Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 10:48 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 10:48 | SYDNEY

Obama and nuclear abolition (part 1)


Rory Medcalf


8 April 2009 11:14

It is strange that so much commentary in recent days has focused on the latest less-than-successful North Korean missile test instead of a potentially far more momentous event. The most powerful country in the world has signalled the beginning of a radical change in its attitude to nuclear weapons, including its own.

President Obama's speech in Prague has seized the initiative and the moral high ground on nuclear disarmament. It is something of a diplomatic judo move that could turn an opponent's lunge — North Korea's missile test — to America's advantage. It also propels the Australian-Japanese nuclear commission to the forefront of the global security agenda.

The timing was uncanny. Just a few hours after the Stalinists of Pyongyang launched a type of rocket intended one day to carry a nuclear warhead, Barack Obama introduced a plan aimed at consigning such dangers to the past. Some claim that the Unha-2/Taepodong-2 test proves the futility of attempting to rid the world of nuclear weapons. On the contrary: it was a perfect illustration of why a new and global approach is needed to reduce nuclear dangers.

Kim Jong-Il's attention-seeking missile diplomacy had been leaving Washington and its allies with no good immediate options. In 15 years of trying to thwart North Korea's ambition  for nuclear weapons and the missiles to carry them, all manner of direct responses — punishment, reward and dialogue — have been tried and found wanting.

Sunday’s launch was meant to test Obama and split the five powers that have any chance of changing Pyongyang's ways — the US, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia. A US or Japanese over-reaction, such as shooting down the missile, could have raised risks of military confrontation while alienating China and Russia. Yet too soft a US response — such as trying to buy better behaviour through aid or concessions — would have angered Japan and South Korea.

Obama has done the smartest thing he could: changed the debate, but not the subject. He has outlined a vision for a secure world without nuclear weapons, and has promised that the US will lead with attainable steps to get there.

These involve: the US finally ratifying the treaty to ban nuclear testing; starting negotiations on a verifiable treaty to end the making of the fissile material used in nuclear arms; shrinking America's arsenal in line with a prospective new pact with Russia; and reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US security.

If the US can move down this path, and begin to bring Russia with it, it will be harder for those with smaller atomic armouries — including China, India, Pakistan and Israel — to stay out of arms control talks. And North Korea and Iran will no longer be able to cite US hypocrisy as a justification for their own nuclear schemes.

By starting this long game in a public square in Prague, Obama has linked the quest for post-Cold War nuclear security with the anti-totalitarian spirit of hope and courage that helped to bring down the Soviet bloc, of which North Korea is a relic.

Photo by Flickr user zionsiva, used under a Creative Commons license.