Nuclear impasse of yesteryear still with us

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 December, 2011, 12:00am


Some of us believed that, at the end of the cold war in 1991, American and Soviet nuclear rockets would be left to rust and rot in their silos.

Former US president George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan before him did quite a lot for nuclear disarmament. Despite all his rhetoric and bear-hugging of Boris Yeltsin, Bill Clinton achieved very little. George W.Bush did only a bit more. Hopes were focused on Barack Obama, who was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize partly because it was thought he would be a standard bearer for disarmament. But apart from an initial agreement with Vladimir Putin to reduce superpower long-range rockets from 2,200 warheads each to fewer than 1,700, Obama has done precious little.

The US has not ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that would help stymie the further spread of nuclear arms to other countries.

The next stage in the disarmament process should be getting rid of short-range tactical missiles based in Europe. Moscow is insisting that the US remove all its tactical weapons from Europe, which is fair given their proximity to Moscow.

Obama has pledged to fight for 'a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons'. The idea behind this is to stop in their tracks any country thinking of building a nuclear armoury while setting limits on the renewing of warheads by those who already have them. But these negotiations have been blocked by Pakistan, worried about its lack of a force that matches the size of India's.

All this adds up to very little nuclear disarmament.

Meanwhile, the main issue - the number of long distance super-destructive rockets held by Russia and the United States - is not on the agenda despite Obama's pledge in Oslo to work towards zero possession. The US Senate is an immoveable brake on Obama. And the Russians, observing the power of the Senate to probably refuse to approve any new treaties, are deterred from suggesting opening negotiations.

But how is it, 11 years after the end of the cold war, that either side can justify nuclear weapons? Is Russia an enemy? Successive American presidents have said it is not. The Russians say the same thing about the US and Europe. Non-enemies don't have nuclear weapons pointed at each other. At least that is what basic morality and common sense would say. Certainly they are never going to be used.

So what is it all about? Don't the US and Russia want to set an example to the rest of the world, as is their sworn obligation under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?

The world is checkmated. What a terrifying impasse this is.

Jonathan Power is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist