that the CTBT enjoyed the overwhelming support of U.S. military leaders, as well as leading weapons scientists and seismological experts. Clinton met with several undecided senators at the White House, while Cohen and Albright lobbied undecided senators and worked to communicate the importance of the issue through the news media.

Treaty supporters had recognized from the beginning of their campaign that they would need the support of several influential “internationalist” Republicans to win over the large bloc of undecided votes. Yet, over the course of 1998 and 1999, proponents had made little headway, as most senators ignored the issue and the administration did next to nothing to engage them on issues relating to the treaty.

By the end of October 8, the first day of Senate floor debate, the most crucial of these Republican senators—John Warner (Va.), Pete Domenici (N.M.), Richard Lugar (Ind.), and Chuck Hagel (Neb.)—as well as other Republican moderates, had declared their intention to vote against the treaty.

As important as their support might have been, the debate was effectively over before the administration’s CTBT effort moved into high gear during the week of October 4 and the conclusion of hearings on the treaty on October 7. The CTBT’s opponents, led by Helms and Kyl, had already lined up more than 34 “no” votes. The eleventh-hour efforts of the White House were simply too little too late.

Opposition Tinged With Regret

Even as they prepared to vote against the CTBT, many Republicans were clearly disturbed by the politically charged nature of the debate and frustrated with the situation presented to them by the leadership.

As Hagel observed on the opening morning of the Senate floor debate, “We are trapped in a political swamp as we attempt to compress a very important debate on a very important issue. My goodness, is that any way to responsibly deal with what may, in fact, be the most critical and important vote any of us in this chamber ever make? It is not.”

Even as he outlined his reasons for voting against the treaty, an anguished Lugar acknowledged that, “under the current agreement, a process that normally would take many months has been reduced to a few days. Many senators know little about this treaty. Even for those of us on national security committees, this has been an issue floating on the periphery of our concerns.”

Recognizing that the opportunity for give-and-take was absent and that the votes needed for ratification were not there, 62 senators wrote to the leadership on October 12 “in support of putting off final consideration until the next Congress.” Prominent Republicans, including Lawrence Eagleburger, who served as secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush, argued that “if the Senate cannot bring itself to do the right thing and approve the treaty, then senators should do the next best thing and pull it off the table.”[10]

Agreeing to postpone the vote required the same kind of “unanimous consent” agreement needed to schedule the vote, and some CTBT opponents had publicly said they opposed any such agreement. On the eve of the vote, Lott and Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) were on the verge of an agreement to postpone the vote; but Senators Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), Helms, James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Kyl, and Bob Smith (R-N.H.) reportedly raced to the majority leader’s office to tell him that they were prepared to block any new agreement that would postpone the vote.[11] These senators appear to have been motivated as much by their political instincts as their discomfort with the CTBT.

Smith argued in an October 12 floor speech, “Postponing a vote on the CTBT will allow the White House to claim victory in saving the treaty, and will allow the White House to continue to spin the American people by blaming opponents for not ratifying the treaty. There is no conservative victory in that.” In the end, Lott was either unwilling or unable to persuade this small group of hard-liners to delay the vote.

By taking up the treaty in what Lugar called “an abrupt and truncated manner that is so highly politicized,” the Senate was unable to sort out the many issues relating to treaty ratification. Unlike previous Senate deliberations on arms control treaties, there was no negotiation or exchange of views concerning possible conditions that might assuage concerns and win the support of skeptical senators, such as Clinton’s proposed set of six CTBT “safeguards” (see sidebar). Without the time necessary to achieve clarity and political consensus, the doubts and questions raised about the CTBT effectively undercut potential support for the treaty.

Looking Forward

It will never be known whether it might have been possible to win the Senate’s approval with greater presidential leadership, a more collegial Senate culture, and a more effective presentation of the case for the treaty. The future of the CTBT, however, may well depend on the lessons that decision-makers and the public draw from the 1997-1999 period and how they apply those lessons in the coming year or two.

Although the outcome of any arms control treaty debate depends on politics as much as on hard-headed national security considerations, a first step toward repairing the damage from the October 1999 debate and building support for the CTBT should be a more thorough and substantive exchange of views between the executive branch and Congress on core technical issues concerning the treaty.

Winning over new, uncommitted senators and changing the minds of some who voted no in 1999 will require some time and new evidence that gives them reason to support the CTBT. Most importantly, the administration must address lingering Republican concerns about the verifiability of the CTBT by documenting how and why the International Monitoring System (IMS), on-site inspections, and transparency measures specified in the CTBT, combined with U.S. intelligence capabilities, can effectively detect and deter militarily significant cheating.

Advances in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) nuclear weapons Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) over the past decade have significantly increased confidence in the reliability of the existing U.S. arsenal. A 2002 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel, which included three former nuclear weapons laboratory directors, found that the current SSP provides the technical capabilities that are necessary to maintain confidence in the safety and reliability of the existing seven types of nuclear warheads in the active stockpile, “provided that adequate resources are made available...and are properly focused on this task.”[12] According to the NAS panel, age-related defects, mainly related to non-nuclear components, can be expected, “but nuclear testing is not needed to discover these problems and is not likely to be needed to address them.”

Although the U.S. nuclear arsenal is aging, the aging process is better understood today than ever before, and confidence in the ability to maintain the warheads is increasing at a faster rate than the uncertainties. For example, in 2006 the Department of Energy announced that studies by Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories showed that the plutonium primaries, or pits, of most U.S. nuclear weapons “will have minimum lifetimes of at least 85 years,” which is about twice as long as previous official estimates.

Contrary to the allegations of some CTBT opponents in 1999, the cessation of nuclear explosion testing has not caused the laboratories to lose technical competence. Rather, significant advances have been achieved as researchers were able to study the physics underlying weapons performance in greater depth, undistracted by the demands of a nuclear weapons test explosion program.

According to weapons physicist Richard Garwin, the new evidence on the longevity of weapons plutonium “has removed any urgency to engineer and manufacture new design replacement warheads.” Garwin says the continued performance of legacy warheads can be more reliably certified than new ones.[13]

Test ban monitoring and verification capabilities have also improved. As the July 2002 NAS panel report documents, with the combined capabilities of the IMS, national technical means, and civilian seismic networks, no potential CTBT violator can be confident that a nuclear explosion of any military utility could escape detection. The IMS itself has more than doubled since 1999, with approximately 280 of the planned 321 global monitoring stations now built, including a new array of highly capable noble-gas monitoring stations that can detect minute amounts of the radioactive gases emitted by underground explosions into the atmosphere.

The developments over the past decade led George Shultz, secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, to say at an April 17 press briefing in Rome that his fellow Republicans “might have been right voting against it some years ago, but they would be right voting for it now, based on these new facts.”

Unlike the Clinton administration, which failed to commission a blue-ribbon review of technical issues before the 1999 vote,[14] the Obama administration has already put into motion the studies and reviews necessary to establish the technical and policy basis for the Senate’s reconsideration and approval. These include a new intelligence community monitoring assessment of test ban monitoring capabilities, as well as an updated version of the 2002 NAS report. Both of these reviews are scheduled to be completed by early 2010.

In the final analysis, undecided senators will have to make a net benefit analysis. Given that the United States will need to maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal for some time to come, given U.S. interest in detecting and deterring surreptitious nuclear test explosions, and given the importance of strengthening the beleaguered nuclear nonproliferation regime, is the United States more secure ratifying a treaty that bans an activity that is unnecessary for U.S. security but would help others improve their nuclear capabilities, or is it in the U.S. interest to stand outside the treaty?

Political Changes

The political environment has changed significantly since 1999. Most obviously, the Democrats will hold about 15 more seats for the upcoming CTBT vote than the 45 they had 10 years ago. Because they are in the majority now, the Democrats also have much greater control over the Senate calendar than they did before. Under Senate rules, however, the minority party and even individual senators can exert considerable influence over the chamber’s business.

Also, even though a base of 60 is far better than a base of 45, it still means that the Obama administration will need to win the support of at least seven Republicans, a difficult but attainable goal.

