In its lead story today, the New York Times hailed Japan’s overnight decision to transfer 700 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium to American oversight as President Obama’s “biggest single success” in his “five year long push to secure the world’s most dangerous materials.” Japan’s announcement was made as representatives from 53 western nations, including the United States, gather in the Netherlands for the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit.
The NYT claims that since coming to office in 2009, President Obama has been able to get 13 nations to agree to eliminate their caches of nuclear materials as well as convincing dozens of others to better secure the facilities against theft or attack. It does not list the 13 nations that have reportedly agreed to hand over nuclear materials although it does cite a few examples.
Curiously, next to Japan, the country featured most prominently in the piece extolling Obama’s disarmament success is none other than Ukraine, which last June ‘agreed’ to transfer more than 500 pounds of weapons grade uranium harvested from an idled reactor back to Russia. The NYT breathes a sigh of relief that Ukraine agreed to unilaterally disarm before it was invaded by Russian forces claiming “had the weapons and materials remained in Ukraine, the current standoff with Russia might have taken on a far more dangerous dimensions.” The possibility that the standoff might not have happened at all if Ukraine had a nuclear deterrent of its own was not considered in the article.
The cache that Japan will be transferring to American oversight was produced up to 50 years ago as part of a Japanese weapons research program that itself was discontinued in the 1960’s and is thought large enough to be able to produce dozens of plutonium powered nuclear weapons. The Times implies that American pressure was applied to Japan to transfer its stockpile in response to Iran’s argument that it was hypocritical for the US to trust some nations, like Japan, to responsibly manage nuclear materials but not for other nations, presumably like Iran, to responsibly manage their nuclear materials.
Of course, Japan, a prosperous and democratic American ally, has indeed responsibly managed its stockpile of nuclear material for five decades, whereas Iran, an aspiring nuclear power and the world’ leading sponsor on international terrorism, was recently granted the legal right to continue uranium enrichment by the United States and other Western powers as part of the Geneva Framework Agreement struck last November.
None of the 13 nations that the Obama Administration claims have agreed to relinquish nuclear materials since 2009 are considered hostile or even potential US adversaries. During the same period, nuclear programs in nations regarded as hostile to the United States, like Iran and North Korea, are rapidly accelerating. Syria’s nuclear program indeed did come to an end in 2007, but not as the result of policy chances in Damascus. Syria’s clandestine nuclear reactor was destroyed by the Israeli Air Force.
A signature element of Obama’s defence posture has been his belief that reducing US nuclear warhead stockpiles will act as a catalyst for other states to do the same. President Obama’s stated goal of banning the production of new nuclear supplies may have been reached in the West, where nuclear disarmament proceeds apace, but it does not appear to have borne much fruit in nations hostile to the West.
While American disarmament efforts are no doubt regarded in European capitals and American faculty lounges as a demonstration of American goodwill, they are likely thought of by leaders of states that threaten the peace of the world less as gestures of American goodwill than expressions of American weakness.
Even excluding the proliferation rate of hostile states, the actual rate at which nuclear stockpiles were cut following the end of the Cold War was far more consequential, both in terms of size and speed, than anything measurable in recent years.