Jonathan Schell, writer for The Nation and professor at The New School in
New York City speaks to Paul Jay about Obama’s commitments on nuclear
non-proliferation. He says what Obama has promised in terms of a new
round of negotiations is only in the short term. He then speaks about the
double standard that is inevitably created by nine countries having
significant nuclear power, while the rest being sworn into the non-
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming to you from our sort-of studio in New York. A few weeks ago, on April 5, to be precise, President Obama made a speech in Prague. [He] said many things, but perhaps the most important was a commitment to a world without nuclear weapons. Here’s how he said it.
BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: Today the Cold War has disappeared, but thousands of those weapons have not. In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up. More nations have acquired these weapons. Testing has continued. Black-market trade in nuclear secrets and nuclear materials abound. The technology to build a bomb has spread. Terrorists are determined to buy, build, or steal one. Our efforts to contain these dangers I centered on a global nonproliferation regime. But as more people and nations break the rules, we could reach the point where the center cannot hold. So today I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.
JAY: So is that rhetoric or is it meaningful? To help us answer that question, we’re joined by Jonathan Schell. Jonathan has written on the issue of nuclear weapons for many years. He is a fellow and writer at The Nation and a fellow at the Nation Institute, and he teaches at Yale. Thanks for joining us, Jonathan.
JONATHAN SCHELL, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Good to be here.
JAY: And to out you completely, you’re also a board member of the The Real News.
JAY: So this commitment to a world without nuclear weapons is easy to say. It’s nice rhetoric. Is it meaningful? And to be meaningful, doesn’t he have to have committed to some real things in the short term? So has he?
SCHELL: Yes, he has committed himself to short-term things—I’d say very short-term things. And so there’s a vast distance between the promise of a world free of nuclear weapons and the kinds of things that he’s committed himself to. Those include a new round of negotiations with Russia, perhaps bringing the arsenals to about 1,500 on each side.
JAY: What are they now?
SCHELL: Well, they’re at about 2,500 and heading down to 2,200 or 1,700, which was the last negotiation under Bush. So it’s rather a modest reduction, actually, but still a reduction, and including very important safeguards, such as inspections, which were going to lapse under Bush but now will be reinstituted. So it’s quite important. Also, to sign—or, rather, have the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, banning all nuclear tests underground as well as the atmospheric, which are already banned, of course, and also a ban on the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons—that would be highly enriched uranium or the plutonium that’s suitable for a nuclear bomb—.
OBAMA: And to cut off the building blocks needed for a bomb, the United States will seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons. Second, together we will strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a basis for cooperation. The basic bargain is sound: countries with nuclear weapons will move towards disarmament, countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them, and all countries can access peaceful nuclear energy.
JAY: To be precise about that, what has he committed himself to in terms of highly enriched uranium?
SCHELL: To negotiating a global ban on the further production of highly enriched uranium on a global basis.
JAY: So in theory there would be no more? There would only be the existing stock?
SCHELL: That’s it exactly. And the same for weapon plutonium.
JAY: And does that not even reinforce this idea that those who made it into the nuclear club early get in, and anyone else is out?
SCHELL: Well, that’s the whole question about this commitment, because after he promised a world free of nuclear weapons or committed the United States to it, his very next sentence was that we need to have patience. Might take a long time. Might not happen even in my lifetime, as he put it. And so, really, I think what happens now is that a sort of epic drama begins to unfold in which we find out whether this commitment has enough reality behind it to actually affect the facts on the ground (and by “the facts on the ground” in the nuclear arena I mean those in North Korea, I mean those in Iran, I mean those in South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Japan, North Korea, all the countries that have nuclear facilities or the ambition to have them, of one sort or another) because, of course, right now what we have is a double-standard world, we have a world in which there are 9 nuclear powers and about 185 or so that are sworn to be non-nuclear under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And the question is one of direction. You know, which way is the tide going to flow now? Because there’s momentum in two directions. One is toward proliferation, including the possibility of proliferation to a terrorist group. That’s a danger that rises with every new nuclear power that you have in the world, with the spread of that technology, including nuclear power. That’s all on the one side as a kind of tidal flow that’s going in the wrong direction. And now, on the other hand, you do have something in the other corner, and that’s new. So it’s very important, it’s a very big deal that Obama has said our goal at the end of the day, no matter how long it might take, is to move to a world without nuclear weapons.
JAY: Now, for that to not seem hypocritical to countries that don’t have nuclear power—and many don’t even have nuclear energy and want it—but for that not to seem hypocritical, doesn’t he have to do two things? Number one, stop building new nuclear weapons systems. And apparently there’s new systems being developed in the UK. And doesn’t he have to stop US hypocrisy about Israel and nuclear weapons?
SCHELL: Well, he absolutely would have to move to both of those at some point in the game. I think that the whole issue here is whether the commitment to move to a world without nuclear weapons could be credible enough and believable enough in the present to actually persuade the world that it’s going to happen, that it’s something that could be relied upon, because if that were to happen, if the commitment were to be serious and credible, then it would be very difficult for an Iran or a North Korea or an Egypt or a Turkey or whoever it might be to say, well, everyone else is getting out of this business, but we alone are getting into it or getting deeper into it.
OBAMA: We want Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations, politically and economically. We will support Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy with rigorous inspections. That’s the path that the Islamic Republic can take. Or the government can choose increased isolation, international pressure, and a potential nuclear arms race in the region that will increase insecurity for all. So let me be clear: Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile activity poses a real threat not just to the United States but to Iran’s neighbors and our allies. The Czech Republic and Poland have been courageous in agreeing to host a defense against these missiles. As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven. If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for missile defense construction in Europe will be removed.
JAY: Isn’t the issue of Israel quite central to this? As long as there’s this double standard about Israel, how do you say to any of the countries in the region that you have no right to have weapons?
SCHELL: Well, the double-standard issue is the key one on a global basis, and it’s at its most acute in the Middle East, where, of course, Israel has a large nuclear arsenal, maybe as much as 200 nuclear weapons, and even ICBM-range missiles. It’s really quite extraordinary what they’ve got there. So that’s on the one side. But then, on the other side, the world is trying to pressure Iran into not even having the nuclear fuel cycle, that is, low-enriched uranium. The reasoning there is that it could be enriched some more and be made into a bomb. But the double standard is at its most acute there, and that is the very same situation that pertains in the world at large. A set of very important actors here are the countries that don’t get looked at very much, and those are the ones that under the terms of the NPT have forsworn nuclear weapons. But they’re also the ones, for instance, who sit on the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency. And so when the European powers plus the United States and maybe China and Russia come to the Security Council and say, “We have to put sanctions on Iran,” its people on this board who are actually going to be making some of the decisions, whether to refer Iran to the Security Council. That’s what I mean when I say that the whole direction of the thing is involved. And what will be key there is for people to believe what they do not currently believe, which is that the United States and the other nuclear powers would be serious about this commitment. So I’d say it’s a promise that’s waiting for the content to come along and fulfill it. I don’t despair of that; I’m not cynical about it. I mean, there’d be reasons for being cynical, because you might say it’s just another piece of hypocrisy, it’s just another layer of the double-talk. And it may well prove to be that. It may be just a talking point to try to argue other people out of having nuclear weapons while we hold onto our own. Yeah.
JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about what would be real steps towards a world without nuclear weapons. So if Obama has four years—let’s assume he probably is going to have a eight-year term—what does he have to do to make this real? Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Jonathan Schell.
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