From Prague to a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World: Is President Obama’s vision now achievable?

05.04.2013 - Bern, Switzerland - Alyn Ware

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From Prague to a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World: Is President Obama’s vision now achievable?
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Four years today, President Obama announced in Prague his vision and commitment to seek a world without nuclear weapons. Alyn Ware, Global Coordinator for Parliamentarians for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, reports on a number of anniversary actions, and asks whether this vision is still alive, and possible to achieve, or merely a pipe-dream that has fallen to the politics of reality.

In January 2009, the week President Obama was inaugurated, I received a call from the US Embassy in Wellington, New Zealand – my home town. The Deputy Ambassador requested a meeting with me to discuss nuclear disarmament issues. She said that President Obama had sent a directive to US embassies around the world instructing them to meet with disarmament experts to ascertain their opinions on what the US could do for nuclear disarmament.

I was somewhat surprised. Since 1984, when New Zealand decided to prohibit nuclear weapons from our country, an act that banned the visits of nuclear-capable warships including US vessels, the US had kept New Zealand out in the cold. Our rejection of nuclear weapons and of nuclear deterrence was seen by the US as a threat to the solidarity of the West, and an encouragement of its enemies. Much of my political life had been challenging the policies of the nuclear-weapon-States including the US. Yet now I was being asked to give advice to the US? Was President Obama serious, or was this some trick? Knowing about the excellent legislative work Obama had done as a senator on this topic – and the fact that he had made nuclear disarmament a central issue in his election campaign, I erred towards believing the Deputy Ambassador.

So I took the meeting, provided a number of recommendations to the US embassy and then waited to see what the new President would do.

What followed was a series of initiatives from the US, including a ‘reset’ of the nuclear button with Russia, the acceptance by the US of New Zealand’s nuclear-free status, negotiations with Russia on the new START treaty to reduce nuclear weapons, support for a Middle East Zone Free From Nuclear Weapons and other Weapons of Mass Destruction (such a zone to include Israel, Arab States and Iran), a Nuclear Posture Review that lowered the role of nuclear weapons in security policy, and commitments to recognize and ratify nuclear-weapon-free zones in the Pacific and Africa.

Most significant however, was the speech that President Obama gave in Prague on 5 April 2009 – where he committed his presidency to pursuing the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. It was this vision and commitment, primarily, that earned Obama the Nobel Peace prize.

Four years later, are we any closer to a nuclear-weapons-free world? Is such a world indeed possible? Or was President Obama’s vision merely an attention-catching pipe-dream?

Indeed, Obama has faced considerable hurdles and set-backs in implementing the vision. The price tag Republicans demanded for ratifying new START Treaty was an extra $14 billion (on top of the annual nuclear weapons budget of $56 billion) to be spent on modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons complex – something seemingly at odds with the commitment for nuclear disarmament. The UN-sponsored conference which was supposed to be held in 2012 to commence the process for a Middle East Zone Free From Nuclear Weapons and other Weapons of Mass Destruction has not been held – due to continuing difficulties in securing Israel’s agreement to attend. The nuclear threat in North East Asia is increasing (although one must take Kim Jong-un’s provocative statements with a grain of salt). The possibility of Iran going nuclear lingers, and could stimulate military attack from Israel. NATO recently reaffirmed that it will remain a nuclear-weapons alliance so long as there are nuclear weapons in the world. And the other States possessing nuclear weapons – China, France, India, Pakistan, Russia and the UK – have not expressed any enthusiasm for implementing the nuclear disarmament vision any time soon.

Yet, in spite of this, a new wave of optimism for a nuclear-weapons-free world is emerging in the dawn of Obama’s second term as President. No longer shackled by the need of a first-term President to shape policy to ensure re-election, Obama has more freedom to take bold steps – and appears to be doing so. He is, for example, considering unilateral cuts in US nuclear stockpiles – something that would not require ratification by the Senate. Chuck Hagel, his appointee as Secretary of Defence, is a member of Global Zero, a network of states-people and policy-makers who endorse phased reductions in nuclear stockpiles culminating in a nuclear-weapons-free world by 2030.

More than 380 Members of the European Parliament recently endorsed a declaration, organised by Global Zero and Parliamentarians for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (PNND), which supports the Global Zero plan.

Last week, the Inter Parliamentary Union, which comprises over 160 parliaments in the world including most of the parliaments of the nuclear-weapon States and the NATO allies, agreed to make the principal topic for their work over the next year “Towards a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World: The Contribution of Parliaments.”

In the US, Congressman Ed Markey (a Co-President of PNND) has generated considerable traction for his SANE (Sensible Approach to Nuclear Expenditure) Act which proposes significant cuts in nuclear stockpiles and spending in order to help stimulate the economy and support environmentally sustainable enterprises.

And today, to commemorate the anniversary of Obama’s Prague speech, Senator Alena Gajduskova, Vice-President of the Czech Senate, sent a letter to President Obama, endorsed by leading parliamentarians from the Czech Republic and another 10 NATO countries, calling for the implementation of the Prague Vision.  The letter highlights “NATO’s commitment to “create the conditions for a nuclear-weapons-free world” through the NATO Strategic Doctrine” and affirms a commitment to “work with our governments on paving the way by promoting mechanisms and approaches in NATO for achieving security without nuclear weapons.”

Of course, President Obama cannot deliver a nuclear-weapons-free world by himself, a fact he emphasized in his Prague speech. And until very recently it seemed that the rest of the world was unable to get its act together to commence a process for global nuclear disarmament. The Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, the world’s principal disarmament negotiating body, has been stymied and unable to undertake any disarmament work for 17 years. However, in March a new Open-Ended Working Group was established which is open to all UN member States, is unable to be blocked by any State (no State has a veto power), and is tasked to ‘take forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations for the achievement and maintenance of a world without nuclear weapons.’

Of course the diplomats deliberating in Geneva will only go as far and as fast as they are directed by the governments and pushed by civil society. Now is the time to take heed of Obama’s words in Prague four years ago. We must “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” We must “stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st century”. “We, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can.’”

Categories: International, Opinions, Peace and Disarmament
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