All eyes on Obama as NPT Review conference approaches

The Royal Society has just published an excellent new briefing highlighting how the scientific community can support nuclear arms control and disarmament initiatives, and the report was launched at a conference a couple of days ago with three speakers from the highest level of British politics: Baroness Shirley Williams, former Defence Secretary Des Browne, and David Lidington, front bench spokesperson on non-proliferation for the Conservatives.

A very encouraging feature of the event was the level of cross-party agreement on nuclear disarmament that it demonstrated, but a more worrying aspect was the concern about the difficulties that President Obama is facing in advancing his disarmament agenda in the USA. During his visit to Prague last year Obama set out in one of his highest profile speeches to date a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and outlined a number of steps he would take to make significant progress towards this goal. Baroness Williams explained how the President’s disarmament agenda has since run into “every possible kind of difficulty.”

Firstly, the talks between the US and Russia on a follow-on to the START Treaty have not yet delivered any concrete outcome. Any cuts in warhead numbers which do result from the new agreement will be modest, and will only relate to deployed weapons, rather than warhead stockpiles. Considerable trust still needs to be developed between the US and Russia following the soured relations which resulted from the Bush administration’s provocative moves to deploy missile defence weaponry in Eastern Europe.

Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review has also been delayed – because of the reluctance of conservatives in the US military to move away from what they are used to, according to Baroness Williams. It now appears unlikely that the Posture Review will give the breakthrough that many disarmament advocates were hoping for: a commitment from the President to no first use of nuclear weapons. Critics can point to a dramatic increase in spending on nuclear weapons in Obama’s new budget – ostensibly to guarantee their safety and security – as further evidence of a gap between the President’s words and his actions.

Adding to the difficulties, the President’s commitment to move the USA towards ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) appears to have stalled, largely because of obstruction from Republicans and the possibility that the result of the mid-term elections will make it impossible for Obama to build a majority in the Senate in favour of ratification.

All three speakers at the Royal Society felt that it is crucial that the USA plays a leading role in bringing us towards a world without nuclear weapons. David Lidington sent out a strong message about the importance of the US's role by stating that the Conservatives say clearly to their friends in Washington that a START follow-on Treaty and CTBT ratification are in the interests of global security, and that the UK would like the USA to take these steps.

The outcome of May’s Non-Proliferation Treaty Review conference will set a benchmark for the likely success of Obama’s disarmament agenda, and yet it looks like the US will be attending the conference empty-handed. Much of the hope generated by Obama’s Prague speech has faded away, and the world’s political leaders are now downplaying expectations for the Review Conference.

Des Browne spelt out a heartfelt agenda to support and protect Obama in his mission to reduce the role and numbers of nuclear weapons, and talked of his own recent work to engage with American politicians and challenge Republican views – despite a “collective shock” at the lack of awareness of European concerns within Congress and the Senate on proliferation. The voices of European political leaders must be heard loudly and clearly over the weeks ahead: rather than taking the usual route of following America's lead, Europe must now spell out to the USA why there is a need for positive action towards disarmament.

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