Political Salience of Nuclear Weapons



The U.S. and Russia possess about 95% of current stock of nuclear weapons. There are 23000 nuclear weapons including operationally-deployed and reserves as mentioned by Gareth Evans, president emeritus of the International Crisis Group in his June 2011 essay entitled “Bombs Away”. Any significant progress in nuclear disarmament requires serious commitment of U.S. and Russia. Their agreement to slash nuclear arsenals, irrespective of numbers can reassure the rest of the world that nuclear disarmament is achievable.

There have been endeavors towards achieving the goals of nuclear disarmament through the United Nations. As the most representative global forum it has been engaged in facilitating negotiations for concluding nuclear arms reduction agreements. Despite this fact UN’s forum has remained stymied for years due to differences among member states as they become adamant to stick to their national positions. Nuclear disarmament is a mix enterprise to which bilateral, regional and multilateral forums have contributed.

The most compelling case for denuclearizing the world has been made by U.S. president Barack Obama when he presented his vision of abolishing nuclear weapons in April, 2009 in Prague. He said: “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”. Perhaps he is the first American president who has persuasively advanced the global agenda of nuclear disarmament. Obama has pursued a foreign policy where nuclear disarmament has been duly prioritized.

In his pursuit of this noble endeavor president Obama has accomplished the renegotiation and conclusion of a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the ratification of which has also been completed through his tireless efforts to convince the recalcitrant Senate. Therefore, New START, a nuclear arms bilateral treaty between America and Russia, which slashes almost one-third of strategic nuclear weapons of both major nuclear powers, has become an uncontestable example of U.S. goal to limit the political salience of nuclear weapons.

Advent of Nuclear Age

1945 marked the beginning of the nuclear era following demonstration of U.S. nuclear capability, which made it the world’s first nuclear power. American history testifies that the then U.S. administration decided to drop atom bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9 1945 respectively to achieve two aims at the same time. One was to test the destructiveness of the newly-manufactured weapons and the other was obviously to coerce Japan to concede defeat in the World War II when the Americans and the Japanese were fighting each other. Everyone knows the catastrophe which resulted from the use of those atomic bombs. Millions of civilians died and the cities were totally flattened.

A-Bomb Tomb now maintained as a museum in Hiroshima reminds us how the scientific community can make such objects of mass destruction and how the humanity suffers irreparably because of emotional decision by the leadership during an armed conflict. Paradoxically, strong emotions emerging in the wake of the destruction of human lives and materials in the bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki propelled some world leaders, in particular, the former American president Eisenhower to advance the vision of peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Atomic energy requires dual-use technology. Its twin uses for generating electricity and producing nuclear bombs have always attracted the global attention. Fissionable materials needed for operating civilian nuclear power reactors can also be enriched to weapons-usable level. Uranium and plutonium are such materials used by all countries that run civilian nuclear reactors. Once a country acquires capability of enrichment of uranium to a higher level or in case it obtains the technology of  reprocessing plutonium, it can go nuclear in due course of time if it so decides.

The world history of civilian use of nuclear energy shows that majority of the lead countries in this field have also acquired nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan in Nepal’s neighborhood are the glaring examples. Both of them are pursuing civilian nuclear programs ambitiously. They have become nuclear-armed since 1998. In the aftermath of nuclear meltdown in Fukushima Nuclear Plant in Japan on March 11, 2011 a debate has ensued whether it is prudent to continue expanding nuclear energy programs unless safety measures are fool-proof. This debate has resonated worldwide raising concerns that nuclear industry may face a great setback.

The conduct of nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran has invited international criticism. The UN has imposed economic sanctions against them suspecting them of secretly developing nuclear weapons. Therefore, the international community is still struggling about how to ensure the peaceful application of atomic power and the prevention of clandestine military use of sensitive nuclear technologies.

One of the viable options may be to have in place a multilateral system of nuclear fuel cycle. Under this proposal those countries that require nuclear fuel like uranium may be supplied the same from a multilaterally-operated fuel bank. This is a proposal which, if implemented, can assist in halting diversion of nuclear materials to military use. Facing increasing demand for energy as industrialization drive continues, the global community will need more civilian nuclear power plants in future, nuclear accidents nonetheless. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” vision has an appeal in today’s energy-starved industrialized world as much as it had in 1953 when he first announced it before the UN.

