My Turn

By Arnie Alpert / For the Concord Monitor

April 26th, 2010

When Kurt Ehrenberg phoned to say Barack Obama would pay a lunchtime visit to the Eagle Square Deli, Martha Yager, Erin Placey and I hustled right over for some lunch and politics, New Hampshire-style.

It was Feb. 12, 2007, a typical day in the long buildup to the New Hampshire Primary. On Obama's second visit to the state he was already a political phenomenon. But Eagle Square hadn't been on his announced itinerary, and we were able to order sandwiches and find a table before the senator arrived.

When Obama eventually walked in and made his way to our table, Martha and I had short chats with him as his escort, Anne McLane Kuster, tried to move him along.

But Erin was not going to miss her chance. Already an experienced "bird-dog," the 24-year-old activist stuck out her hand and, without missing a beat, asked Obama if he supported the abolition of nuclear weapons. The senator explained his support for nuclear non-proliferation, but Erin wouldn't let him go. "Under Article 6 of the Non Proliferation Treaty," she insisted, "we are obligated to work for the elimination of all nuclear weapons." The former law professor said he'd look into it.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, is based on a historic tradeoff. Forty years ago, the nuclear powers said they would provide the non-nuclear nations with civilian nuclear technology as long as they would pledge to refrain from building nuclear weapons. In exchange, the nuclear powers, dominated by the United States and Soviet Union, said they would begin good-faith negotiations for the elimination of their own nuclear arsenals.

By and large, the non-nuclear parties to the NPT have held up their end of the bargain. Not so the leading nuclear states, which have modernized their arsenals while agreeing to a series of treaties that kept the arms race only somewhat in check. The negotiated abolition as mandated by the treaty's Article 6 has stayed off the agenda, and without progress in this area, the NPT regime is destined to become unglued sooner or later.

After all, a system in which some nations maintain their right to possess powerful weapons but deny the right to others is inherently unstable.

That September I saw Obama at a Manchester house party and asked him again about negotiating nuclear abolition only to receive another vague answer.

It was a welcome surprise, then, when Obama delivered a speech a month later at DePaul University in Chicago, where he pledged, "Here's what I'll say as president: America seeks a world in which there are no nuclear weapons. "

In a speech covering a variety of foreign policy topics, Obama outlined the essence of nuclear policies we have seen unfold in recent weeks, including "a global effort to secure all loose nuclear materials during my first term in office."

"We will not pursue unilateral disarmament. As long as nuclear weapons exist," Obama said, "we'll retain a strong nuclear deterrent. But we'll keep our commitment under the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty on the long road towards eliminating nuclear weapons."

In all fairness, Erin and I weren't the only ones trying to get his attention. Others calling for nuclear abolition included the likes of George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn, who issued their own call for "a world free of nuclear weapons" in a much noted Wall Street Journal op-ed on Jan. 4, 2007. The "Four Statesmen," as they became known, had come to realize that in the post-Cold War era the risk that nukes could fall into the hands of terrorists had become more alarming than any threat that could be deterred by our own nuclear arsenal.

Adopting a view they would have seen as heretical just a few years earlier, they wrote, "Reassertion of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and practical measures toward achieving that goal would be, and would be perceived as, a bold initiative consistent with America's moral heritage." A bipartisan array of scholars, diplomats and military leaders joined their call. With his DePaul speech, Obama jumped on board.

So far none of Obama's steps have been dramatic. The Nuclear Posture Review, released April 6, takes only a small step back from longstanding U.S. policies regarding first use of nuclear weapons. The New START agreement, signed April 8, is merely the next step in a long, bipartisan tradition of nuclear arms control that even George W. Bush endorsed.

The need to control "loose nukes" is hardly controversial. Plans to put the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to a ratification vote in the Senate keep receding into the future. The president's budget for fiscal year 2011 includes a record increase in spending on the nuclear weapons infrastructure. There is still no roadmap to a world without nuclear weapons.

But that could change when the Non Proliferation Treaty undergoes review at the United Nations next month. As they do every five years, world leaders will meet to assess their progress at restraining the spread of nuclear weapons, including progress toward implementation of Article 6.

Peace activists from around the world will march through the New York streets on May 2, this time to cheer on the delegates as much as to protest their stalling and hypocrisy. Millions of names have been collected on petitions calling for negotiation of an international agreement abolishing nuclear weapons.

So far there is no indication the president is paying attention.

But then again, we didn't know he was paying attention to Erin Placey at the Eagle Square Deli.

(Arnie Alpert is New Hampshire program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee and director of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Project at New Hampshire Peace Action.)