Peter Baker and David E. Sanger / The New York Times – 2013-06-20 00:14:20
Nuclear Age Peace Foundation
Obama Has Plans to Cut US Nuclear Arsenal, if Russia Reciprocates
Peter Baker and David E. Sanger / The New York Times
WASHINGTON (June 18, 2013) — President Obama plans to use a speech in Berlin on Wednesday to outline plans for further reductions in the American nuclear arsenal if Russia agrees to pare back its weapons at the same time, administration officials said Tuesday.
Resuming a drive toward disarmament that he had largely shunted aside over the past two years, Mr. Obama will propose trimming the number of strategic warheads that each of the two big nuclear powers still maintains by up to a third, taking them below the 1,550 permitted in the treaty he signed with Russia in his first term, a senior administration official said. That would leave each country with just over 1,000 weapons.
Mr. Obama will also declare that he will work with NATO allies to develop proposals for major cuts in tactical nuclear weapons, which are not covered by the existing treaty. Russia, which has far more tactical nuclear weapons deployed than the United States and Europe do, has firmly resisted such cuts. There are fears that its tactical weapons are in parts of Russia where they risk being seized by terrorist groups.
Mr. Obama will also announce that he will host a final nuclear security summit meeting in the United States just before he leaves office.
The president, who once talked about eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons, faces enormous obstacles to any further reductions, both in Moscow and in Washington. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has demanded further concessions on missile defense before entertaining deeper nuclear cuts, and Republicans in the Senate have made clear they would resist any treaty that went beyond the New Start pact ratified in 2010.
Mr. Obama’s aides have said that they have no appetite for another treaty battle, and that they would try to follow the precedent of the first President George Bush, who arranged reciprocal but not binding cuts with the dying Soviet Union without a treaty.
But the president’s return to the issue of nuclear reductions, however tentative, suggests he wants to invest at least some of his remaining time in office to making enough progress that he can point to it as an important legacy. “It’s a way of signaling what he sees his agenda for the rest of his second term being,” said an administration official, who, like others, declined to be identified in advance of the speech.
Supporters of further disarmament said they hoped Mr. Obama would refocus attention on the goal after rarely mentioning it in recent years, while he was consumed by other issues. “The most important thing he could do is lay out the broad agenda for the next three and a half years,” said John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World, an advocacy group.
In addition to further reductions, Mr. Isaacs said, there are several policy changes Mr. Obama could take that would move the country further away from cold war-style national security. He said the president could take nuclear weapons off high alert and change nuclear doctrine to say that the only purpose of such weapons would be as a deterrent.
But administration officials cautioned against expecting the Berlin speech to be a sequel to Mr. Obama’s 2009 address in Prague laying out his vision for a nuclear-free world. Instead, nuclear reductions will be just one element of a larger, thematic address, officials said, and the president will not get into much detail about specific policy changes.
That is a significant lowering of the bar: For a while, Mr. Obama considered setting out much more ambitious goals in a speech administration officials hoped he would give this month, on the 50th anniversary of a famous speech John F. Kennedy gave at American University. That speech, less than a year after the Cuban missile crisis, created the push for what became the nuclear test ban treaty, signed two months later.
Early in Mr. Obama’s first term, aides described an ambitious agenda that included ratifying the long-stalled Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and negotiating a new treaty that would ban the production of new fissile material, the makings of nuclear fuel. In the Berlin speech, Mr. Obama will repeat his call for the test ban treaty but will set no deadline for submitting it to the Senate, because of administration fears that it would go down to a second defeat.
Pakistan has blocked the opening of negotiations on the fissile material ban, and administration officials say they will put pressure on the new Pakistani government to move on that issue. He will also have to press Pakistan to cease its deployment of a new generation of tactical weapons that officials fear could easily be stolen by terrorists.
Mr. Obama’s early agenda has been frustrated by many setbacks. North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests during his tenure. Iran has installed 17,000 centrifuges and now has enough low- and medium-enriched fuel to produce a half dozen weapons, with further enrichment. Pakistan has the world’s fastest growing arsenal. Once Republicans made gains in the Senate, Mr. Obama never submitted the test ban treaty for ratification or negotiated further cuts with Russia.
Perhaps Mr. Obama’s biggest success has been his effort to lock down vulnerable nuclear materials around the world, a task nearly all countries have agreed to, even if he did not accomplish the entire job in the four years he initially envisioned.
The New Start treaty limited both the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 800 missiles, bombers and submarine launchers, of which 700 could be deployed.
As of March 1, Russia — with 1,480 deployed warheads and 492 deployed launchers — had already met two of the three limits and was close to the third. The United States — with 1,654 deployed warheads and 792 deployed launchers — was close but not under the caps.
Mr. Obama appears to recognize that the follow-up treaty he once envisioned with Russia now may be too difficult to push through the Senate. Instead, if Russia agreed to further cuts, the existing verification systems in the old treaty would be used to confirm that both sides were abiding by their new commitments.
But if Mr. Putin rejects this offer, one of Mr. Obama’s aides noted, “it will be very tough slogging for the next three years.”
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