The decision last week to cancel President Obama’s September meeting in Russia with President Putin sparked a wave of questions among policy watchers. The cancellation undoubtedly reflects an increasingly frosty relationship between the two countries – a fact which President Obama made a lukewarm attempt to play down in a White House press conference last week.
The Russian media has largely laid the blame for the cancellation on the recent Russian decision to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, the former National Security Administration contractor wanted in the US on charges of espionage. The US policy community has been less quick to link the two events, painting Snowden as a contributing issue, rather than the determining factor.
More likely is that the decision was a preemptive bid to avoid domestic political criticism: with concrete outcomes from the Summit starting to look increasingly unrealistic, including on high profile foreign policy issues such as the crisis in Syria and more technical issues such as missile defense, walking away from the meeting empty-handed would have been presentationally risky for both Presidents.
Among nuclear weapons watchers, the reaction has been mixed. Some have predicted doom for the arms control agenda: a return to adversarial Cold War-era geopolitics and, with it, a diminished prospect of any further near-term nuclear arms reductions between the two countries. But others have been determinedly more optimistic. While the state of the US-Russia relationship is undeniably depressing, it certainly doesn’t mark the end of arms control as we know it.
For one thing, the two countries have managed to maintain a positive trajectory of change through bumps in the road before: movement towards nuclear weapons reductions has continued despite strenuous disagreements over human rights, the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, and divergent positions on the Iranian nuclear programme.
Admittedly, since President Putin’s re-election in 2012, the sabre-rattling behaviours we once associated with Cold War power-politics have continued to bubble up. President Putin kept US Secretary of State John Kerry waiting for three hours before meeting with him in Moscow earlier this year; and some in the US, including members of Congress, have called for a boycott (which the Obama Administration has not conceded to) of the 2014 winter Olympics in Russia in response to both the Snowden affair and Russia’s increasingly hardline view on gay rights.
For the arms control agenda, at least, the headlines belie the details. Though it is true that the current context will make any high-profile bilateral agreement on further nuclear reductions difficult, we should not forget how far the two countries have come in reducing global nuclear weapons numbers from their Cold War levels of around 70,000 down to today’s approximate figure of 17,300.
There is still a long way to go, and it is hard to get away from the fact that 94% of today’s worldwide total of nuclear weapons are held by the US and Russia. As long as the two countries continue to look at each other with mistrust and cling to nuclear weapons as their insurance policy, making a significant dent in that number will continue to be challenging. However, a positive trajectory of change exists that we should not be too quick to dismiss.
It is also important to remember that the long-sighted structure the international community has built to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and move towards a nuclear weapons-free world should – theoretically, at least – allow for progress beyond the ebb and flow of US-Russian politics. Opportunities are on the table, if we choose to use them. The 189 States Parties to the UN Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) – 184 non-weapon states and 5 nuclear armed states – are currently eyeing their next “preparatory meeting”, which will be held in New York in April/May 2014 to prepare the ground for the next formal review of the NPT in 2015. Meanwhile, the UN Conference on Disarmament met for its third and final session of the year in late July. A Group of Government Experts is due to be established in October this year to try to work through some of the technical issues involved in the politically complex establishment of a treaty banning the production of fissile materials. And in February next year, Mexico will host a conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, following on from discussions held in Oslo in early 2013.
Within the NPT structure, the five recognized nuclear weapons states (NWS) – the US, Russia, the UK, France and China – are due to report on their efforts to move forward on nuclear disarmament during the 2014 NPT preparatory meeting in New York. Recent US-Russia disagreements could threaten to cloud that agenda. But there are bigger issues at stake. Patience is starting to wear thin among non-weapon states, and the five weapon states need to start showing real progress on the disarmament agenda – including a meaningful forward plan – if they also want to keep a handle on their non-proliferation objectives.
It is hard to be surprised that other countries may start to covet nuclear weapons when the world’s major powers still cling to them. While there is no direct link between nuclear weapons possession and permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council, there is certainly a perception of that being the case – a fact which is compounded by the inaccurate labeling of the NWS discussions on disarmament within the NPT as “the P5 process”.
If we want to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, we need to start re-thinking how we look at them, and break through the perception that they represent the ultimate symbol of power. Global leadership should be based on our ability to promote positive change through values such as economic prosperity; a commitment to equality; and an intelligent, cooperative and confident approach to security. Nuclear weapons – unwieldy tools, subject to human fallibility – have a diminishing role in progressing that agenda.
The ups and downs of the US-Russia relationship are undeniably central to the future of the arms control agenda, but they aren’t the end of the story. We need to start forcing ourselves to think differently, and use the international structures that we have built to replace the fear-based rhetoric of nuclear weapons policy with more meaningful, enlightened symbols of global leadership.