There are some encouraging signs. A growing array of Republican and Democratic national security opinion leaders recognizes the value of the CTBT and is calling for reconsideration. In 2007, former Republican Secretaries of State Shultz and Henry Kissinger, along with two Democrats, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn (Ga.), called on the Senate to initiate a bipartisan process “to achieve ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, taking advantage of recent technical advances, and working to secure ratification by other key states.”[15] President George H. W. Bush’s national security adviser, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, and former NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks have also recently endorsed U.S. ratification of the CTBT.[16]During the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Senator John McCain (Ariz.), who voted against the treaty in 1999, outlined a policy that included “taking another look” at the CTBT. He made similar comments earlier this year. Lugar also has indicated that he might vote differently this time.

Avoiding Political Ambushes

In spite of the changes since 1999, some of the potential pitfalls are similar. For example, the Obama administration must not allow CTBT opponents to sap support before the formal debate on the treaty even begins. The White House and the Department of State are now laying the groundwork in advance of formal reconsideration of the treaty, but opponents are also preparing.

One potential advantage CTBT opponents will have is that the Senate is expected to debate the forthcoming START follow-on agreement some time in the first quarter of 2010 and prior to the CTBT. Senate opponents of the CTBT, such as Kyl, have already declared their intent to condition their support for the START follow-on on the acceptance of a set of conditions that would shape and direct the administration’s future policies and budgets for support and “modernization” of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and stockpile. The administration and Senate CTBT supporters may need to provide such assurances about their commitment to maintain the stockpile to win the support of some Republicans for the CTBT.

If the administration’s fiscal year 2011 budget request includes major additional funding for weapons complex infrastructure investments and new-design warheads or if it allows nuclear weapons “modernization” conditions to be attached to the resolution of ratification for the START follow-on agreement, some potential Senate supporters of the CTBT may pocket that and fail to provide their support when the time comes to vote for the treaty itself.

Some senior administration officials are clearly alert to the challenge. “I think there are a lot of people that still hope for the return” of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program,[17] “and they are going to be sadly disappointed,” Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen O. Tauscher said in a recent interview.[18]

Tauscher has correctly noted that new-design warhead approaches, such as the RRW plan advanced by the Bush administration and rejected by Congress, are less attractive than other measures, such as refurbishing existing warheads to maintain and modernize the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

Although some Republicans will push for new-design warheads, Tauscher said the administration would hold firm and would instead put forward a more robust stockpile management plan that increases the confidence in existing warheads and “negates the need” for the RRW program.[19]


The next 12 to 18 months may represent the best opportunity for U.S. ratification of the CTBT in a generation. Moving forward and gaining the necessary 67 Senate votes in support of ratification will be a difficult but attainable task requiring favorable political conditions and a well-executed ratification campaign that draws on the lessons of the failed CTBT ratification effort in 1999. With sustained presidential leadership, bipartisan support from key senators and former test ban skeptics, and a realistic assessment of the significant improvements in the ability to maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal and detect nuclear test explosions, the outcome of the Senate’s second vote on the CTBT can be different from the one 10 years ago. A Senate vote for the CTBT would repair the damage of 1999 and advance the global effort to reduce nuclear dangers.

Daryl G. Kimball has served as executive director of the Arms Control Association since 2001. He previously was security programs director for Physicians for Social Responsibility, where he helped lobby for the U.S. nuclear test moratorium legislation of 1992 and negotiation of a zero-yield Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Kimball was also executive director of the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers, where he led a group of nongovernmental organizations in their efforts to win support for U.S. CTBT ratification.


1. Gary Samore, Remarks at the Arms Control Association annual meeting, Washington, May 20, 2009, www.armscontrol.org/node/3671.

2. For further details, see Daryl G. Kimball, “Holding the CTBT Hostage in the Senate: The ‘Stealth’ Strategy of Helms and Lott,” Arms Control Today, June/July 1998, www.armscontrol.org/act/1998_06-07/kimjj98.

3. “Nukes-Not Fun and Games,” The Raleigh News & Observer, July 30, 1999.

4. Between September 23, 1997, and October 13, 1999, approximately 120 U.S. editorials were published in favor of the CTBT, while approximately 10 recommended rejection.

5. For a list of supporters, see Congressional Record, October 8, 1999, pp. S12262-12263.

6. Eric Schmitt, “Democrats Ready for Fight to Save Test Ban Treaty,” The New York Times, August 30, 1999.

7. Congressional Record, September 10, 1999, p. S10722.

8. Richard Lowry, “The Test-Ban Ban,” National Review, November 8, 1999.

9. “Nuclear Test Ban Vote Set for October,” Associated Press, October 2, 1999.

10. Lawrence S. Eagleburger, “The World Is Watching: Don’t Kill the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” The Washington Times, October 11, 1999.

11. Eric Schmitt, “Senate Kills Test Ban Treaty in Crushing Loss for Clinton,” The New York Times, October 14, 1999; Lowry, “Test-Ban Ban.”

12. NationalAcademy of Sciences (NAS), “Technical Issues Related to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” 2002.

13. Richard L. Garwin, “A Different Kind of Complex: The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons and the Nuclear Weapons Enterprise,” Arms Control Today, December 2008, www.armscontrol.org/act/2008_12/Garwin.

14. After the defeat of the CTBT in 1999, Clinton appointed former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili to review the policy and technical issues related to the treaty. His report was completed in January 2001. See www.armscontrol.org/act/2001_01-02/ctbtreport. The NAS did not complete its assessment of technical issues related to the CTBT until 2002.

15. George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn, “Toward a Nuclear Weapons Free World,” The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007.

16. Council on Foreign Relations Task Force, “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy,” April 2009.

17. The RRW program is a proposal by the administration of President George W. Bush to design and develop a new-design warhead as a substitute for the W-76 warhead, which has just undergone a life-extension refurbishment. Congress rejected the RRW program mainly on the basis that it was not considered technically necessary.

18. Josh Rogin, “Tauscher: Sorry, Republicans: No Return of the Reliable Replacement Warhead,” The Cable, September 15, 2009, www.thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/09/15/tauscher_sorry_republicans_no_return_of_the_reliable_replacement_warhead.

19. Ibid.


When President Bill Clinton described the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) as “the longest-sought, hardest fought prize in arms control history,” he was not exaggerating. In the face of international outrage over their rapid-fire pace of Cold War testing, U.S. and Soviet leaders attempted in 1958-1959 and again in 1963 to negotiate a comprehensive ban on all nuclear test explosions. They came close but were unable to agree on the details for inspections and had to settle for the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited atmospheric testing. The United States, Russia, and other states conducted hundreds more nuclear tests underground, which enabled further arms racing and proliferation.

Making a Mark in Space: An Analysis of Obama’s Options For a New U.S. Space Policy

Victoria Samson

The change of U.S. administrations creates the opportunity for a broad assessment of the country’s space policy, starting with some basic questions.

What should the goal of national space policies be? Are they trying to ensure freedom of action for certain states and not others? Does the definition of “freedom of action” need to be updated to reflect the increasing number of space actors? Should the focus be on establishing future cooperative efforts in space, or is space being preserved just for its own sake?

The Obama administration, because of its general philosophical bent, seems likely to move toward a more multilateral approach to its space policy. Such a shift would shape the debate on space in the international community. Given roadblocks in the Conference on Disarmament (CD), however, traditional arms control routes may not be the best way to ensure the sustainability of space. International collaboration on space can still be effective, but it may require a different means to achieve the end goal of a sustainable space environment that can be used for generations to come. Formal treaties might not be the only way, or even the best, to improve space’s sustainability; other mechanisms that are not legally binding could be just as effective in the long run.

Changes in Washington

The Obama administration is presently reviewing U.S. space policy. This review typically takes place during a president’s second term because of the issue’s relatively low priority. In this case, it seems that the Obama administration will be producing a new policy within its first term, possibly within the next year or so. Trying to predict what will end up in the policy is much like reading tea leaves. In the interim, the White House Web site has this to say about space: “The full spectrum of U.S. military capabilities depends on our space systems…. We will cooperate with our allies and the private sector to identify and protect against intentional and unintentional threats to U.S. and allied space capabilities.”[1] This language is a step back from what was on the White House Web site shortly after President Barack Obama was inaugurated. At that time, the site said the Obama administration would strive to achieve a ban on weapons that “interfere with military and commercial satellites.” That wording has since been removed from the site, possibly because Obama’s official space policy has not yet been formalized.

