US retains first-strike nuclear threat

Obama talks peace but US imperialism continues to prepare for war.

Proletarian writers

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Throughout May, representatives of the 189 countries that are signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) met at the United Nations in New York for their regular five-yearly review conference, which is supposed to take stock of the steps taken towards the treaty’s ostensible long-term goal, namely general nuclear disarmament.

The NPT purports to represent a kind of grand bargain, whereby the five ‘legitimate’ nuclear weapons powers – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China – are supposed to gradually eliminate their nuclear arsenals in exchange for all other countries foregoing their right to acquire them. Inevitably, in a world divided between a small handful of oppressor nations and a great mass of oppressed nations, such a gathering can but be the scene of attempts to reinforce imperialist hegemony on the one hand and of anti-imperialist struggle on the other.

This year’s NPT review attracted particular attention, not only because it coincided with an intensification of the crisis over US-led allegations that Iran might be developing a nuclear deterrent, and with the United States rudely and contemptuously brushing aside an important initiative by the leaders of Brazil and Turkey aimed at resolving this problem by peaceful means, but also because it follows a determined diplomatic campaign on the question of nuclear weapons by President Barack Obama, who, at least in tone and rhetoric, has sought to regain a moral high ground, forsaken by his predecessor in the White House in a most cavalier fashion.

In the months immediately preceding the NPT Review Conference, President Obama, in quick succession:

Published a new nuclear doctrine for the United States, considerably reducing the stated instances when the USA would have recourse to the use of nuclear weapons;

Signed a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia, designed to substantially cut the nuclear arsenals of both countries. Under the treaty, which must still be ratified in the US Senate, where it faces Republican opposition, each nation will be allowed a maximum of 1,550 deployed warheads, about 30 percent lower than a limit set in 2002. They are also restricted to 700 air, ground and submarine-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles that carry warheads. (However, the treaty puts no restriction on US plans to develop the controversial Missile Defence system); and

Hosted a two-day Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, attended by the leaders of 46 nations and ostensibly focused on how to better safeguard weapons materials, both old and new, so as to keep them out of the hands of ‘terrorists’. Among the 46 invited countries were not only close US allies, but also the USA’s nuclear rivals, China and Russia, as well as many important developing countries, including Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, South Africa, Turkey and Vietnam. But, needless to say, there were no invitations for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Iran, Syria, or even Libya, which voluntarily eschewed its own nuclear programme some years ago.

Obama’s Prague speech

The basis for all these developments was really laid in a speech Mr Obama gave in the Czech capital Prague on 5 April 2009, wherein he committed the United States to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”.

Faced with such an apparent rhetorical step change from the snarling belligerency of George W Bush and his henchmen, such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, it is scarcely surprising that some people, who abhor war and stand for peace, have to some extent lowered their guard, apparently believing that the US leopard has changed its spots.

But are such sentiments, as, for example, repeatedly expressed by the Chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), Comrade Kate Hudson, a wise and sober assessment of events? The following extract from Kate’s blog is a typical example:

It’s a year since President Obama made his famous Prague speech, committing to a nuclear weapons-free world. As President Medvedev of Russia added his voice to the call, hopes were high that real progress would be made towards that goal. Those were truly inspiring moments, and although there have been times since then that I felt hope was receding, finally words have been turned into actions … It’s not everything we want, but it is a step in the right direction.” (‘A new START?’, 28 March 2010)

In order to judge this matter better, it is necessary to look more carefully at what Obama is actually saying, and at what the United States is actually doing.

Whilst stating in Prague last year that the United States sought the “peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”, the US president was quick to add: “This goal will not be reached quickly – perhaps not in my lifetime.” How very convenient. And scarcely surprising when the US revealed last month that it still possesses 5,113 nuclear warheads, as of 30 September 2009, this total not including “warheads awaiting dismantlement in line with US arms control obligations”. (‘Size of US nuclear weapons arsenal revealed’, Financial Times, 4 May 2010)

And just for the avoidance of doubt, Obama continued: “Make no mistake: as long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defence to our allies.”

