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New Start

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Not a Bad START

18 November 2010

Not a Bad START

By Gwynne Dyer

It was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who signed the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, SALT, with the old Soviet Union in 1972. It was another Republican president, the elder George Bush, who signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START, with Russia in 1993. But it was a Democratic president who signed the New Start treaty, and that seems to be the problem.

The treaty, signed by US president Barack Obama and Russian president Dmitri Medvedev in Prague last April, is unambitious in comparison to Obama’s vision of “a world without nuclear weapons,” but it is a useful document. It mandates 30 percent cuts in deployed strategic nuclear weapons by both sides, and it is the cornerstone of a new era of US-Russian cooperation.

The cuts are valuable in themselves, because they oblige the two countries, which together possess 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, to go down to 1,550 warheads each. The treaty also imposes a drastic reduction in delivery vehicles (intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and long-range bombers) from 1,600 for each country under the last treaty to only 700 in future.

But the symbolic importance of the New Start treaty is at least as important, as it was the first concrete step in the reconciliation of the two former superpowers after the growing hostility of the last decade.

The immediate diplomatic benefits of the treaty for the United States have included Russian support for harsher sanctions in response to Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programme, Russian logistical support for NATO’s operation in Afghanistan (Moscow is supplying one-third of the fuel used by US troops there), and a remarkable degree of Russian-American coordination in dealing with the violent chaos in Kyrgyzstan earlier this year.

You can, of course, criticise the specific content of each of these policies, but you cannot deny that US-Russian cooperation is in general a good thing. Nor can you deny that it depends on mutual trust, which would be drastically undermined by a US refusal to ratify the New Start treaty. Yet that is what now seems likely to happen.

In order to ratify an international treaty, the US Senate must pass it by a two-thirds vote: 67 out of 100 senators. That means the administration must get eight Republicans to vote for it even in the outgoing Senate, where the Democrats hold 59 seats. But when the new senators elected in the mid-term elections early this month take their seats in January, the Democratic majority will be a bare 51 seats.

After that, ratifying the treaty would require sixteen Republican senators to vote for it, which is virtually impossible to imagine. That’s why President Obama is desperate to get the treaty ratified by the current “lame-duck” session of Congress, which has less than four weeks to run. The omens are not good.

The question is whether eight Republican congressmen are willing to put the national interest ahead of their partisan desire to deprive Obama of his one major foreign policy success. They would have to ignore not only the unanimous support for the treaty among senior US military leaders, but also the impressively bipartisan group of former secretaries of state and defence who went to Congress with Obama last week to back it.

“If we don’t get the treaty, (the Russians) are not constrained in their development of force structure,” General Kevin Chilton, head of US nuclear forces, told the Senate. Moreover, the US would no longer have the right to inspect Russian nuclear sites (and vice versa), which is essential to maintaining confidence between the two countries. “So it’s the worst of both possible worlds,” he concluded.

But that is strategy and diplomacy; this is politics. Senator Jon Kyl, the Republican whip in the Senate, says there is not enough time to push the treaty through during the lame-duck session, although it has already been through seven months of deliberations and 20 hearings in the Senate.

He may just be seeking further inducements from the White House (which has already promised an extra $4 billion will be spent on “modernising” US nuclear forces). More likely, he is playing for time until the current session expires, after which the new contingent of more radical Republicans will take the lead in trashing the treaty. He is too old school ever to accuse Obama of “selling out” the country, but they probably will.

Game, set and match to the Republicans, but what about the country and the world? The consequence of an American refusal to ratify the treaty would not be a new Cold War, but a deeply disillusioned Russia that had concluded that the United States was not a trustworthy partner. Cooperation would diminish in the world, and confrontations would grow.

More importantly, there would be no restrictions whatever on how many nuclear weapons, of which kinds, the two countries could produce – nor would either country be under any obligation to let the other know what it was up to.

Worst of all, it would provide hawks in the emerging great powers, China and India, with a wonderful pretext for demanding more nuclear weapons. Why should they restrict themselves to about 180 and 60 respectively, when the older great powers have several thousand of the things?
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 12. (“If we…concluded”; and “He may…will”

Nuclear Summits

10 April 2010

Nuclear Summits

By Gwynne Dyer

The international agenda is jammed with high-level meetings on nuclear weapons: a US-Russian treaty on cutting strategic nuclear weapons last week, a Washington mini-summit on non-proliferation this week, and a full-dress review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) next month. It’s tempting to believe that we are making real progress in getting rid of the things, but I wouldn’t get my hopes too high.