Earlier Obama policy papers, which fully discuss his platform for U.S. space capabilities and priorities, may give an indication of the new administration’s goals for its space policy. According to presidential campaign documents released in August 2008, “Barack Obama will use space as a strategic tool of U.S. diplomacy to strengthen relations with allies, reduce future conflicts, and engage members of the developing world.”[2] A section headlined “Emphasizing an International, Cooperative Approach to Space Security” said that “[d]eveloping an international approach to minimizing space debris, enhancing capabilities for space situational awareness, and managing increasingly complex space operations are important steps towards sustaining our space operations.”[3] (Space situational awareness refers to the capacity to monitor objects orbiting the planet. The United States is currently keeping track of about 19,000 objects, down to the size of a softball; but it is expected that hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces are on orbit, leaving expensive space assets at risk.)

The campaign documents also said that Obama “opposes the stationing of weapons in space and the development of anti-satellite weapons” and that the United States “must show leadership by engaging other nations in discussions of how best to stop the slow slide towards a new battlefield.”[4] Finally, they stated that Obama would “work with other nations to develop ‘rules of the road’ for space to ensure all nations have a common understanding of acceptable behavior.”[5]

The exact words used in any modification of the U.S. space policy might be different, but the likely overall theme is consistent: an emphasis on the shared nature of space and responsibility to make certain that all states can utilize the space environment without endangering it for others.

Until the Obama administration comes up with its own version, the official U.S. policy is the one articulated in 2006 by the Bush administration in National Security Presidential Directive 49, which has a strong unilateralist streak. Although that document stated that the United States “is committed to the exploration and use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity,” it also said that “the United States will: preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so; take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests.”[6] Arms control advocates were alarmed by the section that said, “The United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space. Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests.”[7]

Some of this wording was very similar to that in the Clinton administration’s 1996 presidential decision directive on space policy. That document asserted that the United States “will develop, operate, and maintain space control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space, and, if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries. The capabilities may also be enhanced by diplomatic, legal, or military measures to preclude an adversary’s hostile use of space systems and services.”[8] Yet, the Bush policy’s formal opposition to legal regimes “or other restrictions” was new. Some of it was a nod to a long-standing U.S. policy that because there was no space arms race, there was no need for any kind of arms control agreement on the matter. It also highlighted the Bush administration’s concern with unfettered freedom of action and underlined the administration’s unilateralist tendencies.

The Obama review probably will result in a U.S. policy that is more amenable to multilateral space efforts. One indication of this likely shift is that the United States has been quietly reaching out to allies as part of an interagency review on space to obtain their input. The Space Posture Review and the Quadrennial Defense Review, which are expected to be completed by the end of 2009, will also affect the Obama policy. A key goal of those assessments is to determine what technologies and capabilities the U.S. military needs if it is to maintain its ability to defend the United States and its national security interests.

Recent comments by Pentagon officials indicate that the United States will continue its shift toward a more multilateral approach in space. For example, in May 2009, Brig. Gen. Susan Helms, director of plans and policy for U.S. Strategic Command, said, “With the cost of space development increasing, it is in all our interests to work together.”[9] Space is “no longer the desolate and remote ocean,” but rather a “central station” and “part of the global economy,” she said.[10]

Retired Gen. Lester Lyles, who headed the National Research Council’s Committee on the Rationale and Goals of the U.S. Civil Space Program, also emphasized the need for cooperation. “The United States can no longer pursue space activities on the assumption of its unchallengeable dominance as evidenced by the view of other nations that the United States is not the only, or in some cases even the best, option for space partnerships,” he told Congress in July 2009.[11]

Red Tape at the CD

During the Bush administration, U.S. officials strongly argued that there was no need for new agreements on space. Christina Rocca, U.S. ambassador to the CD, said in February 2007 that universalization of existing conventions “is a much more practical and effective step towards guaranteeing the peaceful use of outer space.”[12] In a March 2008 roundtable, Paula DeSutter, assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance, and implementation, said there is “no—I repeat, no—on-going space arms race.”[13]

Under the Obama administration, the U.S. position shifted. The U.S. delegate to the CD, Chargé d’Affaires Garold Larson, stated in February 2009 that the collision of an Iridium satellite with a nonfunctioning Russian satellite that month “emphasizes the vital importance of international cooperation between governments and industry, which is critical in the future to improve space safety.”[14] He said he looked “to further productive discussions in the CD in connection with outer space.”[15] Three months later, the CD finally, after more than a decade of gridlock, agreed to a program of work.

As the United Nations’ primary disarmament forum, the CD has for many years been the venue for discussions on preventing an arms race in space. The CD differs from the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) because the latter has a civil space focus while the former addresses military issues. The committees do not have a formal relationship with each other, and, for a long time, maintained a rigid separation. More recently, however, the participants have recognized that some issues affect both committees.

The program of work to which the CD agreed in May created four working groups: prevention of an arms race in space, fissile material controls, nuclear disarmament, and negative security guarantees. The agreement was hailed by observers as a long-needed break in the CD’s gridlock, but the organization shifted back to form fairly quickly. Space arms control in the CD is now even more firmly linked to nuclear issues. In August, the Pakistani delegation, led by Ambassador Zamir Akram, fretted about vague national security concerns related to the work program and implied that Pakistan was withdrawing its support from the program of work, effectively shutting down the CD because the organization operates by consensus. Akram highlighted Pakistan’s concern that the work program would focus primarily on fissile material control and said, “We wanted to see a program of work being implemented in a way that would set the stage for a balanced outcome on all the four issues.”[16]

The Pakistani action destroyed any hopes for progress this year. Because the work program is valid only for a given year, however, a new one would have to have been created next year anyway. This latest stumbling block may result in another long halt in the CD’s operations, and meaningful arms control solutions should not be expected from the organization in the near term.

Other International Options

A separate treaty attempt on space arms control came in February 2008, when Russia and China introduced the Treaty on the Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT). Following its introduction, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “It’s time, by way of preempting, to start serious practical work in this field. Indeed, to prevent a threat is always easier than to remove it.”[17] At the same time, in a message to the CD, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said,

Preventing the weaponization of outer space and an arms race in outer space and ensuring the peace and tranquillity of outer space are goals consistent with the shared interests of all countries. It is therefore essential that the international community develop new legal instruments to strengthen the existing legal regime on outer space. The United Nations General Assembly has, over a period of more than 20 years, adopted resolutions by an overwhelming majority which reiterate that the Conference on Disarmament must play a leading role in the negotiation of a multilateral agreement to prevent an arms race in outer space.[18]

With its focus on banning certain types of technologies, the PPWT has been criticized for not limiting destructive or dangerous behavior in space. That aspect of the treaty leaves open the possibility of disputes over technologies that ostensibly are not military in purpose but do retain a weapons capability. Also, the treaty is carefully worded to allow the research, development, and deployment of ground-based anti-satellite weapons (ASATs), which both Russia and China see as essential to combating U.S. space power, while banning space-based missile defense interceptors, something the United States could be holding onto as an option for its overall ballistic missile defense system. The international community has compiled a list of principal questions and comments on the PPWT, and Russia and China are examining the list as of this writing. The two countries’ official response, when released, will probably provide a stepping stone for further discussion of the treaty.

There are four main space treaties currently in force; all of them were products of COPUOS. They are the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bans placing weapons of mass destruction in space; the 1968 Rescue Agreement, which calls for cooperation in rescuing astronauts who are in distress; the 1972 Liability Convention, which requires compensation for damage a state’s space objects may do to another state’s assets in space, on earth, or in flight; and the 1974 Registration Convention, which dictates that there must be international notification of space launches. These are good building blocks for international space law, but they do not cover gray areas such as orbital debris and interference with other countries’ space assets.

