Obama and Disarmament

Obama has recently received copious praise for his role in securing the UN Security Council resolution on nuclear disarmament. For example, The Independent referred to his "sound … statesmanship"; in particular, his recognition that "the cynical principles of realpolitik have no utility" in stemming nuclear proliferation. Instead, states need to follow Obama’s shining example, abandoning their "narrow self-interest" in favour of "a sense of the common global good".[1]

The language of the resolution is certainly laudable (though it is perhaps worth stressing that it is a non-binding statement). However, there are signs that the present US administration’s commitment to the "common global good" isn’t all that it is cracked up to be.

What are we to make, for example, of the less than laudable stance the US has taken on the UN Arms Trade Treaty (ATT)? As critically reported by Amnesty International and Oxfam, the US are planning to amend the agreement process on the treaty, so that rather than a majority it would have to be accepted by consensus. This of course gives governments a veto power, which will result in a considerably weaker treaty. Moreover, the UK is expected to join the US in seeking to derail the ATT, which might explain why the British press have thus far remained silent about the matter.[2] One hesitates to propose that the US might be pursuing this goal because it is the largest global arms dealer, accounting for more than two-thirds of all foreign weapons sales in 2008: as we know, Obama has abandoned the pursuit of "narrow self-interest".[3]

To be sure, conventional weapons kill vastly greater numbers than WMD – over 1,000 people die per day as a direct result of armed violence, and many more suffer and die from the indirect effect of such weapons on economies, infrastructure, provision of aid, etc.[4] However, WMD have the unique potential to bring about a doomsday scenario, so it is understandable that one might be particularly concerned about their spread. Given this concern, there is a serious question to address: namely, is the US strategy consistent with the praiseworthy anti-proliferation ideals espoused? This question cannot be avoided by those committed to reducing the threat of nuclear proliferation.

Iran has been the focus of American concern, despite the fact that there is no conclusive proof that they are developing nuclear weapons. Even if they had the capacity to do so, the likelihood of Iran attacking its neighbours with WMD is virtually zero; unless, that is, they have a wish for the US to "totally obliterate them," in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

A far more significant threat comes from the only three countries not to have signed on to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): India, Pakistan, and Israel. All three countries are known to have nuclear arsenals, and all have developed them with the involvement of the US. What is the Obama administration’s stance on this much more grave threat, for which his country is partially responsible? Turning first to Israel, we can note the recent IAEA resolution calling on Israel to accede to the NPT.[5] The resolution  passed, despite strong opposition from the US and Europe, with the US ambassador calling the resolution "redundant" and "highly politicized". Israel reflexively refused to cooperate, protesting that the resolution singled it out – unfair, apparently, despite Israel’s singular status in the Middle East as both the only nuclear power, and the only country not signed on to the NPT. The IAEA resolution seems to have gone virtually unreported by major US and UK newspapers.

Another inconvenient fact is India’s announcement just a few days after the UN Security Council resolution that it can now build nuclear weapons with the same destructive capacity as the world’s most advanced arsenals, with yields up to 200 kilotons. However, as reported by The Economic Times (India’s major financial daily), the Obama administration has assured the Indian government that the Indo-US nuclear deal is not endangered by the disarmament resolution; a fact that should cause consternation in those seriously committed to bringing about nuclear disarmament, but was quietly passed over by the Western media.[6] No further comment seems necessary.

The US relation to Pakistan’s nuclear program is less clear, but it is not implausible that part of the billions of dollars in US aid to Pakistan will be diverted to building up its nuclear infrastructure, the expansion of which was confirmed by Admiral Mike Mullen (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) earlier this year. US officials have said that none of the assistance provided to Pakistan is specifically directed at expanding its nuclear facilities, but have acknowledged that "the billions in new proposed American aid … could free other money for Pakistan’s nuclear infrastructure, at a time when Pakistani officials have expressed concern that their nuclear program is facing a budget crunch for the first time". It’s worth highlighting the judgement of the president of the Institute for Science and International Security, that "of course, with enough pressure, all this could be preventable"—pressure, we can add, that Obama has been unwilling to apply.[7]

The US is at present deeply embroiled in the proliferation of nuclear weapons and insulation of the arms trade from meaningful regulation. In this situation, talk of Obama’s "sense of the common global good" can only be a barrier to understanding, and must be avoided by those seriously concerned by the existential threat posed by both conventional and nuclear weapons.


[1] ‘President Obama’s sound nuclear statesmanship,’ The Independent (25th Sep 09), online: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/leading-articles/leading-article-president-obamas-sound-nuclear-statesmanship-1792794.html
[2] ‘Oxfam and Amnesty call on Miliband to reject US proposal to give every State a veto over crucial arms treaty’, Amnesty International UK (9th Oct 09), online: http://www.amnesty.org.uk/news_details.asp?NewsID=18445
[3] ‘US leads the world in foreign weapons sales,’ Reuters (6th Sep 09), online: http://www.reuters.com/article/domesticNews/idUSTRE5851XH20090906
[5] ‘Israel pressured on nuclear sites,’ Al-Jazeera English (18th Sep 09), online: http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2009/09/2009918173136830771.html
[6] ‘UN resolution on NPT not directed against India: US,’ The Economic Times (26th Sep 09), online: http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/News/Politics/Nation/UN-resolution-on-NPT-not-directed-against-India-US/articleshow/5059668.cms
[7] ‘Pakistan is Rapidly Adding Nuclear Arms, US says,’ New York Times (17th May 09), online:

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