Monday, November 22, 2010

Re-thinking strategy

Choose domestic legislation over international treaties in nuclear disarmament efforts?

For anyone working on freeing the world of nuclear weapons, the standoff between the Obama Administration and Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona on the required Senate approval of New START has been an infuriating chapter in 2010’s already rich collection of thrilling nuclear arms control tales.

Speaking for myself, it is sometimes difficult to see any positive side to the ‘what if-scenario’. Put plainly, if Senator Jon Kyl and his loyal group of Senators keen on obstructing the White House any way they can, manage to thwart ratification of New START, then surely all headway made by President Obama with regard to nuclear disarmament will have evaporated.

It seems that for every step that is taken in the right direction, two are taken in the opposite direction, effectively getting us further and further away from the end goal of a nuclear weapon-free world. As a result, the cynics are rewarded while the idealists have to be resilient and “get back on the horse.”

I should mention that the news of NATO not taking up nuclear disarmament in its Strategic Concept, in spite of Germany’s efforts, and learning that North Korea has flouted international pressure by secretly building an “astonishingly modern” uranium enrichment facility at a pace that would suggest help from other nations, did not help improve my less than positive disposition.

Returning to the difficulties of ratifying New START.

With the survival of the important Russian-US nuclear arms control treaty now in the balance, it is easy to build failed ratification up as an important nail in Obama’s foreign policy coffin.

It was thus refreshing to read an International Herald Tribune Op-Ed entitled Farewell to the Age of the Treaty by James P. Rubin, which looks beyond the chances of New START being approved by the Senate and argues for a change in strategy with regard to achieving nuclear disarmament objectives. Mr. Rubin, a former assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, makes a case for choosing domestic legislation over international treaties, at least in the US context.

With regard to New START, Mr. Rubin claims that the US could “achieve roughly the same result without signing a treaty. International negotiations would still be needed, but instead of a binding treaty, the administration could commit to pursuing Congressional action to accomplish the agreed terms. The effect would be the same, but the process would be much easier at home, requiring a simple majority in the Senate, instead of two-thirds.”

Interestingly, he looks at that other issue which, although widely accepted as posing an existential threat to humanity, still has a dedicated band of skeptics (many of them US Senators) in its corner: climate change. “This strategy is already being used on climate policy. After the Senate failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change that was negotiated during the Clinton administration, it became clear that any treaty to cut greenhouse gas emissions would be a lost cause. In recent years negotiators have continued to pursue international climate agreements, but with the understanding that adherence would occur through domestic energy legislation that the rest of the world could then examine and assess.”

According to Mr. Rubin, the same model could work for nuclear arms control. "If the Senate continues to stall on New Start, Moscow and Washington could simply set the same level of 1,550 strategic warheads through domestic legislation and exchange deployment plans consistent with the treaty´s other provisions. Crucial verification procedures, escpecially on-site inspections, could be established through executive agreements, which may not even require legislative approval. In any case, it is hard to imagine Congress opposing a bill to monitor Russia´s nuclear forces. Further arms control efforts planned by the Obame adminstration - reducing strategic nuclear forces, prohibiting nuclear weapons testing and controlling the production of special nuclear material - could be handled in the same way."

Mr. Rubin wisely does not rule out the practicality and necessity of treaties in some cases. He would like to see them reserved for rare cases, “like the creation of a mutual defense pact or perhaps President Obama’s vision for the elimination of nuclear weapons.”
In other cases, pursuing an effective mix of national laws and executive agreements may be President Obama’s only way to circumvent efforts of US Congressmen hell-bent on shutting down his government and quashing his foreign policy objectives, including his vision of a nuclear weapon-free world. In the new US political climate, President Obama cannot afford to ignore this approach.

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