Informal Arrangements

Although the CD should not be cut out of the discussion altogether, a rigorous assessment of the situation indicates that alternative options should be explored. By developing agreements, albeit unofficial ones, on proper and responsible space behavior, the international community can lay the groundwork for more formal agreements later. This is where operator best practices and the construction of confidence- and security-building measures can be very fruitful. By disentangling states from binding legal agreements, the international community can focus its attention on creating instruments that can have positive effects on the space environment now and not be forced to wait for an indeterminate amount of time before the international community is completely in sync. Furthermore, it is likely that some space powers will be more responsive to these approaches if they are not in treaty form. For example, in January 2008, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Threat Reduction Donald Mahley said the U.S. approach is “not to tie pragmatic TCBMs [transparency and confidence-building measures] to proposals for space arms control treaties.”[19] That attitude may change with the upcoming Obama space policy, but some remnants of it will probably stubbornly stick around.

Orbital debris is one area in which these unofficial agreements can be productive. A consensus by all space actors, civil and military, is emerging that it is an important issue, and international debris mitigation guidelines are already fairly widely accepted. For example, Nicholas Johnson, chief scientist for orbital debris at NASAJohnsonSpaceCenter, testified to Congress in April 2009 that “[w]e have time. The [space] environment is certainly degrading over time, but at a relatively low rate. If we find that voluntary measures are not working to an extent we would like, other options are certainly possible in the future, but so far we’ve found very good response at the voluntary level.”[20]

A kinetic-energy ASAT ban is another option that would be slightly more controversial but has the potential for success. Unlike the PPWT, this would prohibit actions that would prove hazardous to the space environment and avoids the sticky issue of defining an ASAT, as well as concerns about restrictions on “dual-use” technologies, which have commercial as well as military applications. One question is how this proposed ban would affect U.S. missile defense systems. If it is explicitly worded so that the ban is on actions only, then the United States, as well as Japan, South Korea, and other countries that have purchased or are considering purchasing U.S. missile defenses, would have no cause to worry. Operation Burnt Frost, in which the United States shot down a deorbiting U.S. spy satellite in February 2008 with a modified interceptor from its ship-based missile defense system, demonstrated that kinetic-kill missile defense interceptors have innate offensive capabilities. As Joan Johnson-Freese has pointed out, concerns about countries’ intent in space can never truly be eliminated because much of space technology has this dual quality, but they can “be lessened.”[21] (The comment was referring to China’s space program, but it also applies to other countries.)

In discussions of these more informal agreements on protecting the sustainability of space, emerging space powers need to be included. Otherwise, countries that so far have made relatively small investments in their space programs might not be as interested in signing on to agreements, formal or otherwise, because that could be seen as solidifying the U.S. lead in space capabilities. The current space powers should see that it is to their own advantage to broaden the roster of participants. If the discussions included emerging space powers, those countries would be able to make sure the resulting agreements addressed their concerns and protected their interests. Such a process would give these countries a stake in preserving the space environment and therefore would increase the likelihood that they would abide by the agreements. Perhaps this can be done through the development of regional space policies through existing fora that would allow space powers ways in which to develop common grounds on space issues before bringing them to the larger and possibly more contentious table.

Closer to home, the United States can take steps that would give it more credibility in the international arena when discussing efforts such as space operator best practices. The first and best step would be the inclusion of formal wording in the U.S. space policy document spelling out the U.S. interest in multilateral elements of space security and how such elements would work in concert with unilateral elements. Another move that would demonstrate the U.S. commitment to change would be relieving some of the restrictions of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. These regulations have severely wounded the U.S. position in the international satellite market and done very little to increase U.S. national security. The United States could, for example, take commercially available space technology that is not militarily sensitive off the United States Munitions List. Although potentially difficult to change as the United States strives to strike a balance between opening up its satellite market and meeting national security concerns, this step would send a strong message to the rest of the world that the United States is serious about cooperation in space.

Meanwhile, the United States should continue certain policies that bolster its position when negotiating in informal multilateral fora about space. One is cooperation on space situational awareness. The U.S. Commercial and Foreign Entities program allows the sharing of information from its satellite catalogue with interested parties and is a good start for enhancing this awareness. Another long-held policy that should be maintained is that U.S. counterspace efforts are temporary and reversible, with the goal of not permanently damaging or destroying another country’s space assets. A change in this policy could lead to a situation that Bruce MacDonald of the U.S. Institute of Peace cited in March 2009 congressional testimony: “[W]e could create a self-fulfilling prophecy: as nations like China or Russia see evidence of U.S. attempted space hegemony, they would accelerate their own efforts, just as we would if the roles were reversed.”[22] An example of that came earlier that same month, when Russian Gen. Valentin Popovkin, a deputy defense minister, hinted that Russia was working on an ASAT capability because “we can’t sit back and quietly watch others doing that.”[23]

Finally, as two of the preeminent space powers, China and the United States should each make a special effort to reach out to the other and conduct bilateral discussions about cooperative efforts in space. This would do much to dispel some of the mistrust and apprehension that has arisen between the two countries with regard to their space programs, research, and intentions. Doing this would also increase the chances of removing major stumbling blocks that could arise in later multilateral space discussions.

In the end, the determining factor for any change in policies to enhance U.S. space capabilities will be issues in international relationships “that have less to do with our ability and more to do with our willingness,” as Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in February.[24] Multilateral efforts to handle common space issues outside the traditional arms control arena can be very effectual, but in order to succeed, they require commitment and a shared desire to guarantee the sustainability of space. Otherwise, the international community runs the risk of losing its chance to create common ground and have a positive effect on the space environment.

Victoria Samson is the Washington office director for the Secure World Foundation. From 2001 to 2009, she was a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information. Prior to joining the center, she was the senior policy associate at the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers and worked as a consultant to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization’s Directorate of Intelligence.


1. The White House, “Defense,” n.d., www.whitehouse.gov/issues/defense/.

2. Obama for America, “Advancing the Frontiers of Space Exploration,” n.d., www.fladems.com/page/-/Obama_Space.pdf (released Aug. 17, 2008).

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. “U.S. National Space Policy,” Aug. 31, 2006, www.ostp.gov/galleries/default-file/Unclassified%20National%20Space%20Policy%20--%20FINAL.pdf.

7. Ibid.

8. Donald A. Mahley, “The State of Space,” Remarks at the Space Policy Institute, Washington, Jan. 24, 2008.

9. “MilSpace Panels Stress Urgency of Space Debris and Security Issues,” Satellite News, April 30, 2009.

10. Ibid.

11. Gen. Lester Lyles (Ret.), “Enhancing the Relevance of Outer Space,” Testimony to the House Committee on Science and Technology Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, July 16, 2009.

12. Reaching Critical Will, “Governmental Positions on the Core Issues at the Conference on Disarmament: Publicly Stated Positions since 1 January 2003,” July 27, 2009, www.reachingcriticalwill.org/political/cd/positions_matrix.html.

13. Paula A. DeSutter, “Is an Outer Space Arms Control Treaty Verifiable?” Remarks to the George C. Marshall Institute Roundtable, Washington, March 4, 2008, www.marshall.org/pdf/materials/592.pdf.

14. Reaching Critical Will, “Governmental Positions on the Core Issues at the Conference on Disarmament.”

15. Ibid.

16. Jonathan Lynn, “Geneva Nuclear Arms Talks Fail to Overcome Block,” Reuters, Aug. 31, 2009.

17. “Proposal Seeks to Keep Space Arms-Free,” Xinhua News Agency, Feb. 14, 2008.

18. Conference on Disarmament, “Final Record of the One Thousand and Eighty-Ninth Plenary Meeting,” CD/PV.1089, Feb. 12, 2008, p. 8, http://disarmament.un.org.

19. Mahley, “State of Space.”

20. “Keeping the Space Environment Safe for Civil and Commercial Users,” Federal News Service, April 28, 2009 (House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics hearing).

21. Joan Johnson-Freese, “The Future of the Chinese Space Program,” Futures, October 2009.

22. Bruce W. MacDonald, “Space and U.S. Security,” Statement before the Committee on House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, March 18, 2009.

