Obama’s nuclear policies remain vague

-A A +A
By Roger Snodgrass

What do we know and when will we know more about the new administration’s plans and policies about nuclear weapons?


“At this stage it’s very difficult to say how Obama’s policy will develop on nuclear issues,” a long-time Washington insider associated with Los Alamos National Laboratory said Wednesday night.


But that difficulty will not deter a rather large complex of national and international interests from looking for clues.


As the executive advisor in the LANL National Security Office and senior scholar and co-director of the Nonproliferation Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Joseph F. Pilat knows where to look at the moment and knows how much can be made of current signs and signals.


One approach to the question has to do with the degree of divergence that might be expected from the President Obama whose byword during the primary campaign was change. That may raise prospects of “dramatic, drastic changes,” Pilat suggested, partly because of more explicit changes Obama has proposed in other realms and partly because of a sense of disaffection with the previous administration.


An appreciation for Obama’s rhetorical powers may also bolster expectations that he could shape world opinion in ways that might be receptive to major shifts in nuclear weapons regimes, non-proliferation efforts and arms control.


But for Pilat, who spoke at a meeting of the Los Alamos Committee on Arms Control and International Security (LACACIS), such expectations are not explicit in the existing record and may well be subject to contingencies and influence by events and people yet to be appointed as the new government forms.


Mostly what there is to go by is a “thinly sketched statement” on the whitehouse.gov website under the “agenda” section and tucked succinctly away under “foreign policy.”


More material, several pages worth came from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s written responses to questions during her confirmation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


By deconstructing some of the language, comparing the documents to each other and to campaign language and unpacking some additional inferences, Pilat detected more pragmatic and less revolutionary tendencies than might be supposed.


The administration’s marked commitment to public diplomacy may have some effect, Pilat said, but the stated expectations are relatively modest.


For example, the White House agenda on nuclear weapons begins with a statement about Obama’s record of non-partisan efforts related to non-proliferation.


The administration is pledged to “secure all loose nuclear materials in the world within four years,” and “will negotiate a verifiable ban on the production of new nuclear weapons material.” The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will be strengthened, one sentence says, “so that countries like North Korea and Iran that break the rules will automatically face strong international sanctions.”


Finally, a goal is set to take several steps down the long road toward eliminating nuclear weapons” to achieve a “nuclear free world,” while always maintaining a strong deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist.”


“That’s consistent with longstanding U.S. policy,” Pilat said. “Even intentions for a bomb-free world have always been there at a declaratory level.”


By accepting that nuclear disarmament will not be achievable in the near term and the need to maintain a strong deterrent, Pilat interprets this language as saying, in effect, “If disarmament is a race, the U.S. will be the last to give up its weapons.”


Both the nuclear agenda in a nutshell and Clinton’s statements differ from Bush on returning to the principle of verification.


“The Obama administration will seek deep, verifiable reductions in all U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons,” Clinton wrote, in a section which also promises to find a replacement for the current START treaty with Russia that expires at the end of this year, or at least to extend its provisions.


Keeping START or START-like measures in force, including monitoring and verification, has been a key recommendation by LACACIS since concerns about the treaty ending without an alternative began to be raised.


Pilat also acknowledged that there is no interest at all in the Bush initiative to develop technologies for reprocessing plutonium. Nagging concerns remain because of non-proliferation concerns about “closing the nuclear fuel cycle.”


No interest at all in the Bush initiative to close the nuclear fuel cycle.


Pilat was asked by Jack Jekowski, a strategic planner for the nuclear weapons complex, what he made of the fact that the nuclear questions have been assumed under the rubric of foreign affairs and the State department.


“Why were the questions asked of the Secretary of State rather than the Secretary of Energy?” Jekowski asked.


Pilat said Energy Secretary Steven Chu did highlight the importance of the nuclear stockpile and the nuclear deterrent in his confirmation hearing.


Referring to the possibility that the nuclear weapons labs might be moving out of the Department of Energy, Pilat said it was “perhaps a trial balloon that seems to have been dissipated.”


“It’s too early to say DOD or DOE are being cut out,” he said.