In fact, and really we should add, needless to say, much of the real import of Obama’s Prague speech was to yet again attack the DPRK as well as Iran. Here is a typical example:

“Just this morning, we were reminded again of why we need a new and more rigorous approach to address this threat. North Korea broke the rules once again by testing a rocket that could be used for long-range missiles. This provocation underscores the need for action …

“Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons. Now is the time for a strong international response.” (All quotations from Mr Obama’s speech are taken from the official White House transcript)

Nuclear Posture Review

The themes first outlined in Prague by Obama were subsequently developed in a Nuclear Posture Review, published on 6 April 2010, which sets out the administration’s official policy on when it would sanction the use of nuclear weapons, and which has been presented as considerably lowering the number of possible scenarios, as compared to the same review published by the Bush administration.

Whilst the Bush administration explicitly left open the possibility of a nuclear response against biological, chemical or mass conventional attack from non-nuclear states, Obama’s government strikes a different tone, declaring:

The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.

However, as Julian Borger, diplomatic editor of the Guardian, correctly observed, in his Global Security blog, published on that newspaper’s website:

But here is the catch in the Obama doctrine. The tricky word is compliance. The US and its allies argue that Iran is not in compliance with its obligations under the NPT treaty, leaving Iran a potential target in the US nuclear operational plan. Depending on Syria’s relations with the IAEA, the review could also be read as a warning to Damascus.

What Mr Borger should have added is that this formulation also precisely leaves the DPRK, which is no longer a signatory to the NPT, clearly and explicitly at risk of a US nuclear attack. And why did the DPRK quit the NPT and develop a nuclear deterrent in the first place? Why, solely because … it was faced with a nuclear threat from the United States!

There are some other important caveats that we need to note in the new US nuclear posture review. Precisely because the US insists on reserving unto itself the ‘right’ to launch a nuclear attack on Iran, the Obama review rejected calls to state that the ‘sole purpose’ of the US nuclear arsenal is to deter nuclear attack, instead saying that this is merely its “fundamental” purpose and vaguely promising that

The United States will continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks.”

And even this limited guarantee is by no means irrevocable. The review continues:

Given the catastrophic potential of biological weapons and the rapid pace of bio-technology development, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustment in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of the biological weapons threat and US capacities to counter that threat.

In other words, the promise is scarcely worth the paper it’s written on. And, in any event, the United States is still promising, in such an eventuality, “a devastating conventional military response – and that any individuals responsible for the attack, whether national leaders or military commanders, would be held fully accountable.

In a word, Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review, whilst claiming to reduce the US nuclear threat, explicitly reaffirms it against precisely the two countries that, in recent years, have been the most at risk from US nuclear attack, namely the DPRK and Iran. Clearly, on this most vital of issues, Obama’s “change we can believe in”, is … no change.

In an interview given to the New York Times the day before his review was published, Obama, just as he had done in Prague a year earlier, made clear that an overriding purpose of his nuclear initiatives was actually to isolate, pressure and weaken these two countries.

Asked, “If you were Iran or north Korea and you read this document, what would be your take away from it?”, Obama, after waffling around the houses for a few paragraphs, replied:

“I do think that when you’re looking at outliers like Iran or north Korea, they should see that over the course of the last year and a half we have been executing a policy that will increasingly isolate them so long as they are operating outside of accepted international norms.”

Even, it would seem, the START treaty with Russia, at least so far as the USA is concerned, is not so much about reducing the arsenals of what are by far the two greatest nuclear powers, but rather, “through that process, let’s also reset relations with the United States and Russia so that on an issue like Iran or north Korea, or on non-proliferation, Russia views itself as a partner of the United States and the international community.”

What one may conclude so far is, therefore, that if there is a change on the part of the USA, it is a change of method. George W Bush, it should be said, did an excellent job in uniting the countries and peoples of the world against US imperialism, and for that he deserves the sincere thanks of anti-imperialist people everywhere. Obama’s method, in contrast, may be summarised as: Strike a pose of peace, keep your threats of war, and strive to isolate the courageous countries on the anti-imperialist front line. It is, if anything, more dangerous and deceptive than the previous US policy.

