Disarmament and the 2013 State of the Union Address

Barack Obama did not mention landmines in his State of the Union address on February 12, 2013.  I didn’t think he would, so I’m not disappointed.  He did mention nuclear weapons though, but only in the context of limiting proliferation and reducing stockpiles, not in terms of complete disarmament.  The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the cornerstone of all nuclear disarmament discussions, states as one of its objectives:

the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons, the liquidation of all their existing stockpiles, and the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery pursuant to a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control (United Nations).

As a signatory to the NPT, the United States is obligated to work towards this objective and the New START treaty signed by Obama with former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev cited this obligation.  The importance of the NPT and complete disarmament was made plain when, less than 24 hours before Obama was to give the State of the Union address, North Korea tested a nuclear device.  Since 1998, only North Korea has tested any nuclear or atomic weapons and has now done so three times, with each successive test getting stronger.  North Korea is now working to develop a device small enough to fit inside the warhead of a long-range missile, raising fears of a strike on the United States’s Pacific Coast (The Washington Post).

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, like those of Iran, are based upon a model of deterrence.  If they possess atomic or nuclear weapons, they will be less likely to be attacked by another country; the United States in the case of North Korea, Israel in the case of Iran.  Since the creation of the NPT framework in 1968, countries – South Africa, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea – have developed nuclear weapons technology and only one, South Africa has willingly given it up.  Brazil explored the possibility of nuclear weapons, but never pursued them; Syria, Iran, Iraq and Libya all made significant efforts to developing weapons with Syria, Iraq and Libya being forced (militarily) to abandon their attempts.  Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons technology.

That model of deterrence becomes irrelevant if all nuclear-armed states disarm.  Sure, some will make the argument that when all states give up nuclear weapons, only non-state actors and rogue states will have them, but the fact is the monitoring mechanisms are such that no country or group could develop or obtain such weapons without it being known long before the weapons existed.  That was the promise of the NPT framework, made real by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT, which the United States has yet to sign) and the monitoring mechanisms that accompanied the CTBT (which the US is heavily subsidizing).

In his speech, Obama said “our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead and meet our obligations” and Obama is clearly interested in fulfilling some of that obligation with regards to nuclear disarmament.  Two days before the State of the Union address, the Administration shared its plan to reduce current nuclear stockpiles to about 1,000 weapons and ask Russia to match.  This would still be more than enough explosive power to destroy the world several times over, but the reduction by more than a third of the world nuclear weapons is significant, even if the reports that accompanied the announcement were reassuring about the US’s ability to maintain an effective deterrent and the “triad” of submarines, bombers and long-range missiles (The New York Times).  In addition to its own disarmament, the Obama Administration is support of nuclear weapon free zones and other confidence-building measures (State Department). So the US leads and uses that leadership and the moral authority that accompanies that leadership to encourage other nations to follow. One area in which the US was once a leader and in which it could regain its leadership is in landmines (see, I got there eventually).

In the 1990s, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy helped establish the US government as a leader for the elimination of anti-personnel landmines.  He held hearings on the subjects and got the ear of the president at the time, Bill Clinton, who announced that the landmines should be banned.  When the time came for negotiating a ban however, the US fell far short and deliberately attempt to weaken or defeat the treaty that became the Ottawa or Mine Ban Treaty.  Since then, the US has been the largest funder of mine action, but has consistently reserved the right to produce victim-activated, persistent anti-personnel landmines (Executive orders and current policy require only smart mines to be produced, but there is nothing to ensure existing policy will not be abandoned).  Mr. Leahy is still in the Senate.  In fact, he is the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, making him the second person in the presidential succession after the Vice President.  Mr. Leahy’s leadership and pressure on the White House can push the United States back into a position of leadership on these inhumane weapons and accede to the Mine Ban Treaty, fulfilling a promise made two decades ago.  If the US joins the Mine Ban Treaty, it could encourage the other states that have also retained the right to produce landmines to give up that right and also join the Mine Ban Treaty.

In March 2012, as part of an effort to put pressure on Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad, US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice took to Twitter:

Twitter capture

Twitter capture

But the impact of her statement was blunted by the fact that the US has not signed the Mine Ban Treaty.  If the US wants to use the landmine issue to shame rogue states, it must regain its moral authority by joining the Mine Ban Treaty.

Michael P. Moore

February 14, 2013


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