23. William Matthews, “Keep Space Debris-Free, U.S. Congress Told,” Defense News, March 30, 2009.

24. Jason Simpson, “Analyst: Nation Must Be Agenda-Setter in International Space Policy,” Inside the Air Force, Feb. 13, 2009.


The change of U.S. administrations creates the opportunity for a broad assessment of the country’s space policy, starting with some basic questions.

What should the goal of national space policies be? Are they trying to ensure freedom of action for certain states and not others? Does the definition of “freedom of action” need to be updated to reflect the increasing number of space actors? Should the focus be on establishing future cooperative efforts in space, or is space being preserved just for its own sake?

Getting to Zero Starts Here: Tactical Nuclear Weapons

By Catherine M. Kelleher and Scott L. Warren

A critical debate on nuclear weapons is once again in the limelight. President Barack Obama has unequivocally, ambitiously, and repeatedly stated his ultimate vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Under the Obama policy, zero nuclear weapons is, for the first time in U.S. history, an operational, tangible U.S. policy goal and thus a measuring stick against which to judge a host of shorter-range, less ambitious initiatives or actions.[1]

Obama has acknowledged that the goal will not be reached during his presidency, and probably not even during his lifetime. Nevertheless, it is a dramatic move, probably the most dramatic foreign policy commitment in a principally domestic presidential agenda.

The question of how to reduce or eliminate tactical nuclear weapons should be (and, Obama experts promise, will be) among the first in this ambitious campaign, once an agreement extending the logic and verification protocols of START is reached. An agreement to extend key provisions of the treaty, at least on an interim basis, will have to be reached by the time the current treaty expires December 5. A formal agreement is expected to follow early next year. Tactical nuclear weapons are an important priority partly because of their seemingly easy solution, but also because the challenges they present are emblematic of those in the larger arms control debate.

Strategically, the weapons have little real value in the post-Cold War climate. They are vulnerable to a rogue or terrorist attack, too small or risky for independent military use, and unpopular with military forces and most political audiences. Lately, maintaining these weapons has provided many more disadvantages than advantages for the countries that possess them in their arsenals—France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—at least as measured in terms of the costs of safety and security, of the operational burden of dedicating and preserving delivery aircraft, and of ensuring ongoing certification of forces. Even within NATO, for all but a few countries, tactical weapons have come to represent a decreasingly meaningful symbolic commitment rather than a concrete deterrent or escalation tripwire. From a U.S. standpoint, the relatively low numbers of such weapons that still exist, at approximately 1,000 in the U.S. arsenal with only 20-25 percent of that number located outside U.S. borders, would seem to make it easy to secure and verify their ultimate elimination.[2]

Yet, these weapons also represent one of the more complex components of reaching complete nuclear disarmament and serve as an effective microcosm of the challenges in securing U.S.-Russian agreement and eventually a global consensus on how and why to get to zero. This issue goes to the heart of what a U.S. nuclear umbrella entails, especially in Europe, in the 21st century. The United States must take the lead by setting the pace and orchestrating the multiple bargains involved.

The principal issues with the elimination of tactical nuclear weapons are political and conceptual, rather than straightforwardly military, with the single but critical exception of the risk of terrorist seizure. The notion of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, with tactical weapons serving as a real or potential down payment on a security commitment, particularly in Europe, still has significant traction within the Obama administration. Key factions in the Pentagon and perhaps in the Department of State argue that the United States must still provide allies substantial security support, especially with Iran and North Korea deeply engaged in nuclear programs. This is the case despite the indifference of many NATO allies toward technical weapons or, in some cases, direct demands for elimination. Some European countries, especially elites in the newer central and eastern European member states, attach a high symbolic importance to the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on European soil as evidence of U.S. security guarantees. Turkey also is thought to be particularly concerned about any withdrawal because it faces a more direct threat from Iranian missiles, although it is now included in the new U.S. plans for a European missile defense system.[3]

Negotiations with Russia will not prove easier. The number of Russian tactical nuclear weapons is significantly higher than that of the active U.S. forces or stockpiles, and the Russians assign them greater strategic importance in offsetting conventional weakness and deterring future threats from their south and east. There are also clear competitive political stakes. Official Russian statements have explicitly tied drawdowns in tactical weapons to a general geopolitical rebalancing, given U.S. conventional superiority and the ongoing Russian opposition to NATO expansion, past and future. The Russians have also stated that they will not consider reducing their tactical nuclear stockpile until all U.S. weapons are removed from European territory. As a principle, they have essentially declared that all tactical weapons should be based on national territories of nuclear-weapon states.[4]

As Obama tries to shift U.S. nuclear policy toward zero against substantial domestic and international odds, he will have to reconcile the traditional Cold War/alliance commitment logic behind tactical nuclear deployments with his own long-term objectives and the present, complicated political context. It is now time to consider and suggest new bargains and methods to deal with the perennial tactical nuclear issues. The question of preserving the essentials of extended deterrence for crucial allies without the physical presence of nuclear weapons should be high on the agenda of those working on the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and within the broader national and international communities. Recently suggested plans include significantly reducing the number of tactical nuclear weapons, rethinking the logic of extended deterrence requirements with the Russians and NATO allies, and finding ways to reconcile the tactical nuclear withdrawals from Europe with a broader bargain: the safe, secure centralization of a transparent tactical weapons stockpile. One promising road was outlined at the July U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) conference in Omaha: U.S. withdrawals of and reductions in the numbers of tactical weapons in return for Russian reductions and a centralization of a countable Russian stockpile away from frontline forces.

Resolving these dilemmas and crafting responses that will be acceptable to the Russians and concerned allies requires an understanding of the history of the development and deployment of the weapons, an analysis of the political debate, and a grasp of the possible responses for a way forward.

Early History

From their initial development and deployment in the late 1950s and early 1960s, tactical nuclear weapons generally have played a limited role in policy debates centering on reducing the overall nuclear threat. Most of the historic nuclear debate between Russia and the United States has focused on long-range, or strategic, nuclear weapons, rather than tactical, or nonstrategic, weapons. The smaller scope and size of tactical weapons was seen as implying minimal risk to national populations and homeland property, with their primary operational effect being on overseas territories and military operations.

The U.S. military has defined the employment of tactical nuclear weapons as “the use of nuclear weapons by land, sea, or air forces against opposing forces, supporting installations or facilities, in support of operations that contribute to the accomplishment of a military mission of limited scope, or in support of the military commander’s scheme of maneuver, usually limited to the area of military operations.”[5] Tactical weapons were primarily intended to support troops in the battlefield, demonstrate intent to escalate, or constitute a last warning before escalation to all-out nuclear war. Weapons designers and military planners sought credible battlefield roles without much success. Ground and sea use increasingly were judged too expensive, too dangerous to U.S. and allied troops, or too difficult to subject to discriminating centralized control. Effective air use required dispersed deployments, quick-response capability, and dedicated crews and forces, which greatly increased problems and the costs of security and storage. The significance of tactical nuclear weapons therefore became largely political, as Washington sought to implement extended deterrence, the policy of signaling willingness to protect NATO and other allies from the Soviet nuclear and conventional threats.

The waning of the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s brought about a drastic reduction in Russian and U.S. nonstrategic weapons levels. The implementation of the bilateral 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty eliminated all nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges in Russia and the United States. Additionally, the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, which consisted of the unilateral declarations by Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush on shorter-range nuclear-capable missiles, essentially eliminated launch capability on the ground. Sea-based missiles were also reduced, first by the United States and in slower, more gradual actions by Russia.