Bilateral Arms Control Treaties:

Pursuit of nuclear tests by other aspirants like UK, France and China in the 1950s and the early 1960s spurred the efforts to achieve arms limitation treaties. Former U.S. President John F. Kennedy was so alarmed at the rapidly rising number of nuclear weapon proliferators that he even described those weapons as the “Damocles’ Sword” hanging on the humanity. Being apprehensive of rising proliferation as by 1964 the nuclear club had comprised five nations ( U.S. , Russia, UK, France and China ), the UN led the efforts to conclude negotiations for limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. Consequently, Partial Test Ban Treaty and Outer Space Treaty were signed in the mid 1960s. A landmark Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed in 1968, which seeks to promote global non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The U.S.-Russian bilateral nuclear pacts are more important to advance the cause of nuclear disarmament. As the possessors of the largest arsenals of nuclear weapons and states parties to the NPT, they are obliged legally to cut down the nuclear stockpiles. In this regard Strategic Arms Limitation Talks I & II signed between the U.S. and then Soviet Union during the height of Cold War is note-worthy. Threshold Test Ban Treaty, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and Moscow Treaty are some other examples of bilateral nuclear arms reduction treaties, which were negotiated and accordingly concluded before the end of last millennium.

START I: This treaty is conspicuous because of its objective of reducing the most destructive of nuclear weapons i. e. strategic warheads and their delivery vehicles viz missiles and bombers. This was a treaty concluded in 1991 between U.S. and then USSR.

START II: Though supposed to be more ambitious than START I, it failed to materialize due to inherent verification and monitoring difficulties.

Moscow Treaty: Despite seeking to have deeper cuts in strategic forces of U.S. and Russia, the agreement’s future hangs in the air in the opinion of its critics because of lack of credible verification. This treaty is to expire in 2012.

New START: This is the latest nuclear arms reduction treaty signed between U.S. and Russia in April, 2010 that makes further improvement upon its predecessor pact of 1991 (START-I) in many ways. It puts new and lower limits on deployed strategic weapons. It further updates verification mechanism. This treaty obtained ratification from the U.S. Senate in December, 2010.

Nuclear Posture Review

The basic idea behind the defense strategy outlined in the Nuclear Posture Review announced on April 6, 2010 is to constrain the range of circumstances in which the U.S. would threaten a nuclear response. President Obama’s remarks after unveiling new nuclear plan, which is referred to as nuclear posture review, explains the rationale of policy shift of U.S. administration. He said: “The massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War era of bipolar military confrontation is poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons”. The U.S. government’s position on the role of nuclear weapons is that such arms will henceforth be fundamentally-used to deter nuclear attacks on it and its allies and partners.

As understood from the above remarks of Obama, it becomes clear his administration perceives greater threat from terrorists and rogue states rather than from traditional rivals like Russia. This is why a new relationship has been forged between U.S. and Russia. The cultivation of cooperative bilateral relations has been Obama’s foreign policy priority. The U.S.-Russia New START treaty that cuts down the number of strategic warheads from 2200-1550 for each side has placed a greater limit on existing arsenals than by Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty of 2002. This underscores deepening of relations between the two nuclear powers.


Through New START confidence has been built between the parties, whose stockpiles contain thousands of nuclear weapons. This will pave the way for further deals seeking deeper cuts in strategic arms. Moreover, U.S.-Russia nuclear deal signals to the rest of the world that both the major nuclear powers are moving toward fulfilling commitments to the NPT to progressively disarm as opined by Stephen M. Walt and David E. Hoffman, who contribute to Foreign Policy magazine.

Bolstered by president Obama’s resounding success in resetting U.S.-Russia relations and resultantly concluding a New START, Gareth Evans contends that fear of a nuclear holocaust seems to have ended with Cold War. According to him, however, nuclear weapons catastrophe exists dangerously real because even the present stock of such weapons have a destructive capacity equal to 150 ,000 Hiroshima bombs. In view of this reality Obama administration’s emphasis on limiting the political salience of nuclear weapons is no less significant.

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