President Barack Obama will be the first U.S. President to chair a United Nations Security Council meeting when he presides over the special session on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament Sept. 24. But Pax Christi USA executive director Dave Robinson is holding out hope that the meeting will be remembered for more than the parliamentary novelty.
“President Obama has the opportunity to become the first real post-Cold War president,” Robinson says. “He has the opportunity to begin ridding the world of these immoral weapons.”
According to a Reuters report from Sept. 11, the Obama administration has circulated a resolution to Security Council member countries that calls for “a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control,” of all nations that signed the Non Proliferation Treaty of 1970 “and calls on all other states to join in this endeavor,” according to text obtained by the news agency.
It seems like cognitive dissonance, in some ways, to talk about complete disarmament when the threat of Iran and North Korea obtaining nuclear weapons gets regular headlines. In fact, last week’s announcement that Obama was scrapping the missile defense shield, which the Bush administration planned to place in Poland, drew irate reactions from conservatives.
“Given the serious and growing threats posed by Iran's missile and nuclear programs,” Sen. John McCain said at a press conference, “now is the time when we should look to strengthen our defenses, and those of our allies. I believe the decision is seriously misguided.”
Robinson saw it from a completely different angle.
“It was a courageous step away from nuclear weapons as a key defense strategy,” Robinson says. “The last administration talked about non-proliferation while they actually increased our nuclear weapons capacity. This, I hope, is a sign that is being reversed.”
Outside of campaign rhetoric, Obama first made it clear that the United States’ was changing tack on nuclear weapons during a speech in Prague, Czech Republic in April.
“[T]he United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons,” Obama said. “To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same.”
It was a beginning, peace activists said in reaction, to the potential for a historic change. But the realists also noted the rest of Obama’s sentiment during that speech.
“Make no mistake,” Obama continued. “As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies, including the Czech Republic. But we will begin the work of reducing our arsenal.”
Robinson is one those realists. Even Obama said in Prague that disarmament might not happen in his lifetime. But political will is the key here, Robinson says. And especially when it comes to the gritty work of twisting legislative arms.
“It’s going to be slow going in Congress, but you can’t avoid it,” Robinson says. “Coming up soon, the administration has to submit its Nuclear Posture Review, that sets the priorities for the Defense Department’s budget requests to Congress. That will tell a lot more about his real intentions than his speech in Prague.”
Still, there’s hope, he says, where there was little even a year ago. Obama’s 3-day trip to the United Nations, in general, could confirm that a sea change in American foreign policy is taking place.
Fr. Jim Hug, SJ, president of Center of Concern, says that Obama’s nuclear disarmament ambitions would be a catalyst to address the other major topic, climate change, during the president’s first visit to the U.N.
“The incredible waste of national resources that goes into maintaining a nuclear arsenal and fighting capability is outrageous, it’s not moral, it’s part of the waste of it all,” Hug says. “So disarmament would free up resources to invest in other ways, including dealing with climate change.”
Whether Obama will have partners in the Security Council remains to be seen. For Robinson, the council’s decision to embrace Obama’s proposal would put responsibility back where it belongs.
“For years the talk about non-proliferation has centered around Iran and North Korea,” Robinson says. “But the spirit of the Non Proliferation Treaty was always disarmament of their own weapons.”
Humphrey is a free lance writer and frequent contributor to NCR, living in New York.