MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXI No. 5
Summer 2009
A New Commitment to Science and Technology R&D
The Role of Oceans in Climate Change
A New Method for Negotiating
Arms Control Agreements
The Science We Need and the
Needs of Science
System at a Crossroads: Rethinking Infrastructure and Mobility
Energy Transitions and Transformations
Society's Nervous System: A Key to Effective Government, Energy Efficiency, and Public Health
An Alternate Green Initiative
Rotten Apples or a Rotting Barrel: How Not to Understand the Current Financial Crisis
The Way to Sustainability
Making the Web Work for Science
A Note to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu
Budget of the United States Government (2005-2010): Outlays by Selected Agencies
Budget of the United States Government (2009-2014): Outlays by Selected Agencies
Budget of the United States Government (1962-2010): Percentage Distribution of Outlays by Selected Agencies
Printable Version

A New Method for Negotiating Arms Control Agreements

Aron M. Bernstein

As a physicist with a long-standing interest in arms control and a member of the National Board of the Council for a Livable World, I have been gratified by President Obama’s repeatedly stated commitment to work towards eliminating nuclear proliferation and creating a nuclear-free world, highlighted by his Prague speech of April 5. l am also encouraged by his rapid progress in improving U.S.-Russian relations, including working towards a revised Start Treaty by the end of the year, which includes significant reductions in nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Of course, now comes the even harder work of implementing those policies!

The example of President Clinton, who came to office with the goal of reducing the world’s nuclear arsenals, but failed to carry through, offers us a sobering example of the fact that it takes a dedicated and coherent strategy to succeed.

I am encouraged by the early appointment of Gary Samore to the National Security Council as "Nonproliferation Czar.” Samore’s work clearly includes the December expiration of the Start I Treaty, the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review, and working with Congress to pass the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Prior administrations have approached nuclear arms reductions either through negotiated treaties or by unilateral steps. While treaties often have produced valuable results, they suffer from the length of time most have required for completion. Unilateral action has the advantage of rapid implementation, but may not be reciprocated.

The new method suggested here, "challenge initiatives," is a hybrid that aims at combining the good aspects of both unilateral action and treaties, while avoiding their downsides.

In this method, an executive order is issued as a “challenge” to the desired partners. The challenge will be valid for a fixed period of time. This can be done quietly through diplomatic channels, or publicly, as is suitable for each specific case. Such an initiative has the virtue of clearly demonstrating a definite goal, and yet not committing the challenger to action if the other side does not reciprocate. It allows for rapid improvements on specific issues, while giving time for a reasonably long negotiation period to take its course. It also allows the other side to respond to the challenge quickly, building up good will and establishing mutual confidence, while still negotiating the specific points of a legally binding agreement.

Here are three examples of challenge initiatives that I believe would be particularly useful.

I. Signaling the Administration’s intention to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal to below the mandated Moscow Treaty level of 1,700 – 2,200 weapons by 2012 – or the presently negotiated levels of approximately 1500 weapons – to the 1,000-weapon level, while challenging Russia to follow suit. Reaching this lower level means that we will have to start engaging the other declared nuclear powers in mutual reductions. This process, which is required in working towards a world that is free of nuclear weapons, will require active diplomacy. The best time to initiate such an action is probably after the present Start negotiations have been completed.

II. Declaring a significant reduction in the number of nuclear-armed missiles on hair trigger alert, combined with a diplomatic effort to get Russia to reciprocate. This is an important risk reduction initiative that will require time to negotiate satisfactory methods of verification. In this post-Cold War era, the most likely path to nuclear war between our two nations is an accidental launch based on faulty information. Unfortunately, this is not completely unlikely. This initiative would reduce such a possibility, while further improving bilateral relations.

III. Declaring that the U.S. would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, with diplomatic initiatives to the other nuclear weapons states (including India and Pakistan) to declare the same thing. This is linked to many other nuclear arms control issues. A non-first use pledge, along with the above-mentioned initiative to reduce the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, would go a long way towards satisfying our obligations under Article Six of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which demands that all states work seriously towards the elimination of their nuclear weapons. These steps would significantly ameliorate the negative effects of the failure of the 2005 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review. That failure was partially caused by a refusal of the Bush Administration to re-confirm our commitment to Article 6 of the NPT. A successful completion of the 2010 review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would be most helpful in persuading Iran to alter its course, particularly if the non-aligned and mid-East states join in the diplomatic pressure on Iran. A non-first use declaration would, in addition, be valuable in helping to create an international atmosphere in which the importance of having nuclear weapons would be reduced.

Our hopes are with President Obama and the new administration to succeed in the long sought goal: the post-war dream of the original scientists (who created the atom bomb to defend us from the possibility that Hitler might succeed at the same goal) to rid the earth of these most destructive weapons. Along with many of my MIT colleagues, if I can help in any way, I will be pleased and honored to do so.

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