Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The non-proliferation era?

Today, al-Jazeera reports what appears to be extremely good news from the 47-nation nuclear arms summit convened by Barack Obama in New York;
Leaders at a world nuclear summit have agreed to work together in securing loose nuclear material within four years to prevent them from falling into the hands of groups such as al-Qaeda.

At the second day of the 47-nation summit convened by Barack Obama, the US president, in Washington DC, the leaders called for new controls on enriched uranium and separated plutonium, key elements in making nuclear weapons.

"We welcome and join President Obama's call to secure all vulnerable nuclear material in four years, as we work together to enhance nuclear security," the leaders said in a joint communique on Tuesday.

The communique states that the countries will accelerate protection of nuclear materials under their control.

It said that a main issue was "to prevent non-state actors from obtaining the information or technology required to use such material for malicious purposes".
Throughout his presidency one of the major criticism of George Bush II was that, for all his rhetoric on "security" and combatting "terror," he was actively making the world more vulnerable to nuclear terrorism. As such, the communique issued by this summit and the previous day's arms reduction treaty with Russia, seem to run counter to that dangerously lax attitude to nuclear weapons.

But is it what it appears to be, below the surface?

The idea that we are heading towards some utopic golden age without nuclear weapons is derailed instantly by one single fact;
The agreement will not be legally binding.
In itself, this makes the idea that Obama can succeed in his "broader agenda for ridding the world of nuclear weapons, and preventing weapons-grade material from falling into the hands of terrorists" laughable. As with climate change and the Copenhagen summit, non-binding agreements effectively mean all talk and no action, precisely the opposite of the US President's professed aims.

Not only that, but the entire thing is undermined further by the fact that the biggest nuclear proliferator is under no obligations, even non-binding ones, with regards to its own stockpile. We may see "the removal of all highly enriched uranium from Mexico," Russian "dispos[al] of weapons grade plutonium," and "new sanctions against Iran over its disputed nuclear programme." But no mention is made at all of the nuclear capability of the United States of America.

The US currently maintains an arsenal of 5,500 warheads, and there are no concrete details on how the "bold and pragmatic" agreement will affect them. Even the treaty between the US and Russia, according to Richard Weitz, the director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Political-Military Analysis, is "not so substantive." Rather, it is "a modest confidence boosting measure" and "the limits are somewhat lower than in previous treaties."

We should not doubt that the Obama policy on nuclear proliferation represents a sharp turn from that of the Bush administration. However, we should be very wary of equating the differences in rhetoric with differences in action until we see something concrete with the US's own arsenal, the main catalyst for proliferation elsewhere by those under threat from US imperialism.

As BBC correspondent Jonathan Marcus notes, "This is an unprecedented gathering. Mr Obama will hope for an unprecedented outcome." But until we get it, we should not get too excited about high-handed rhetoric. And we should not stop campaigning.