Nuclear Charades in Prague

When the two largest holders of nuclear weapons sign treaties reducing their lethal stockpile, the optimist might have reason to crow.  Another step taken to rid the world of various, fabulously terrifying weapons.  US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev have penned their signatures to yet another document in the Prague – a new START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty).  According to the American president, the treaty will slash U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads by 25 to 30 percent.  A limit will be placed on launchers (800), and nuclear-armed missiles and heavy bombers capped to 200 each.

There is little doubt where this is going.  The Obama administration is keen to establish its disarmament, and importantly, non-proliferation credentials.  In May, the government is set to argue at the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference that the NPT needs a good insertion of teeth.  The US Senate will then have to be convinced that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is worth their time ratifying.  But this, in the vast scheme of things, is an elaborate smokescreen.

A few cruel realities remain in this game of charades we saw unfold at Prague.  Such reductions simply look like trimming and weight loss programs for ungainly military beasts.  Fat is being cut from these creatures in the hope of making them leaner and fitter in the task of killing.  Modern technologies are being harnessed on both sides that do little for the confidence of the jaded peace activist.   Money is being channelled into laboratories to ensure the ‘efficiency’ of current and future arsenals.

Fundamental to this strategy is a re-orientation of US goals in any future use of massive conventional force termed the Prompt Global Strike program. (PGS, in military nomenclature, is the capability to strike at any point within an hour of authorised launch.)  Congress was already being teased with the idea in 2006, when the Pentagon, with the blessing of STRATCOM Commander, General James Cartwright, attempted wooing politicians with the idea of a Trident missile capability based on non-nuclear warheads. But the defense establishment would have to bide their time – Congress wasn’t quite ready to fall out of love with the nuclear option.

The Pentagon’s current drive to develop ballistic weapons that will neatly fill any notable gaps left by a reduction of nuclear weaponry is very much in evidence.  Sceptics within the security establishment are being converted.  The cut backs on nuclear weapons will be simply replaced by an arsenal of missiles armed with conventional warheads.  The Russians, on this score, are justifiably worried.  In the words of a pensive Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, ‘World 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.’

Ultimately, the only way one can trash the stockpile is by trashing the very idea of deterrence.  Now that is a far more formidable proposition, and something activists and policy makers should tackle.  No one can prove that deterrence has worked.  But nor can it be shown that it has failed.  A nonsensical expression such as the ‘The Long Peace’ (a term coined for the Cold War), was premised on that very assumption.  The fear now is that nuclear weapons might well be phased out (a problematic assertion in itself) in favour of a mighty conventional deterrent.  And so, we come full circle, paving the way for another arms race, and yet another escalation in the name of peace and security.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:



Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: