Politicians pleased, activists skeptical about nuclear talks | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 13.10.2009
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Politicians pleased, activists skeptical about nuclear talks

The start of something new or a load of hot air? Deutsche Welle asked a member of the German parliament and a peace activist to assess the ongoing US-Russian talks on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

Nuclear bomb

Strategic nuclear arms can themselves pose a security risk

The buzz coming out of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's meeting on Tuesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was predictably positive. Speaking after the talks in Moscow, Clinton stressed the prospects for closer cooperation between the two countries on a variety of issues, including Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions.

Moscow and Washington will continue their dialogue in the coming weeks and months and there's a lot more at stake than just Iran. With the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) scheduled to expire in December, the two powers need to come up with a replacement for the agreement that drastically cut the size of their respective nuclear arsenals over the past 20 years.

The United States and Russia possess 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. According to the US State Department, Washington currently maintains 5,916 nuclear warheads, while Russia has 3,897 and the US is the only nation to deploy nuclear weapons outside its own border, with some 400 warheads in Europe, and 150 in Germany alone.

So what are the prospects of an agreement about further nuclear disarmament and a common strategy for preventing other countries from acquiring atomic weapons?

Calls for disarmament

Anti-nuclear protestors

The majority of Germans are against US nuclear weapons being deployed in their country

The man almost sure to become Germany's next foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, has called for US nuclear weapons to be removed from German soil. But Rolf Muetzenich - a Social Democrat member of the Bundestag and one of the leaders of his party's committee on disarmament - says the first priority will be the weapons stationed at home in both the US and Russia.

"I don't think Germany is the focus yet," Muetzenich told Deutsche Welle. "I think they'll start by examining their long-range weapons systems, including the delivery systems, which is also in Germany's interest. The second step would then be to discuss short-range systems."

The US is thought to have removed nuclear weapons from its military base in Ramstein, Germany in 2007. But by all accounts, they are still present at a Buechel Air Base in the west of the country.

Marion Kuepker, a German activist associated with Abolition 2000 - a network of more than 2,000 organizations in more than 90 countries working for a global treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons - says she sees few signs of real change.

"I personally think it's a smoke screen," Kuepker said. "At the same time as the US may have cancelled plans for a missile defense shield in Europe, money is still being allocated for new weapons systems."

Indeed, under President Barack Obama, the United States has slightly increased the amount of money it spends on its military, although not necessarily on nuclear weapons.

Proliferation process

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton

Iran was one hot topic when Clinton met her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov

The US and Russia not only want to reach an agreement about limiting their own arsenals, but prevent nuclear proliferation particularly in nations like Iran, which are often seen as unreliable.

Can Washington and Moscow reach a joint position on Iran, given the economic and political rivalries that are also in play?

Muetzenich, who also a spokesman for his party's discussion group of the Middle East, says the answer is yes.

"It's absolutely crucial because Iran will only be impressed by a unified front," he said. "The US and Russia, which nearly borders on Iran, have a host of common interests, and I think Obama has done a lot to build trust on this issue."

For Kuepker, on the other hand, countries like Iran and North Korea aren't the true problem. "The leadership in both nations knows that any sort of nuclear attack on their part would be suicide," she said.

And she takes Obama particularly to task for failing to back up his talk about non-proliferation with radical steps toward disarmament.

"It's propaganda with little content," the peace activist said. "Obama is basically continuing George Bush's policies but within NATO, instead of in isolation."

A world without nuclear weapons

Obama speaking in Prague

Revolutionary vision or foggy utopia?

In a speech last April in Prague, Obama held out a vision of a world entirely free of nuclear weaponry. That sentiment drew widespread praise, but also raised questions about whether the US President was indulging in an empty utopia - or even truly meant what he said.

For Muetzenich, vision is an important part of the political process.

"I found it very refreshing," Muetzenich said. "Without a long-term vision, it won't be possible to reach a meaningful agreement with Russia and a new arms-control pact could serve as the basis for the future. We need more courageous politicians. We need more than one Barack Obama."

But Kuepker says that there's no need to wait to start ridding the world of the threat of nuclear weaponry.

"Larger nations should cancel their nuclear weapons modernization projects," she told Deutsche Welle. "NATO should also depart from its stance that nuclear weapons are an option because they clearly are not an option. If they do that, then everyone will follow suit."

As the US and Russia continue to wind their way toward an agreement to replace START I and try to cope with the alleged threats posed by countries like Iran, it will be interesting to see how much vision survives the perceived political realities.

Author: Jefferson Chase

Editor: Rob Mudge

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