The “New Start” treaty between Washington and Moscow sounds impressive, committing the two powers to reducing their “deployed strategic nuclear weapons” to 1 550 each. That’s a 30% cut on what the two powers last agreed in their 2002 treaty — but it’s not as impressive as it seems, because most of their nuclear weapons are not “deployed strategic” ones.
The two countries currently have over 8 000 other nuclear warheads “awaiting dismantlement”, plus an unknown number of “tactical” warheads that are operationally available. They admit to having about 2 500, but those numbers are completely unverified and probably much lower than reality. Unofficial estimates suggest that Russia and the US really have at least 10 000 tactical nukes.
Add at least a thousand Chinese, British, French, Indian, Pakistani and Israeli nuclear warheads (plus a couple of North Korean ones that sort of work), and there are probably around 25 000 nuclear warheads on the planet. That’s fewer than there were at the height of the Cold War, but it’s still around one nuclear weapon for every 250 000 people on the planet.
With the right targeting pattern, therefore, you could still kill or maim almost everybody on the planet with the existing stock of nuclear weapons. In practice, of course, they are targeted at particular countries that should expect a much denser concentration of explosions in case of war. And the New Start treaty will eventually reduce that global total of nuclear weapons by only about 7%.
Besides, the US Senate will probably not ratify the treaty. It takes a two-thirds Senate majority — 67 votes out of 100 — to ratify a treaty, but all 41 Republican senators have already said that they will not support New Start.
Their pretext is a non-binding statement in the treaty that recognises a link between “offensive” missiles and ballistic missile defence, but in practice it’s just Republican strategy to block every White House initiative.
US President Barack Obama’s commitment to a world that is ultimately free from nuclear weapons seems genuine, but his real strategy right now is not focussed on the weapons of the existing nuclear weapons powers. What he really wants to do is strengthen the anti-proliferation regime, and for that he needed some symbolic movement towards nuclear disarmament from the US and Russia.
The problem with the NPT from the start was that the non-nuclear powers kept their promise not to develop nuclear weapons, while the great powers that already had them did not keep their parallel promise to get rid of them. After 40years of that, there is an understandable impatience among the non-nuclear majority, and New Start is the best piece of symbolism that Obama can come up with. It may not be enough.
Obama clearly hoped that the Washington summit of 47 countries this week would provide him with extra leverage at the major review conference on the NPT next month in New York. He could use it to bring pressure on Iran, a signatory of the NPT that he suspects of working secretly on nuclear weapons — but it turned out that other countries wanted to bring up Israeli nuclear weapons too.
Only four countries in the world have not signed and ratified the NPT. Three of them, India, Pakistan and North Korea, have openly developed and tested nuclear weapons. The fourth, Israel, refuses to confirm or deny that it has nuclear weapons, but it is generally reckoned to have at least 200 of them, plus a variety of delivery vehicles.
For almost 50 years Israel has got away with this “creative ambiguity”, but it was inevitable that it would be pressed to come clean if any other Middle Eastern country started working on nuclear weapons. The sheer hypocrisy of turning a blind eye to Israel’s nukes while condemning a country like Iran for allegedly seeking them too would become unsustainable. And so it has.
Egypt and Turkey are leading a campaign to have the Middle East declared a nuclear weapons-free zone. Their real concern is Iran’s putative nukes, but it is politically impossible for them to criticise Iran’s ambitions while ignoring the reality of Israeli nuclear weapons, so they decided to bring them up in Washington.
As soon as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu realised that was going to happen, he cancelled his plan to attend the conference and sent his deputy, Dan Meridor, to take the flak instead.
Netanyahu is already in a bitter confrontation with Obama over Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. It would not help to have Netanyahu stonewalling on Israeli nuclear policy at the Washington meeting and personally sabotaging Obama’s attempt to strengthen the NPT treaty. Better to have a subordinate do it instead.
So no dramatic progress soon on non-proliferation, but Obama’s initiative has not yet failed. Subjects that have been taboo for decades are being openly discussed, and real progress on non-proliferation is becoming a possibility.
=Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.