Last week, President Obama and Russian Premier Demitri Medvedev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), a pact promising that the United States and Russia would slash their nuclear arsenals by a third. Currently the U.S. has over 2,100 warheads and Russia has over 2,700. Even if both countries slash their arsenals by a third, they would still control more warheads than the rest of the world combined. The pact with Russia was a precursor to the Nuclear Security Summit to be held this week, during which nuclear terrorism, labeled by Obama “the single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short-term, medium-term and long-term,” caps the agenda. Obama’s strategy to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism seems to be predicated on the deceleration and eventual reversal of nuclear proliferation.
The most contact I (and I’d imagine most other Wesleyan students) have ever had with nuclear terrorism was watching Jack Bauer track down that suitcase nuke in LA. Though the prospect of nuclear detonation in a densely populated metropolis makes for some badass episodes and some sky high ratings, it seems to me that the “single biggest threat to U.S. security” might be more the expression of sensationalist TV than a credible threat to be feared and combated in the three-dimensional world.
How real is the threat of nuclear terrorism? There are four more nuclear powers- Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea- than when the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty went into force in 1970, and as we all know, Iran is well on its way. The rise of a hostile Iran with nuclear weapons, and, more terrifying, the proximity of radical militants to Pakistani stockpiles, lends credence to President Obama’s assertion that nuclear terrorism may in fact present an existential threat to U.S. security.
So what do we do about it? Help the Pakistani government crack down on militants? Quietly condone a preemptive Israeli attack on Iran’s facilities? Hire Jack Bauer? Can the conference last week and the upcoming summit build strong stepping stones to stopping nuclear terrorism and general proliferation?
It’s tough to say. China and the US have agreed that are nuclear capable Iran is dangerous but any steps taken so far have barely cracked the headlines. Even as I write, two bits of news have popped up and contradicted each other. The first lauded the progress made this week, citing Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s agreement to get rid of all of the enriched Uranium his country had acquired during and since the Cold War. This is good. The way I see it, the less poorly secured Soviet materials there are floating around Eastern Europe the better. The news from Ukraine, as well as China’s apparent willingness to sanction Iran’s nuclear program, seem to spell progress. However, Dimirti Medvedev, just days after signing a pact to reduce nuclear arms, has essentially said he could decide not to keep his end of the deal. According to Russian’s Forgein Minister, “we [Russia] will have the right to resort to [withdrawal] provisions provided in this treaty” Basically, Russia has said they reserve the right to back out whenever they want.
It seems quite possible that neither the U.S. nor Russia will adhere to the terms of START. But is that such a necessarily terrible thing? I for one am not convinced that the conditions of the nuclear deal for either side need to be kept. Though it is possible that neither side fully intends to uphold the terms of START, a highly-publicized non-proliferation treaty-signing is an important gesture. The Nuclear Summit is not going to rid the world of nuclear weapons, but it may help maintain the status quo- that is, the nuclear powers will stay nuclear powers, while preventing the rise of new nuclear powers. If this is the case, the Summit will be a success, from a U.S. foreign policy angle, that is. While the nuclear powers are not currently a danger to U.S. security, the real danger lies in rogue states. If the U.S. and Russia can come together to enforce the status quo, Obama will have taken a huge step towards protecting the U.S., and the world at large, from nuclear terrorism.