Besides which, it must be noted that not only is the Obama nuclear doctrine full of exceptions and caveats, but even the limited guarantees it gives may be repudiated by him at any time, and certainly no successor need be bound by it. The very fact that the Bush doctrine has given way to the Obama doctrine is itself testimony to this.

Therefore it is, to say the least, a very one-sided bargain for countries that the United States has threatened and done its best to destroy over a protracted period to be expected to give up their vital defences, trusting solely on the good word and faith, not only of Obama, but of all his potential successors.

History is a mirror. The DPRK will certainly not have forgotten that, as Bill Clinton came to the end of his second presidential term, the DPRK and the USA had finally almost succeeded in hammering out a resolution to their nuclear dispute and were preparing to normalise their bilateral relations. All this was unceremoniously ripped up by Bush, in favour of branding the DPRK a part of his notorious “axis of evil”.

As the saying goes: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Or as the Native American Chief so eloquently and ruefully summarised the modus operandi of his adversaries: “The white man made us many promises but he kept only one. He promised to take our land and he took it.”

(For a detailed background on the history of US-DPRK relations and the many nuclear threats to the DPRK over the years, see: Historical and political context of the nuclear issue on Korean peninsula, Lalkar, Jan 2007.)

Will US strategy work?

But, whilst US imperialism under Obama would clearly like to alienate the broad mass of developing countries from the most anti-imperialist states, is this likely to work? The determination of Turkey and Brazil to forge ahead with their own diplomatic initiative with Iran, in the face of strong and evident American displeasure, is but one of many signs that the United States is very far from getting things all its own way. As Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens wrote, in a highly perceptive piece:

There are two ways of looking at the efforts of Turkey and Brazil to resolve the dispute about Iran’s nuclear programme. One dismisses the initiative as collusion with Tehran’s attempt to derail a fourth round of United Nations sanctions; another welcomes a recognition in Ankara and Brasilia that rising powers have a stake in sustaining a rules-based global order.

Unsurprisingly, the default response in the West has been the former. Reactions in Washington, London and elsewhere to the agreement brokered by Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ranged along a spectrum from condescension to intense irritation. Ankara and Brasilia, at best, were dupes …

The oftstated ambition of western governments is that the world’s rising powers should bear some of the burden of safeguarding international security and prosperity. The likes of China, India and, dare one say, Turkey and Brazil, are beneficiaries of a rules-based global order and, as such, should be prepared to contribute

Seen from Ankara or Brasilia, or indeed from Beijing or New Delhi, there is an important snag in this argument. They are not being invited to craft a new international order but rather to abide by the old (western) rules. As I heard one Chinese scholar remark this week, it is as if the rising nations have been offered seats at a roulette table only on the strict understanding that the West retains ownership of the casino

If the West wants global order, it has to get used to others having a say in making the rules.” (‘Rising powers do not want to play by the West’s rules’, 21 May 2010)

For his part, in a speech delivered on the opening day of the NPT review conference, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad turned the tables on the United States brilliantly, saying that “any threat to use nuclear weapons or attack against peaceful nuclear facilities” should meet with a swift reaction by the UN, through the “termination of all cooperation” with the aggressor by NPT member states. Keeping the spotlight on the US, and describing the possession of nuclear weapons as “disgusting and shameful”, the Iranian president added: “Even more shameful is the threat to use such weapons.” (‘Iran president defiant at UN talks’, Financial Times, 4 May 2010)

In an editorial and article previewing the NPT review conference, the Economist called for “more intrusive checks”, even for “countries intent only on peacefully exploiting the carbon-free benefits of nuclear power”. These countries, too, were apparently a threat, as “technologies and materials for civil use could be abused by those who would beg or steal them for bombs”.

Yet the Economist was not optimistic. Singling out Iran, Cuba, Syria, Venezuela and Libya for particular venom (and, somewhat ironically, considering the constant demands placed on the DPRK to return to the NPT, noting “North Korea, thankfully, will be absent”), the journal opined that “consensus minus this crew would be no dishonour”.