In the early 1990s, after the United States reduced active tactical deployments on European territory by more than half, Gorbachev made a unilateral pledge to eliminate all nuclear artillery munitions and warheads intended for tactical missiles while removing tactical weapons from ships and submarines. President Boris Yeltsin amplified Gorbachev’s commitments by pledging to eliminate one-third of Russia’s remaining sea-based tactical weapons and to halve its arsenal of ground-to-air missile warheads and its airborne tactical weapons. Because there were no formal agreements on verification or transparency, it is unclear how many reductions the Russians actually made to their original arsenal, which comprised between 20,000 and 30,000 weapons, according to expert estimates.[6]

Despite U.S. reductions, the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush asserted that tactical nuclear weapons remained important to the U.S. nuclear posture, with the Clinton NPR stating that tactical weapons were necessary for “maintaining U.S. nuclear commitments with NATO, and retaining the ability to deploy nuclear capabilities to meet various regional contingencies. That ability continues to be an important means for deterring aggression, protecting and promoting U.S. interests, reassuring allies and friends, and preventing proliferation.”[7]

Recent History and Challenges

For the past decade, tactical nuclear weapons have remained in a virtual but somewhat confusing limbo. In March 1997, the United States and Russia agreed to restart negotiations relating to those weapons, but no concrete outcomes materialized. Setting the process back even further, the Bush administration reaffirmed its commitment to nuclear weapons by stating in its NPR that it reserved the right to use the weapons in response to any potential adversary and needed to continue to develop relevant technology. These comments underlined the belief that the administration would hold to the Cold War-era doctrine of tactical first use of nuclear weapons and its affirmation of the traditional political argument on NATO tactical weapons: the weapons in Europe were deployed as part of formal NATO policy and could be removed only with the full consent of all alliance members.

NATO on the whole did not formally address the issue outside the Nuclear Planning Group (NPG). Despite internal conversations, this group of representatives of the “nuclear” factions within the defense and foreign ministries of nuclear-possessing members (the United Kingdom and the United States), hosting NATO members (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey), and other members in rotation, firmly led by the United States, has shown little willingness to bring this issue forward for wider formal debate. Yet, several countries, including Belgium, Canada, Germany, and Norway, have called for the withdrawal of the tactical weapons within the foreseeable future, if not immediately. Moreover, the Bush administration allowed a quiet withdrawal of about one-half the remaining tactical weapons from Europe, notably from sites in Greece, Italy, and the United Kingdom. The remaining weapons in Europe are thought to number around 200; stockpiled weapons are estimated to be between 900 and 1,000.[8]

Recently, the Russians have been relatively quiet on the issue, citing the need to wait for the conclusion of their general doctrinal reassessment before taking a definitive stance. There continue to be occasional interjections from military hard-liners disparaging Gorbachev’s “capitulation” to the West and asserting the need for tactical nuclear modernization. Experts estimate that Russia still possesses thousands of active tactical nuclear weapons, with deployments largely on the Kola Peninsula and around Vladivostok and most in reserve. As Russia appropriated more money toward military expenditures, it is possible that significant modernization indeed occurred. Russia has continued to produce weapons for replacement and storage, while meeting its destruction goals for weapons previously deployed with its own troops in the European members states of the Warsaw Pact.

Moscow has attempted to justify its continued dependence on tactical nuclear weapons, asserting that the decline of Russian conventional military power has necessitated its arsenal, given the accepted view of NATO’s tactical and strategic superiority in conventional weapons. Informally, Russian experts say the rise of Chinese forces has exacerbated this need; they argue that tactical nuclear weapons are necessary in countering a potential Asian threat. Moreover and troubling for the United States, Moscow has indicated that it is contemplating pulling out of the INF Treaty, paralleling its suspension of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, with similar claims of discrimination. The INF Treaty has been long disdained among hard-liners in the Russian military, who assert that the agreement caused an unnecessary sacrifice of a clear Russian technological advantage. Before Obama’s recent decision to change the missile defense plans for central Europe, some Russian military and political figures re-emphasized the possibility of pulling out of the accord in response to any final U.S. deployment.

Tactical Weapons Under Obama

In his April 5 Prague speech, Obama changed the terms of the U.S.-Russian debate. He ambitiously called for a world without nuclear weapons, pledging to begin negotiations on a new START with Russia and making a concrete promise to reduce nuclear stockpiles and enhance nuclear security. The speech gave new momentum to what is known as the movement to “nuclear zero” or “global zero,” which had regained prominence with the 2007 op-ed written by Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and George Shultz. The spring of 2009 saw a flurry of hearings, statements, and reports, including the congressionally mandated bipartisan study led by Perry and James Schlesinger. The emerging debate, which has taken place largely below the surface in the Obama administration, seems to turn on several alternate conceptions of the requirements of extended deterrence and whether even highly lethal and precise conventional weapons would ever be able to replace nuclear weapons in reassuring allies. Another question is the potential ramifications of the loss of the U.S. “nuclear card” vis-à-vis “new” nuclear states that might be tempted to follow in the footsteps of Iran and North Korea. Another issue is how to overcome the myriad obstacles to a meaningful U.S.-Russian-European agreement in the near term. In the longer term, the prospects for the necessary but difficult task of carving out an international timetable for reductions are very much in question.

The role of tactical nuclear weapons in these discussions has not loomed large in much of the public or private Washington discourse. It has received more informal play in Brussels, where the efforts to craft a new NATO strategic concept quickly ran into private concerns about the ultimate fate of tactical weapons. Several new working papers circulated by opponents of continued tactical nuclear deployment in Europe have garnered quiet support from others. Germany, in particular, stimulated the push for elimination of tactical weapons, as Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who also was a candidate for chancellor in the September 2009 elections, advocated the elimination position. Turkey, however, has reportedly suggested in internal conversations that a decision by the United States to reduce its tactical nuclear weapons further would mark the end the grand alliance bargain of the 1960s: Turkey, like other hosts, would have the U.S. nuclear shield and would share in the physical control of the weapons in return for Ankara’s promise not to develop its own nuclear weapons.[9]

Technical Debates

The technical specifics of defining, eliminating, and verifying the elimination of tactical nuclear weapons have become difficult terrain. First, defining these weapons requires a new consensus of definitions within and among countries. Do tactical nuclear weapons include all weapons under a specific yield and with a specific range? Do they have to be used with specific types of launchers? For many countries and even NATO allies, there is no significant distinction between tactical nuclear weapons and strategic weapons. How many states, for example, would have to agree on the favored Russian proposal of extending the INF Treaty limit globally for the agreement to be effective and credible?

Another question focuses on the distinction between sophisticated new conventional weaponry and tactical nuclear weapons. The practice of dedicating specific launchers to specific weapons had served as the prime marker in the identification of strategic nuclear forces, but the Bush administration muddied the distinction by loading high-end conventional weapons onto Trident submarines. Creating a universal definition of the specifics of tactical nuclear weapons will be even more complicated.

Another difficulty for the traditional U.S. arms control approach is the large discrepancy between the size of the U.S. inventory and that imputed to Russia, a discrepancy that seems to require a very asymmetric bargain. This difference extends beyond just the numbers; arms control, from its outset, has been set in the mode of strategic bargains, the trade of assets against like or equally valued assets. If Russia possesses thousands more tactical nuclear weapons, why should the United States reduce its far smaller forces? Should the Obama administration recognize that tactical weapons are much more important strategically for the Russians than for the Americans and accept unequal reductions?

Even proportionate reductions would leave the Russians with a larger arsenal, but such cuts could be an effective component of a larger bargain involving tactical and strategic weapons. Such cuts could mark a crucial icebreaker, demonstrating the overall U.S. commitment to making real progress toward a world without nuclear weapons. Some officials within the Obama administration seem to recognize this point. It will remain challenging to sell this argument to congressional opponents and domestic critics on the right who accuse the Obama administration of being soft on the Russians, weak on defense, and generally having an overall naïve worldview. The military establishment will likely present a less difficult sell, given its fundamental dislike of these weapons and the taxing formal and informal requirements for their deployment.[10]

The Political Debate

The political debate also rages on. The Obama NPR due to Congress in early 2010 is expected to clarify much. Some opponents hope the NPR will become a barrier to any change or at least buy time for further consideration.

Nevertheless, there are hints of change to come. Robert Einhorn, an adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, floated one idea in a presentation at the July STRATCOM conference. Einhorn, who said he was speaking personally rather than in his official capacity, said the United States might consider removing “some or all of its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe to encourage Russia to consolidate its own arsenal of nonstrategic bombs.”[11] Einhorn argued that tactical nuclear weapons have minimal, if any, military value in Europe and that their previous deterrent value is no longer relevant to the current debate. He emphasized the common U.S.-Russian need to think about current security requirements, particularly the need to secure nuclear weapons and materials against terrorist theft.

