“The world organisation debates disarmament in one room and, in the next room, moves the knights and pawns that make national arms imperative.” – E B White
Why is the United States embarking on a trillion dollar nuclear modernisation programme that is highly dangerous, directionless, expensive, and does nothing to make the country safer? This is a question being asked by a number of strategic experts but no satisfactory answer has yet been provided.
It is clear now that the US will be spending almost $1 trillion maintaining and modernising its nuclear arsenal over the next thirty years which will do nothing to address the real security threats from the non-state actors. According to a 2014 report published by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), the US is devoting more than three percent of its annual budget to its nuclear arsenal. The Obama administration intends to use this money to modernise all three legs of its nuclear triad in the coming decades which, in the views of many nuclear experts, is totally unnecessary strategically.
The unfortunate fact is that the Obama administration continues to build up an already bloated American nuclear arsenal which is not only wasting US taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars every year but also aggravating the risk of nuclear terrorism. The Obama administration’s plans to go ahead with this costly plan, despite wide-ranging opposition, is a recent manifestation of US nuclear hypocrisy and has undermined the Obama administration’s ability to take effective action against North Korea’s nuclear misadventures.
In April 2009, US President Barack Obama gave hope to nuclear disarmament activists around the globe, affirming his commitment to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction. The promise he made is worth recalling, especially since it has largely been forgotten now:
“As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act… So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I’m not naïve. This goal will not be reached quickly- perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now, we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can…”
What he told a cheering crowd of more than 25,000 people in Prague’s historic Hradcany Square was one a laudable objective but, unfortunately, President Obama yielded to the pressure of the American nuclear establishment and could not commit to the goal of seeking total elimination of nuclear weapons. Only one year later, in 2010, President Obama bowed to the nuclear establishment, earmarking approximately $185 billion to modernise nuclear warheads and delivery systems in the bargain for smooth passage of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia.
I have argued previously on these pages that powerful lobbies in almost all nuclear weapon states have developed stakes in vast nuclear establishments, spending budgets of billions of dollars. These vested interests always resist efforts to cut down nuclear weapons. The majority of experts agree that the US could maintain an effective nuclear deterrent without any further spending. According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) estimates, the US has currently 1,620 strategic warheads deployed on ballistic missiles – 1,150 on submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMS) and 470 on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
President of the Ploughshares Fund Joseph Cirincione has explained very clearly in his recently-published book that the US nuclear arsenal is still configured to counter the threats of any kind of nuclear attack from Russia. Rather, in his view, reconfiguring nuclear force to combat the actual twenty-first-century threat environment could reduce force numbers without sacrificing vital military missions.
But the US administration is not ready to reduce its nuclear arsenal, failing to appreciate the fact that nuclear weapons are becoming strategically irrelevant in today’s world. The truth is that US nuclear deterrent could make Russian troops pull out of Ukraine and spending more money is not going to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from challenging the US in Europe.
Another manifestation of American nuclear hypocrisy is its open support for Israel’s undeclared nuclear status. US successive administrations have always refused to pressure Israel over its nuclear programme. After 2002, much media attention has focused on the hysteria surrounding the Iranian nuclear enterprise while Israel’s rapidly growing nuclear capabilities have been largely ignored. There is no strong evidence to suggest that Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal helped increase its security or bring stability to the region. Rather, it has been a destabilising force.
In fact, Israeli governments have repeatedly made threats of a nuclear attack on Arab countries in order to further Israel’s negative ambitions in the Middle East. Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister, is often quoted as saying, “Arabs may have the oil but we have the matches.” More alarmingly, the US policy of acquiescence in Israel’s nuclear programme has provided an impetus to Iraq, Syria, Iran and other Arab nations to explore the possibility of nuclear weapons – universally acknowledged as a threat to human survival on this planet.
Israel’s nuclear status gave Saddam Hussein a strong incentive to pursue a nuclear weapons programme in the 1980s and early 1990s. Israel has always refused to ratify the NPT, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Israel’s refusal to join these treaties has not only undermined the global non-proliferation regime, its worst consequences have appeared in the form of mass proliferation of biological and chemical weapons in Egypt, Syria and Iraq with the purpose to offset Israel’s military dominance in the region.
Israel’s possession of chemical and biological weapons has seriously undermined the moral authority of the US stance, which requires Iran to comply with the NPT and international law. The US cannot assume a leading role in ongoing global nuclear nonproliferation efforts without discarding its hypocritical stance.