By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 2009
With a congressional battle looming, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday defended the administration's broad arms-control agenda and said that reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles would be a critical first step in preventing the spread of the deadly weapons to other countries.
Clinton took aim at President Obama's critics in what was billed as a major address on nuclear nonproliferation at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Speaking to a room packed with experts on nuclear issues, she urged support for a new U.S.-Russian arms-control treaty and a global pact banning nuclear testing.
"Clinging to nuclear weapons in excess of our security needs does not make the United States safer," Clinton said. "And the nuclear status quo is neither desirable nor sustainable. It gives other countries the motivation -- or the excuse -- to pursue their own nuclear options."
Obama has won international recognition, including a Nobel Peace Prize, for his plans to strengthen the world's fragile nuclear nonproliferation system and move toward an eventual "world without nuclear weapons." But in coming months, his strategy will be put to the test in the Senate. Failure to win ratification of the U.S.-Russian pact and the test-ban treaty would weaken Obama's ability to persuade other countries to crack down on the spread of nuclear weapons.
Deepti Choubey, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that Clinton's speech appeared aimed at showing that "the administration has a holistic approach for shoring up the nonproliferation regime, and you can't choose among these measures."
Clinton emphasized the "alarming" range of nuclear proliferation risks in the world today, including North Korea's weapons program and Iran's secretive efforts to enrich uranium. The Islamic republic says it is developing civilian nuclear energy, but other countries fear it could produce a bomb.
In an apparent swipe at George W. Bush's administration, Clinton said that it was easy to advocate a "go-it-alone" attitude toward nuclear weapons. "But we have seen the failed results of this approach," she added.
She acknowledged that negotiating a new deal to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles would not solve the Iranian or North Korean nuclear problems. But, she said, the pact would demonstrate to skeptics worldwide that the U.S. government was sticking to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the grand global bargain of 1968 in which the nuclear powers promised to gradually disarm and other countries pledged to forgo such weapons.
"It will help convince the rest of the international community to strengthen nonproliferation controls and tighten the screws on states that flout their nonproliferation commitments," Clinton said.
The U.S. and Russian governments are racing to complete the pact, which would replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). That 1991 treaty halved the superpowers' nuclear stockpiles and contains the only mechanisms allowing each side to verify the other's nuclear weapons. It will expire Dec. 5.
Already, some U.S. senators have expressed concern about whether the new pact contains too many concessions. Ratification "is not going to be an easy proposition," Sen. John Kyl (Ariz.), a member of the Senate Republican leadership, said last week.
An even bigger challenge for the administration will be getting Senate approval of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which did not win ratification in 1999.
Clinton said the pact would give the United States more power to challenge states engaged in suspicious testing activities. Other countries, she said, "rightly or wrongly view American ratification . . . as a sign of our commitment to the nonproliferation consensus."
Critics have questioned whether it is possible to verify that countries are observing the treaty and have expressed concerns about whether it would prevent modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
In what aides called an important passage in her speech, Clinton said that a major, Pentagon-led review of U.S. nuclear strategy will be a "key milestone."
The review, which the State Department is helping to formulate, is expected to be complete by January.
"We must do more than reduce the numbers of our nuclear weapons. We must also reduce the role they play in our security," Clinton said, adding: "We can't afford to continue relying on recycled Cold War thinking."