Obama Administration Is Bringing Nuclear Arms Control Back

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 2009

In an Obama administration characterized by youth, they are a Cold War throwback, the aging arms-control experts who haggled with Soviet officials over nuclear weapons and testing.

Suddenly, arms control is back.

"Our leadership in the area of arms control and nonproliferation is of such profound global concern that that is at the top of the list" in U.S.-Russian relations, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said after meeting yesterday with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

In New York yesterday, senior U.S. and Russian negotiators sat down to start work on renewing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the 1991 pact that cut in half the superpowers' stockpiles of nuclear warheads. The talks are the first step in the administration's effort to seek "a world without nuclear weapons," as President Obama vowed last month in Prague.

The negotiations come amid growing alarm about the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea and fears that Iran and other countries could follow suit. Luminaries of both political parties have called for new U.S. leadership in arms control and nonproliferation.

"The subject kind of fell off the table" in recent years, said former Republican secretary of state George P. Shultz, one of the most prominent of those voices. "Now it's back up in front, because people see the dangers."

The U.S. team negotiating the treaty renewal, led by arms-control expert Rose Gottemoeller, reflects the experience of a different era, when armies of bureaucrats from each side met in Geneva in an atmosphere bristling with suspicion.

"We've all been looking around and chuckling and saying, 'We're all over 50,' " said Gottemoeller, an assistant secretary of state. She describes herself as a "Sputnik baby" who became fascinated with the Soviet Union after the 1957 satellite launch that fueled the superpower arms race.

Obama has acknowledged that he may not live long enough to see a nuclear-free world, and has said that the United States will maintain a nuclear arsenal "as long as these weapons exist." But in addition to launching talks on the U.S.-Russian strategic-arms treaty, known as START, Obama has pledged to make progress on three other fronts: pushing for Senate ratification of an international treaty banning nuclear testing; reaching an agreement on halting production of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium; and strengthening the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, the grand global bargain in which most nations pledged not to seek nuclear arms.

The administration of President George W. Bush was wary of complex arms-control agreements, viewing them as unreliable and crimping U.S. flexibility. The administration pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and reduced the U.S. contribution toward international monitoring of possible nuclear tests. It did, however, reach a bare-bones deal with Russia in 2002, known as the Moscow Treaty, to further reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads.

John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control in Bush's first term, said the Obama policies mark a philosophical shift. To Bush officials, "arms-control negotiations reflected an adversarial approach from the Cold War days" that did not make sense in dealing with modern-day Russia, he said. The Bush administration resisted adding verification measures to the 2002 agreement.

But Russian leaders were unhappy about that approach. They also worried about American plans to place in Eastern Europe elements of a missile-defense system aimed at Iran.

Gottemoeller, 56, who spent recent years in Moscow researching arms control, said the new talks could help rebuild confidence. "It will put us in a place where we can really, with the Russians, join arms and work very hard to solve the Iranian and North Korean problems," she said. "We can already see the possibilities for cooperation on some of these big nonproliferation problems are there, and will expand."

Experts say there could be a further benefit: increased U.S. leverage with nonnuclear countries that have criticized the major nuclear powers for not moving more rapidly to disarm, as they are required to do under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States and Russia maintain more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons.

Skeptics question whether Russia and China can be persuaded to approve harsher sanctions against Iran, which those countries consider a strategic and economic partner. Iran says its rapidly expanding nuclear program is aimed only at producing energy.

"This is a sucker move by us," Bolton said, adding that "it's not in [the Russians'] interest to help us on Iran."

Obama's election coincides with growing fears that nuclear proliferation could be at a tipping point. Alarmed by that possibility, a group of prominent former officials -- including Republicans Shultz and Henry A. Kissinger and Democrats William J. Perry and Sam Nunn -- have been urging the nuclear powers to move more aggressively on actions that could eventually rid the world of such weapons.

The State Department is now scrambling to expand its team of arms-control specialists, depleted by retirements and the departure of several senior officials who felt politically sidelined.

"I'm seeking arms-control and nonproliferation experts to come back into the department," Clinton told senators in her confirmation hearing, saying those capabilities had been "significantly degraded" in recent years.

The 1991 treaty, which expires in December, limited the number of strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles and the quantity of nuclear bombs or warheads they could carry. It established elaborate verification measures, including on-site inspections.

One of the trickiest aspects of the negotiations will be figuring out how to count each side's weapons, including those in storage. Depending on which treaty you look at, the United States has either 5,500 strategic nuclear warheads or 2,200, with the lower number reflecting only those deployed. Both sides have committed to further reduce their stockpiles in the new treaty.

Another difficult subject is how to verify the number of warheads. While each side wants a reliable method to check on the other, both countries are wary of spies poking around at their sensitive military sites. "One of the major goals in this negotiation is to be more precise about the number of warheads on missiles," Gottemoeller said.

Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company