The “New Start” treaty between Washington and Moscow sounds impressive, committing the two powers to reducing their “deployed strategic nuclear weapons” to 1,550 each. That’s a 30 percent cut on what the two powers last agreed, in their 2002 treaty – but it’s not as impressive as it seems, because most of their nuclear weapons are not “deployed strategic” ones.

The two countries currently have over 8,000 other nuclear warheads “awaiting dismantlement”, plus an unknown number of “tactical” warheads that are operationally available. They admit to having about 2,500, but those numbers are completely unverified and probably much lower than reality. Unofficial estimates suggest that Russia and the US really have at least 10,000 tactical nukes.

Add at least a thousand Chinese, British, French, Indian, Pakistani and Israeli nuclear warheads (plus a couple of North Korean ones that sort of work), and there are probably around 25,000 nuclear warheads on the planet. That’s fewer than there were at the height of the Cold War, but it’s still around one nuclear weapon for every 250,000 people on the planet.

With the right targeting pattern, therefore, you could still kill or maim almost everybody on the planet with the existing stock of nuclear weapons. In practice, of course, they are targeted at particular countries that should expect a much denser concentration of explosions in case of war. And the New Start treaty will eventually reduce that global total of nuclear weapons by only about 7 percent.

Besides, the US Senate will probably not ratify the treaty. It takes a two-thirds Senate majority – 67 votes out of a hundred – to ratify a treaty, but all 41 Republican senators have already said that they will not support New Start. Their pretext is a non-binding statement in the treaty that recognises a link between “offensive” missiles and ballistic missile defence, but in practice it’s just Republican strategy to block every White House initiative.

President Barack Obama’s commitment to a world that is ultimately free from nuclear weapons seems genuine, but his real strategy right now is not focussed on the weapons of the existing nuclear weapons powers. What he really wants to do is strengthen the anti-proliferation regime, and for that he needed some symbolic movement towards nuclear disarmament from the US and Russia.

The problem with the NPT from the start was that the non-nuclear powers kept their promise not to develop nuclear weapons, while the great powers that already had them did not keep their parallel promise to get rid of them. After forty years of that, there is an understandable impatience among the non-nuclear majority, and New Start is the best piece of symbolism that Obama can come up with. It may not be enough.

Obama clearly hoped that the Washington summit of 47 countries this week would provide him with extra leverage at the major review conference on the NPT next month in New York. He could use it to bring pressure on Iran, a signatory of the NPT that he suspects of working secretly on nuclear weapons – but it turned out that other countries wanted to bring up Israeli nuclear weapons too.

Only four countries in the world have not signed and ratified the NPT. Three of them, India, Pakistan and North Korea, have openly developed and tested nuclear weapons. The fourth, Israel, refuses to confirm or deny that it has nuclear weapons, but it is generally reckoned to have at least 200 of them, plus a variety of delivery vehicles.

For almost fifty years Israel has got away with this “creative ambiguity”, but it was inevitable that it would be pressed to come clean if any other Middle Eastern country started working on nuclear weapons. The sheer hypocrisy of turning a blind eye to Israel’s nukes while condemning a country like Iran for allegedly seeking them too would become unsustainable. And so it has.

Egypt and Turkey are leading a campaign to have the Middle East declared a nuclear weapons-free zone. Their real concern is Iran’s putative nukes, but it is politically impossible for them to criticise Iran’s ambitions while ignoring the reality of Israeli nuclear weapons, so they decided to bring them up in Washington.

As soon as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu realised that was going to happen, he cancelled his plan to attend the conference and sent his deputy, Dan Meridor, to take the flak instead.

Netanyahu is already in a bitter confrontation with Obama over Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. It would not help to have Netanyahu stone-walling on Israeli nuclear policy at the Washington meeting and personally sabotaging Obama’s attempt to strengthen the NPT treaty. Better to have a subordinate do it instead.

So no dramatic progress soon on non-proliferation, but Obama’s initiative has not yet failed. Subjects that have been taboo for decades are being openly discussed, and real progress on non-proliferation is becoming a possibility.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. “Besides…initiative”; and “For almost…it has”)

New Start in Cyprus

19 February 2008

New Start in Cyprus

By Gwynne Dyer

To call Tassos Papadopoulos a dinosaur is a slur on the entire Cretaceous era, but at least the age of the dinosaurs has ended in Cyprus. Running for re-election as president last Sunday, Papadopoulos, the man who almost single-handedly scuttled a peace settlement in Cyprus four years ago, came third and was eliminated from the race. Both the remaining candidates want to reopen negotiations for a peace deal.

