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Bluestone nuclear test on Christmas Island, June 30, 1962.
It's been reported that President Barack Obama will announce further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal in his State of the Union address tonight. It's unlikely that North Korea's claim that it has successfully carried out another nuclear test will affect the president's announcement.

The plan is to extend reductions mandated in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty —the bilateral U.S.-Russia pact that came into force two years ago last week. New START sets the number of operational warheads on planes, missiles and ships of each nation at 1,550 by 2018. Obama is expected to announce a proposed reduction to around 1,000. Enough, still, if a full-bore nuclear exchange occurred, to blow us all to kingdom come or kill us in the fallout-saturated aftermath. But the ultimate goal is to reach zero by 2030, not just eliminating the operational warheads but all 19,000 of them, including those stockpiled in reserve.

Despite the reality of our era, the practical fact that nuclear weapons are simply not needed as a crucial element of U.S. foreign policy with Russia and China, getting the Senate to agree to such cuts is unlikely in its current configuration. But the administration is said to be examining the possibilities of coming to an agreement with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to make mutual cuts under New START, something that would not require Senate ratification. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon is said to be headed to Moscow in March to start laying the groundwork for face-to-face meetings over nukes and other security issues between the two presidents next summer.

A half century ago, the United States, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United Kingdom signed and ratified the Limited Test Ban Treaty, pledging to stop exploding nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, outer space and underwater. Even though it would be another three years, until 1966, before the world reached the peak of stockpiled nuclear warheads, the treaty was a tenuous first step in ratcheting down nuclear tensions of the Cold War. But for decades afterward, Cold War bellicosity and false alarms put us perilously close to frying the planet.

At least part of the reason we didn't can be ascribed to luck, part to the dissolution of the Soviet Union two decades ago and part to a series of nuclear arms reductions treaties that emerged after the test-ban treaty in 1963. Such treaties have been signed by Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Not all these treaties were ratified. In 1999, the Senate rejected the follow-up to the 1963 pact, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that would have barred underground nuclear weapons tests.

But other treaties have led to vast reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the two adversaries ready and able to annihilate billions of people. Some 40,000 nuclear warheads have been dismantled since 1989.

Getting the ball rolling on ridding the world of the rest of them is a task President Obama set for himself before he came to the presidency even though it was obvious to him from the outset that he would be just another in that string of presidents who have participated in the always difficult negotiations that mandate mutual nuclear cutbacks.

The 2030 goal is the phased plan of Global Zero, a movement to eliminate all nuclear weapons over the next two decades. The organization's first phase is the same one Obama will apparently announce tonight: negotiating down to 1,000 warheads each for Russia and the United States by the end of 2013. Obama has made clear that “Global Zero will always have a partner in me and my administration." Please continue reading about Global Zero's goals below the fold.

Global Zero signatories include a number of Reagan administration officials not exactly known for being doves. These include former National Security Adviser Robert MacFarlane, Secretary of State George Schultz and Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci. Of course, reducing and even eliminating nuclear weapons would not mean an end to war or imperialist design. We've seen plenty of war, plenty of slaughter, plenty of aggressive intervention by various nations, including our own, in the nearly seven decades since the last nuclear bomb was dropped on a city. But that doesn't make cutting nuclear arsenals pointless. Far from it.  

If you choose to read the May 2012 Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Commission Policy Report, you'll notice its chairman was retired Gen. James Cartwright, a Marine who served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as a name much in the news these days, former Sen. Chuck Hagel. Cartwright has said that the United States will not be risking its security by reducing its arsenal to 900 nuclear warheads.

In February 2010, Page van der Linden (who some Kossacks know as Plutonium Page), interviewed former Ambassador Richard Burt, a key player in Cold War arms control negotiations. Burt was one of the five commissioners who wrote the Global Zero report last year. An excerpt:

In the new, post-Cold War period, the role of nuclear weapons has really fundamentally changed. You can make the case—and a lot of people believe—that during the Cold War, that nuclear weapons were essentially stabilizing, that the threat of massive retaliation, what people refer to as nuclear deterrence ... reinforced in a bipolar world (a world dominated by the US and the Soviet Union) that nuclear weapons maintained stability and made war unthinkable.

I would argue that in the new era we're in, we're not in a bipolar world anymore, we're in a world where there are a lot of forces of disintegration at work, not just the spread of nuclear weapons but the growing number of failing and failed states, of international terrorism, that nuclear weapons are no longer stabilizing. They're destabilizing, and thus the risks that weapons will be used is far higher than it was before.

That, then, leads to, I think, the logical conclusion that you are not going to persuade potential new nuclear powers, you're not going to be able to persuade them not to acquire nuclear weapons unless existing nuclear powers are really serious about reducing and eliminating their own capabilities. In fact, as you probably know, those existing nuclear powers, including the United States, have already signed up in Article 6 of the 1968 [Nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty, to the concept that countries would stay non-nuclear if the existing nuclear powers sought real disarmament.

Although George W. Bush signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, there were setbacks in nuclear policy in his eight years in office. The Bush Doctrine enshrined preemptive war, particularly for use against nations suspected or known to be developing nuclear weapons.

By threatening for the first time to employ tactical nuclear weapons against states that did not have them and refusing to negotiate with them, Bush encouraged proliferation. The Obama administration has yet to officially reject the Bush Doctrine, including the tactical nuclear threat. Doing so in tandem with reductions in the world's two largest nuclear arsenals, with pledges of more reductions to come, would go far toward cutting back the risk that some failed state or non-state actor would get hold of a nuclear weapon and use it.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Tue Feb 12, 2013 at 08:41 AM PST.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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