Russian rhetoric has sometimes emphasized an opposite theme. In recent months, some Russian security officials have said the role of tactical nuclear weapons might actually increase, with their use being augmented on strategic submarines. Some of the arguments seem to represent stakes in domestic policy battles over service roles and budgetary requirements for the modernization funds now finally available. For example, Vice Adm. Oleg Burtsev, deputy chief of the Russian Federation Navy Main Staff, recently declared that “[t]he future may belong to tactical nuclear weapons. Their range and accuracy are increasing. There is no need to carry a powerful warhead, and we can go over to low-yield nuclear charges that can be installed on existing models of cruise missiles.”[12]

NATO also continues to present a political problem. The process leading up to the new strategic concept is more open and transparent than ever before. There will be national forums; the one in the United States will involve multiple meetings led by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Concerns about tactical nuclear weapons have already been raised on all sides of the argument about NATO’s strategic future. The idea of a nuclear umbrella is still alive and well, despite a number of allies declaring its seeming irrelevance in current times. U.S. officials, in turn, have noted their continued commitment to extended deterrence throughout Europe. It will be interesting to see how this argument develops, particularly in light of the recent decision to alter the Bush administration’s plans for a missile defense system. Tactical nuclear weapons may experience revitalization if they are seen as a way to re-emphasize the U.S. commitment to the defense of Europe.

Possible Solutions

Although the Americans are striking all the right notes in their efforts to reduce or eliminate tactical nuclear weapons, the solution will be difficult to reach and reflects the complicated debates that must occur on the long, potentially treacherous route to zero.

The best option available to the Obama administration is to plan a route of compromise steps and commitment signals while keeping a firm focus on the ultimate goal of nuclear zero. In attempting to cultivate potential solutions, it is helpful to utilize older, successful arms control strategies as a framework for success.

A crucial first step in addressing the issues raised by tactical nuclear weapons would be to build consensus and agree on total transparency, verification, and the right to monitor changes and movement of the arsenal. This might be accomplished within a restored and renewed CFE Treaty framework, which in time could allow tactical nuclear weapons to be subject to types and rates of inspections similar to those the CFE Treaty establishes for conventional weapons. That treaty provides a precedent for an all-embracing, politically neutral inspection regime over essentially two decades with a notable record of dispute resolution on which to build. This agreement could also become part of a revised and restructured Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe because it too would cover the critical geographic span in Europe.

Several specific functional lessons can be drawn from the arms control experience of the 1980s, including the INF Treaty. In focusing on transparency and verification, it will be useful to establish a baseline for all existing tactical nuclear weapons, in the United States and Russia, in deployment and in storage. Russia and the United States should publicly report the exact numbers of tactical weapons they hold in any form and the launchers with which they could be mated. France and the United Kingdom, despite their programs of virtual operational elimination, should be included in this first step as well. This ambitious effort would entail a specific universal definition of tactical nuclear weapons, including specific classifications and stipulations of the distances that such weapons can travel, in order to distinguish them from strategic nuclear weapons.

Another step would be to take serious moves to meet a recurring Russian proposal: extending the provisions of the INF Treaty multilaterally and expanding the treaty to include formal limits on short- and medium-range missiles. The bilateral INF Treaty is largely informal in nature; a multilateral formal treaty would demonstrate the significance with which the United States views the tactical nuclear issue. It would be especially important to negotiate, or at least set a timetable for negotiating, such a treaty with countries that Russia perceives as a threat, including China and perhaps India. A universal INF Treaty would ensure that fundamental Russian concerns would be addressed, but the price of including these countries in the short run may well be too high. If that is the case, the United States and Russia should conclude a bilateral agreement first and later seek accession by other countries.

Additionally, the United States must expend political capital to change allied perceptions of political realities and cultivate a political-military change in the present NATO framework. The NPG was a very good solution for the problems of the 1960s: secrecy, nonconsultation by Washington, and the political and military needs of extended deterrence. It remains a useful forum, particularly for allies anxious to peer behind Washington’s nuclear curtain. The issues have now changed, however, and the mechanisms needed to provide reassurance and to allow for consultation on nuclear matters should be updated and changed as well. Moreover, a physical down payment of tactical nuclear weapons as the only credible evidence of U.S. commitment seems a concept long since overtaken by the enduring interactions of the transatlantic community. It is also well out of step with current military thinking and practice or even the logical requirements of extended deterrence doctrine.

The possibility exists in the near future for a reduction to a new symbolic level, for example, to 100 tactical weapons on the U.S. side, although the costs for infrastructure and security will remain near present levels. Because it is generally agreed that the present numbers are already purely symbolic, further reductions would be a signal and a commitment to the future, rather than a concrete measure such as elimination. A specific attempt should be made now to identify and eventually destroy any remaining British and French systems now in storage.

Another necessary avenue is the ongoing NPR. The Bush NPR affirmed that the United States must retain a nuclear arsenal as a strategic deterrent;[13] the Obama administration’s formulation is now under debate. The new NPR provides the opportunity for a new road, and it will be extremely helpful if a new strategy toward the goal of tactical nuclear elimination in the near term can be clearly articulated. Specifically, the NPR should state the U.S. desire to work constructively with NATO allies and Russia to lessen and then eliminate the burden of a now-antiquated form of nuclear weaponry.

Time will tell if the United States under Obama and his successors is actually willing or able to take concrete steps to reduce its nuclear arsenal drastically and, through its own example of arsenal concessions, is able to convince other countries to follow suit. The measures on nuclear weapons noted above will have added meaning in the context of the issues that are likely to be the three biggest nuclear policy priorities of the Obama administration’s first term: renewal and reaffirmation of U.S.-Russian reductions and verification arrangements, establishment of a new standard for nuclear tests under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and fissile materials under a fissile material cutoff treaty, and improved security for nuclear materials. Tactical nuclear weapons will not be the first priority, but they need to become a major contributing factor in cementing and carrying forward the good practices and design of European security and cumulative arms control so that the world can advance toward eventual nuclear disarmament. The way the Obama administration manages the difficult challenges of getting to zero tactical nuclear weapons will provide an important indicator of Obama’s willingness and ability to take concrete steps toward his stated goal of nuclear elimination.

Catherine M. Kelleher is a College Park Professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Watson Institute at BrownUniversity. During the Clinton administration, she was defense adviser to the U.S. mission to NATO and deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia. She is a member of the Arms Control Association’s board of directors. Scott L. Warren is a recent graduate of BrownUniversity, currently serving as executive director of the nonprofit Generation Citizen.


1. Although President Ronald Reagan declared an end goal of zero nuclear weapons, it never became a formal policy position. The Obama administration has stated that all arms control agreements will be based on the premise of getting to zero. For the earlier history of the zero concept, see Randy Rydell, “The Future of Nuclear Arms: A World United and Divided by Zero,” Arms Control Today, April 2009, pp. 21-25.

2. Amy F. Woolf, “Nonstrategic Nuclear Weapons,” CRS Report for Congress, RL32572, September 9, 2004, www.digital.library.unt.edu/govdocs/crs/data/2004/upl-meta-crs-6104/meta-crs-6104.ocr.

3. Yochi J. Dreazen and Peter Spiegel, “Sea-Based Missiles to Target a Redefined Threat,” The Wall Street Journal, September 18, 2009, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB125323867916621909.html.

4. Nikolai Sokov, “Tactical (Substrategic) Nuclear Weapons,” in Four Emerging Issues in Arms Control, Disarmament, and Nonproliferation: Opportunities for German Leadership, July 2009, www.cns.miis.edu/opapers/090717_german_leadership/german_leadership_full.pdf.

5. Defense Technical Information Center Online, “DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms,” n.d., www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/doddict/data/t/7471.html.

6. Alexei Arbatov, “The Transformation of Russian Military Doctrine: Lessons Learned From Kosovo and Chechnya,” Marshall Center Papers No. 2 (July 2008), www.eng.yabloko.ru/Books/Arbatov/rus-military.html.