The Greek-Cypriot newspaper Simerini was slightly more generous about the 74-year-old Papadopoulos, calling him “the last of the Mohicans,” but the sense that his defeat marks a turning point in the affairs of Cyprus is widespread. For more than half a century Cyprus has been a divided and heavily militarised island kept quiet by a UN peacekeeping force, but there is hope on the horizon.

Papadopoulos, who founded his presidency on resistance to a UN-backed plan to end the division of Cyprus, trailed only a few thousand votes behind his two adversaries, former foreign minister Ioannis Kasoulides and Communist Party leader Demetris Christofias, each of whom took almost exactly one-third of the vote. But that means that two-thirds of Greek-Cypriots are now ready to reconsider the final settlement that they rejected in the 2004 referendum.

Nobody in Greek-Cypriot politics will admit that, of course. Both Kasoulides and Christofias insist that the UN-brokered 2004 deal is dead, and the UN says that the Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots should sort it out for themselves this time round. But everybody knows that the 2004 UN deal is the template for a final settlement, just as everybody knows that the documents from the Taba summit in January 2001 contain the outline of the final Israeli-Palestinian settlement (if and when everybody is ready for it).

What we have here, only sixty years late, is the dawning of strategic realism in Cyprus. According to old census figures, almost four-fifths of the Cypriot population spoke Greek and only one-fifth Turkish, so if the island had been located somewhere off the west coast of Greece, it could just have joined Greece when it got its independence from Britain in 1960. If the Turks didn’t like it, they could leave.

But Cyprus is not an island off the west coast of Greece. It is a large island off the south coast of Turkey, and the Turkish mainland is ten times closer to Cyprus than the Greek mainland. Moreover, Turkey is a militarily competent country with about seven times Greece’s population. The Greeks may love the Greek-Cypriots, but they were never going to wreck their country by going to war with Turkey for them.

It’s not about historical justice, if such a thing exists; it’s about strategic realities. The Greek-Cypriot majority COULD NOT drag its Turkish compatriots into union with Greece, it could not expel them, and there was even a limit to how badly it could mistreat them. Turkey would not stand for it, and Greece would not intervene militarily.

That was why Cyprus’s independence constitution was a document of Byzantine complexity, dividing every aspect of the government between the Greek and Turkish communities and creating interlocking vetoes over every decision. By 1963 frustrated Greek-Cypriots were trying to change it, mutual suspicions flared, and within a year almost all Turkish-Cypriots were living under siege in barricaded quarters of villages and towns all across the island.

That was when the UN peacekeeping force arrived, and froze the situation for a decade. Then in 1974 the military junta in Greece backed a military coup against the Greek-Cypriot government and installed a new regime that promised to unite the entire island with Greece. It was a miscalculation on a par with the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, but it wrecked many more lives.

Turkey invaded the north of the island to create a safe haven for Turkish-Cypriots, and the Greek armed forces, predictably, did nothing. Almost half the Turkish-Cypriot population, some 90,000 people, lived outside that Turkish-controlled enclave, but they abandoned their homes to seek safety there. About 200,000 Greek-Cypriots, forty percent of that population, fled south to escape the Turks. And for the next thirty years, nothing much happened.

By 2003, however, with Cyprus about to join the European Union and Turkey negotiating its entry terms, a new effort was launched to clear up the mess. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan came up with the terms after consulting both sides, and the deal was put to a referendum in 2004. Two-thirds of Turkish-Cypriots voted yes; over three-quarters of Greek-Cypriots, at the urging of President Papadopoulos, voted no. It was one last outing for Greek-Cypriot strategic fantasy.

Admittedly, the UN-brokered deal was not perfect from their point of view. It mandated a bi-zonal, bi-communal republic in which the Turkish-Cypriots largely run their own affairs, not the unitary state of today in which Greek-Cypriots would automatically dominate. It allowed Greek-Cypriot refugees to return to some parts of the north, but not to most. But it sent the Turkish troops home, and it conformed to strategic realities.

In 2004, Papadopoulos persuaded Greek-Cypriots to reject this deal. In 2008, they have rejected him. Whether Kasoulides or Christofias wins the run-off election next Sunday (probably the former), the new president will soon open talks with the Turkish-Cypriot government. With enough realism, there could be a deal within a year.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“Nobody…it”; and “It’s not…militarily”)