Unfortunately for the voice of British finance capital, “some [the paper notes in this context Brazil, South Africa and Egypt] want deeper cuts by the weapons states before they consider tighter rules … If they are allowed to destroy the conference in a blaze of recrimination, the only victors will be Iran and north Korea.” (‘Defending the NPT. If not now, never’, 1 May 2010)

The poor Economist sounded quite frustrated:

After years of demanding that the world’s nuclear powers take bolder steps to cut and eventually eliminate their arsenals, you might think that non-nuclear Brazil, Egypt, Mexico and South Africa (all members of an informal ‘new agenda’ coalition that also includes Ireland, New Zealand and Sweden, too … ) would be queuing to offer support … Instead, in the lengthy run-up to this latest review they have sometimes seemed among the sharpest critics.

The paper had to admit: “If they [the developing countries] are to take on further obligations, they want things in return. In 1995 the NPT was extended indefinitely, as part of a deal that extracted other commitments from the five official nuclear powers at that conference and the next one in 2000. Few of these terms have been met.

They included a promise of a Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT); a separate treaty to end the production of fissile material for bombs (called an FMCT); and renewed commitment from the nuclear powers to eventual disarmament.” (‘The future of non-proliferation. An awkward guest list’, 1 May 2010)

More sons of Star Wars

Indeed, while mouthing some platitudes about peace and disarmament, the United States is actually embarked on a number of highly dangerous and provocative military programmes, which considerably increase the danger of both conventional and nuclear war.

Besides its long-standing plan to set up Missile Defence systems in Europe and Asia, ostensibly targeted on Iran and the DPRK, but clearly also on Russia and China, “US military planners have won President Barack Obama’s support for a new generation of high-speed weapons that are intended to strike anywhere on Earth within an hour”. According to the Sunday Times:

Obama’s interest in Prompt Global Strike (PGS), a non-nuclear weapons programme, has alarmed China and Russia and complicated nuclear arms reduction negotiations …

‘The ability to attack a wide range of targets at intercontinental range, promptly and without resort to nuclear weapons, is of central importance to US national security,’ said Daniel Goure, a defence analyst at the Lexington Institute in Virginia

The White House has requested almost $250m in congressional funding next year for research into hypersonic technologies, some of which harness the shock waves generated by a fast-moving missile to increase its speed further.

The new weapon could be launched from air, land or sea on a long-range missile travelling at suborbital altitudes above 350,000ft. The missile releases a hypersonic pilotless plane that receives updates from satellites as it homes in on its target at up to five times the speed of sound, generating so much heat that it has to be shielded with special materials to avoid melting.

Depending on the version the Pentagon chooses, the warhead would either split into dozens of lethal fragments in the final seconds of its flight or simply smash into its target, relying on devastating kinetic energy to destroy anything in its path.

The paper quoted the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, as responding with a warning that “states will hardly accept a situation in which nuclear weapons disappear, but weapons that are no less destabilising emerge in the hands of certain members of the international community”.

It continued: “General Yuri Baluyevsky, a deputy secretary of the Russian National Security Council, complained that US concessions at nuclear arms reduction talks were not because of America’s love of peace, but because ‘they can kill you using conventional high-precision weapons’.

US analysts have also warned of the risk that Chinese or Russian monitors might mistake a hypersonic launch for nuclear attack. ‘The short flight time … leaves very little time for an assessment of the situation, putting an enormous strain on national decision-making mechanisms and increasing the probability of an accident,’ argued Pavel Podvig of Stanford University.” (‘Hyperfast missile to hit anywhere in an hour’, 25 April 2010)

The DPRK’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) accurately dissected this US strategy as follows:

The US is vociferating about ‘nuclear disarmament’ and ‘nuclear non-proliferation’ these days while advocating the building of ‘a world without nuclear weapons’. This is, however, nothing but a cynical ploy to deceive the world by disguising itself as ‘an apostle of peace’ and ‘a pioneer in nuclear disarmament’.