7. Federation of American Scientists, “Nuclear Posture Review,” n.d., www.fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/doctrine/dod/95_npr.htm.

8. Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “Nuclear Notebook: U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2009,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 2009, p. 65, www.thebulletin.org/files/065002008.pdf.; Rose Gottemoeller, “Eliminating Short-Range Nuclear Weapons Designed to be Forward Deployed,” in Reykjavik Revisited, ed. George Schultz, Sidney Drell, and James Goodby (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution, 2008), pp. 32-37, http://media.hoover.org/documents/Drell_Goodby_Schultz_Reykjavik_Revisited_32.pdf.

9. Alexandra Bell, “Turkey’s Nuclear Crossroads,” Good Blog, August 25, 2009, www.good.is/post/turkey%E2%80%99s-nuclear-crossroads/.

10. Lawrence Korb, “The U.S. Air Force’s Indifference Toward Nuclear Weapons,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 17, 2008, www.thebulletin.org/web-edition/op-eds/the-us-air-forces-indifference-toward-nuclear-weapons. Of concern for all the allies is the cost of replacing the increasingly obsolescent dedicated combat aircraft for delivering tactical nuclear weapons.

11. Martin Matishak, “U.S. Could Pull Back Europe-Based Nukes, State Department Official Says,” Global Security Newswire, August 5, 2009, www.globalsecuritynewswire.org/gsn/nw_20090805_4929.php.

12. “Russian Navy Will Increase Role of Tactical Nuclear Weapons on Submarines,” Gazeta, March 23, 2009.

13. Andrew Grotto and Joe Cirincione, “Orienting the 2009 Nuclear Posture Review,” Center for American Progress, November 2008, www.americanprogress.org/issues/2008/11/pdf/nuclear_posture.pdf.


Acritical debate on nuclear weapons is once again in the limelight. President Barack Obama has unequivocally, ambitiously, and repeatedly stated his ultimate vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Under the Obama policy, zero nuclear weapons is, for the first time in U.S. history, an operational, tangible U.S. policy goal and thus a measuring stick against which to judge a host of shorter-range, less ambitious initiatives or actions.

Editor's Note

Daniel Horner

Many aspects of President Barack Obama’s arms control and foreign policy agenda have been analyzed at great length; two of our articles this month focus on areas that have received less attention.

Catherine M. Kelleher and Scott L. Warren address the issue of tactical nuclear weapons. Nuclear arms control has been a high-profile part of Obama’s first months in office, but discussions have centered on strategic arsenals. Kelleher and Warren focus on tactical weapons, arguing that their elimination could be part of the first phase of a move toward the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. The military justification for continued deployment of these weapons is weak, but alliance policies and politics could complicate efforts to get rid of them, Kelleher and Warren say.

In another article, Victoria Samson examines the options for the Obama administration’s review of U.S. space policy. She argues for an approach that emphasizes multilateral collaboration but says that formal treaties “might not be the only way, or even the best, to improve space’s sustainability.”

Tactical nuclear weapons and space are areas in which the Obama administration will have an opportunity to make significant policy changes. In other areas, the administration already is doing so. One example is Obama’s announcement last month of a new approach toward missile defense in Europe; another was the U.S. sponsorship of a UN Security Council resolution on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. In our news section, Cole Harvey reports on both events.

A key part of the administration’s arms control agenda is its support of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). As Meri Lugo reports, that policy was on display last month at a conference at the United Nations, where Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton laid out the arguments for ratification.

The CTBT also is the subject of our Looking Back article, in which Daryl G. Kimball examines the 1999 defeat of the treaty in the Senate. To ensure a different outcome this time, the Obama administration must study that vote and draw the right lessons from it, he says.

Finally, Christopher Paine offers an appreciation of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who died in August. As Paine notes, the Massachusetts Democrat played a large role in starting and sustaining many of the arms control and disarmament initiatives that are gaining momentum today.


Many aspects of President Barack Obama’s arms control and foreign policy agenda have been analyzed at great length; two of our articles this month focus on areas that have received less attention.

All Together Now

Daryl G. Kimball

Global problems require global solutions, along with effective leadership and cooperation. For years, as leading players have failed to agree on how to bolster the beleaguered nonproliferation system, the threats posed by nuclear weapons have become more complex and difficult to solve.

But in a welcome shift, President Barack Obama won UN Security Council backing last month for a practical and comprehensive action plan to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons. Whether this special Security Council meeting and Resolution 1887 mark a true turning point depends on the steps taken in the next few weeks and months. Nonetheless, it is a rare step forward that comes at a critical time.

Although not perfect, the document should help build support among nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) member states, especially non-nuclear-weapon states, around a balanced set of nonproliferation, disarmament, and nuclear material security initiatives ahead of the pivotal May 2010 NPT Review Conference.

Resolution 1887 builds on Obama’s nuclear risk reduction agenda outlined in Prague in April and further commits those nations with nuclear weapons to reduce them and work toward their elimination. In a welcome shift, the resolution embraces key nuclear risk reduction initiatives weakened by the Bush administration, including negative nuclear security assurances and a commitment to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Obama's call for the treaty and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's participation in a concurrent UN CTBT conference are promising signs of the administration's serious commitment to securing U.S. ratification sometime in 2010.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly, Obama said he would a pursue a new Nuclear Posture Review that reduces the role of U.S. nuclear weapons and opens the way for deeper nuclear reductions, meaning below the target level of 1,500 strategic deployed warheads set for the current round of U.S.-Russian arms talks. This strongly suggests he intends to transform, not simply tinker with, the outdated U.S. nuclear thinking still prevalent in Washington.

The broad support for the resolution is largely a result of a new and more constructive U.S. approach to dealing with cases of noncompliance. Instead of singling out bad actors, which has led various countries to take sides, the administration is reinforcing a universal set of updated standards that the vast majority of countries can support.

The resolution does not name Iran, North Korea, or Syria, but it reinforces the rules that should apply in those cases. The resolution’s call for adherence to more-intrusive international nuclear safeguards is timely and important, coming a day before new revelations that Iran has secretly built a second uranium-enrichment facility at Qom. Contrary to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) requirements, Tehran failed to notify the agency when it began construction of the facility.

Just as importantly, Resolution 1887 clarifies that NPT member states’ right to pursue the peaceful use of nuclear energy is conditioned on compliance with their commitments to forswear nuclear weapons and fully adhere to IAEA safeguards. It also reinforces the principle that if any state withdraws from the NPT and uses nuclear technology acquired under peaceful auspices for weapons purposes, it should return such technology and any special nuclear material produced to the supplier state.

With Resolution 1887 in hand, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States must enter this month’s talks with Iranian leaders with patience, pragmatism, and unity. The Qom facility raises further doubts about whether Iran’s nuclear program is intended purely for peaceful purposes. Iran should explain why such a facility is needed when it is already building a far larger enrichment complex at Natanz. Nevertheless, Iran remains years away from attaining the physical ability to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb and to build a workable device. Neither side should create artificial deadlines for their upcoming negotiations.

Whether Iran has the “right” to enrich or not, it now has more than 8,000 centrifuges that it will not likely be willing to dismantle and will not likely agree to freeze. It must not only accept far more intrusive IAEA inspections and address outstanding IAEA questions about its past activities, but it also should be urged to halt the further expansion of its enrichment capacity, including the construction of additional enrichment plants. Together, such steps could increase confidence that Iran is not pursuing a clandestine weapons program. Combined with a halt to further UN-imposed sanctions and conditional assurances Iran will not come under military attack, such a package could provide the basis for a deal if the respective parties really want one.

Speeches and resolutions are, of course, no substitute for concrete outcomes; along the way, many states will certainly disappoint. But the special Security Council meeting and U.S.-sponsored resolution update and clarify the commitments and responsibilities expected of all states. As Obama said before the Security Council, “[T]he world must stand together” to implement as well as enforce the new nonproliferation and disarmament compact.

Global problems require global solutions, along with effective leadership and cooperation. For years, as leading players have failed to agree on how to bolster the beleaguered nonproliferation system, the threats posed by nuclear weapons have become more complex and difficult to solve. (Continue)


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