Nuclear nonproliferation on hold as US and Russia debate | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 01.02.2010
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Nuclear nonproliferation on hold as US and Russia debate

The US and Russia failed to replace the arms reduction treaty that expired last year. Negotiations should wrap up by the beginning of February, but some nations have used this to stall their nonproliferation activities.

Mushroom cloud rises over a Nevada test site

The absence of a new nonproliferation treaty is having a ripple effect

It has been almost 20 years since a collapsing Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with the United States. The expiration date for that treaty came and went last December with no extension and no successor put into place.

Both the US and Russia have indicated that negotiations are underway and that there should be a new agreement very soon. Talks resumed in Geneva this week. But this delay is having a bit of a ripple effect across the globe.

Former US President George Bush and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev sit in front of their nations respective flags

The original START agreement was signed in 1991 by then US President George Bush and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev

It began before START had even expired, back in August 2009 when Pakistan said it was wary of a deal agreed by the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in May to actually begin negotiations on a very important treaty that would end production on fissile materials that could be used to build new nuclear weapons.

Oliver Meier, international representative of the Washington-based Arms Control Association, told Deutsche Welle that this agreement quickly fell apart again, mainly due to the fact that Pakistan objected to the commencement of actual negotiations.

"We haven't seen any actual work and this is now going into the 13th year of deadlock of the conference on disarmament in Geneva, so that's not a very good sign," Meier said.

According to Meier, this is mainly an issue for those countries that possess nuclear weapons but have not signed on to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT); namely India, Pakistan and Israel. China, which has signed the NPT but has not stated clearly whether or not it has stopped the production of nuclear materials, also has had some concerns about the start of such negotiations.

This is where START actually comes in to play. Pakistan is using the lack of a disarmament treaty between the world's two largest nuclear powers as an excuse to drag its feet. This, in turn, causes India to have reservations. As a result, China, which shares a border with Kashmir, a volatile region claimed by both India and Pakistan, argues that it must be allowed to continue making nuclear weapons.

A new, better treaty

So what's taking so long? In April 2009 US President Barack Obama said in a speech in Prague that he wanted to have a new treaty with Russia in place before the December 5 expiration date.

US President Barrack Obama speaking behing a podium in Prague

In April 2008 US President Barrack Obama called for a nuclear weapons-free world

Obama's election campaign relied heavily on all the foreign policy changes he would make as president. Among them was a more open relationship with Russia, Iran and North Korea. That meant that START II, which the new agreement will most likely be called, could not be merely an extension of its predecessor.

"This new START follow on agreement is very important because it would establish limits on nuclear warheads," said Meier,"whereas the previous agreement only established limits on delivery vehicles, such as missiles, bombers and submarines."

Beyond that, it is also very important because it would preserve some of the verification elements. Both sides would still be able to monitor each other. Because the first START treaty expired on December 5, both sides for the first time in many, many years are not able to inspect each other. That, said Meier, is a situation that could quickly lead to new distrust and potential conflicts between the two sides.

However, Oliver Schmidt, Program Officer at the Transatlantic Program of the German Council for Foreign Relations, explained to Deutsche Welle that because the two sides effectively agreed to extend the current treaty until a new one was signed, there was no need to worry.

In addition to that, Schmidt pointed out that the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), better known as the Moscow Treaty and signed by the US and Russia in 2002, does not expire until the end of 2012. SORT is the latest in a long line of agreements between the two superpowers and limits the actual number of warheads held by each country.

This does not mean, however, that Schmidt believes there is no need for a new START agreement. In fact, he said it is vital for the US and Russia to show the rest of the world they are serious about reducing the number of warheads they possess; both as a sign of good faith and to help convince the other nuclear powers to begin disarmament as well.

A nuclear-free world

In addition to the actual number of warheads and the means to deploy them, the physical placement of the weapons is expected to be part of the new START agreement. After negotiators broke for the Christmas and New Year holidays, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin challenged the United States by saying that its plans for a missile defense system were the main obstacle to an agreement.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle with his American counterpart Hillary Clinton

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called on Obama to make good on his promise by removing all nuclear warheads from German soil

Obama moved to placate Russia last year by scrapping plans for missile defense installations in Eastern Europe, and the Kremlin had seemed to accept the US position that the new treaty must not place restraints on missile defense.

The US, which deployed nuclear weapons in various European countries in the 1950s, is estimated to have 20 atomic warheads in Germany. In the first week in office, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters the new German government would support Obama's vision for a world free of nuclear weapons.

"We will take President Obama at his word and enter talks with our allies so that the last of the nuclear weapons still stationed in Germany, relics of the Cold War, can finally be removed," Westerwelle said.

"Germany must be free of nuclear weapons," he said, adding that he would personally make efforts toward that purpose.

Oliver Schmidt, however, said that would be a bad move for two reasons. First, if the country no longer houses nuclear weapons, Berlin will no longer have the right to sit in on NATO nuclear planning committee discussions.

In addition to that, Schmidt pointed out that the whole idea of a nuclear-free Germany would take its natural course.

"In 2025 the Tornado, the airplane designed to carry these warheads, will be phased out and the Eurofighter is not designed to deliver these weapons systems," he explained. "So (the time would have come anyway so) it was not necessary to push for that."

Author: Mark Mattox
Editor: Rob Mudge

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