It is the ulterior intention of the US to increase the number of arsenals of sophisticated arms and equipment including nukes in a bid to hold an unchallenged military edge and mount a pre-emptive attack on any target any time.

Herein lie the reactionary nature and danger of the moves desperately stepped up by the US to bolster up strategic offensive weapons including modern nukes behind the curtain of ‘nuclear disarmament’.

The US scenario to use strategic offensive weapons as conventional ones is arousing great concern among the international community. It is by no means fortuitous that many countries of the world are becoming strongly cautious about the US arms build-up, claiming that no one but the US would know whether its flying intercontinental ballistic missile is fitted with a nuclear warhead or conventional warhead. They contend that there is worry that this may easily trigger off a nuclear war.” (‘US accused of putting spurs to development of new type missiles’, 13 May 2010)

China’s principled position

In contrast to the United States, the only NPT-recognised nuclear power that has consistently maintained a principled and just policy is the People’s Republic of China.

Since China first carried out a nuclear test in 1964, until today, Beijing has always pledged never to be the first country to use nuclear weapons and also insisted that, under no circumstances, would China ever use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapon state or a nuclear weapon-free zone. China has supported the right of developing countries to access the benefits of the peaceful use of nuclear technology and has also consistently called for the “complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons”. (See ‘China and nuclear arms control: current positions and future policies’ by Bates Gill, SIPRI [Stockholm International Peace Research Institute] Insights on Peace and Security, April 2010)

Again, at the current NPT review conference, Li Baodong, head of the Chinese delegation, declared:

“China has consistently stood for the complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons,” and “it is firmly committed to a nuclear strategy of self-defence and its nuclear weapons pose no threat to other countries.

“We have adhered to the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances, and made the unequivocal commitment that we will unconditionally not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states and nuclear weapon-free zones.

“This open, explicit and transparent nuclear policy makes China unique among all nuclear-weapon states. China has never deployed any nuclear weapons on foreign territory … China has not participated and will not participate in any form of nuclear arms race.

“China supports the early entry into force of the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) and the early commencement of the negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. China will continue to keep its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security, and continue to make efforts to advance the international nuclear disarmament process …

“All nuclear-weapon states should fulfil in good faith obligations under article VI of the NPT, and publicly undertake not to seek permanent possession of nuclear weapons …

“Nuclear-weapon states should earnestly reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their respective national security policy, unequivocally undertake not to be the first to use nuclear weapons, and unconditionally not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non nuclear-weapon states and nuclear weapon-free zones … We call on all nuclear-weapon states to conclude an international legal instrument in this regard at an early date.

“Nuclear disarmament must follow the principles of maintaining global strategic stability and undiminished security for all … The development of missile defence systems that disrupt global strategic stability should be abandoned. A multilateral negotiation process to prevent the weaponisation of and arms race in outer space should be vigorously promoted.” (‘“Chinese nuclear weapons pose no threat to other countries”: Envoy’, People’s Daily, 5 May 2010)

China knows full well that it is almost impossible for US imperialism to follow its lead. As Hu Yumin, a senior research fellow with the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, put it:

If the five nuclear powers can agree to the no-first-use principle at the [NPT] conference, it would be a big step toward a nuclear weapon-free world. But if the country with the largest and most advanced nuclear and conventional weapons arsenal still refuses to accept the no-first-use principle, non nuclear-weapon states would find it difficult to believe its sincerity in realising a nuclear-weapon-free world.” (‘Is US nuke-free world pledge sincere?’, China Daily, 10 March 2010)

China’s long-standing call for the complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons should be supported by every rational person on earth.

In the meantime, in a world where the number one imperialist power possesses the ability to destroy that world many times over, where it remains the only country ever to have used nuclear weapons in warfare, and where it has continued to threaten their use under every subsequent president up to and including the present incumbent, then communists, anti-imperialists, and all truly peace-loving people must continue to uphold the right of socialist, anti-imperialist and developing countries to build and maintain their own nuclear deterrents for self-defence if they so choose.