- Jonathan Schellveteran journalist and leading advocate for nuclear disarmament. He is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute. His most recent book is The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger.
President Obama met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow on Monday and agreed to cut American and Russian nuclear stockpiles by at least one-quarter and as much as one-third. We speak with veteran journalist and leading nuclear disarmament advocate, Jonathan Schell. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama is expected to meet with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin today. On Monday, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to cut American and Russian nuclear stockpiles by at least a quarter and as much as a third. Talks have centered on a new treaty to replace the START agreement on nuclear arms reduction, which expires this December.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have signed a joint understanding for a follow-on treaty to the START agreement that will reduce our nuclear warheads and delivery systems by up to a third from our current treaty limitations. This legally binding treaty will be completed this year.
AMY GOODMAN: President Obama’s visit to Moscow is billed as an effort to mend strained relations between the two former Cold War rivals. And Obama said the two leaders are, quote, “committed to leaving behind the suspicion and rivalry of the past.” Meanwhile, President Medvedev expressed concerns over the US missile defense program in Eastern Europe and added that while the talks are an important step, they, quote, “cannot remove the burden of all the problems.”
For analysis on how much this new treaty will reduce the massive American and Russian nuclear stockpile, I’m joined now in our firehouse studio by veteran journalist Jonathan Schell, leading advocate for nuclear disarmament and the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute. His most recent book is The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
JONATHAN SCHELL: Good to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us, Jonathan. So, what is the significance of the meeting that President Obama is having with the two Russian leaders, Putin and Medvedev?
JONATHAN SCHELL: Well, there are two Russian leaders, and as it happens, there are two treaties that are running concurrently, so it’s a little bit confusing and difficult to assess the agreement. One of those treaties is the START I treaty. And believe it or not, that was signed way back in 1991 and is still in effect, because the START II and III treaties never actually came into effect, and that’s one that runs out the end of this year. — actually it never came into effect and that runs out at the end of this year. The second treaty was negotiated by George Bush in 2002 called the Moscow Treaty or the SORT treaty.
Now, what’s confusing is that that second treaty ordained that by — or decided that by the year 2012, Russian and American arsenals would be reduced to 1,700 to 2,200 warheads per side, depending on certain factors which number within those it would be. Now the news comes out that the current treaty will reduce the warheads to 1,500 to 1,675. So, by some accounting, that comes to, you know, as you were saying, a quarter to a third of the warheads down, but by another accounting, it only reduces the lower floor or ceiling negotiated by the Bush administration of 1,700 to 1,675. So if you want to look at it that way, it’s a twenty-five-warhead reduction. That’s a little bit tendentious to put it that way, but the numbers really aren’t as impressive as they’re often said to be or commonly said to be. And I think the whole result is really quite disappointing.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think could turn it around? I mean, you have the picture on the front page of the New York Times on Sunday. “The Long Arc of a Nuclear-Free Vision: Obama’s Youthful Idealism Shaped Agenda to Eliminate Global Arsenals.” And it’s a picture of a piece that he did in college —-
AMY GOODMAN: Yeah.
JONATHAN SCHELL: —- for a paper at Columbia called the Sundial. He was there, with the massive anti-nuclear march in Central Park in the early ’80s —
JONATHAN SCHELL: Yes, he was.
AMY GOODMAN: — of a million people.
JONATHAN SCHELL: And it shows that his interest in this is long and deep, and that’s a very encouraging thing. So it means that — when in Prague a month or two ago, he announced that he would adopt as a goal for the United States the elimination of nuclear weapons from the earth. It means that we can take that a little more seriously because of the depth of his interest. And also, in the Senate, he took an interest. So we can have a hope that this very modest, and I would say a disappointing, result is only a step in a larger effort that will unfold across his presidency to get more serious about it. But quite frankly, this particular outcome doesn’t show any signs of the audacity that he liked to talk about in the campaign. Not yet.
AMY GOODMAN: Why not set a target of zero warheads? What would that mean?
JONATHAN SCHELL: You know, one of the great riddles of the nuclear danger at present is that we really don’t know why Russia and the United States insist on pointing many hundreds, and more than a thousand, couple thousand, nuclear warheads at one another. You know, back in the days of the Cold War, there was a kind of a political basis. You could agree with it or you could disagree with it, and some, including myself, thought it was absurd for any reason to threaten to annihilate both sides, and perhaps the world into the bargain. But when the Cold War ended, the political reference, the political basis or foundation for these arsenals dissolved.
And since then, they’ve sort of drifted into a kind of a policy-free zone, just through a kind of stupid momentum. And so, we’ve wound up with a situation that has no political foundation, in which these two countries are still threatening to annihilate one another on hair-trigger alert, and it’s a kind of — you know, we like to think that something as unimportant as a nuclear arsenal would have a reason behind it, but none has really been articulated for the last twenty years. So it’s a truly weird situation.
AMY GOODMAN: What about just good business? You keep making these weapons, it’s good for the defense — the war industry.
JONATHAN SCHELL: Well, those forces of money, the military-industrial complex, it’s always been with us. It’s always, you know, a powerful influence. And it probably prevails in the absence of a countervailing influence. Now, what we hope to see with Obama would be that countervailing influence. But we’re kind of still waiting.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the other nuclear powers.
JONATHAN SCHELL: Well, there are nine nuclear powers in the world now. In addition to Russia and the United States, there are England, France, Israel, Pakistan, India, China and North Korea.
And part of the reason that Obama has announced the goal of the abolition of nuclear weapons is to try to get leverage over proliferation, because the great problem with the overall sort of architecture of the nuclear dilemma now is the double standard, in which these nine countries, including, of course, the US and Russia, which have 95 percent of the arsenals, are really basically saying that they can have their weapons forever, but everyone else should do without them. And sort of diplomatically, morally, strategically, politically, any way want to look at it, that’s an unworkable position.
And so, if Obama announces that he wants to get rid of nuclear weapons, on the rhetorical level, it solves the double standard problem. But then it leaves the question open: is that a real goal? Is that something that the United States will actually pursue and achieve, in which case it really would solve those political problems and get everyone on the same page; or, on the other hand, is it a kind of rhetorical flourish that’s really only meant to wave in the face of people who would proliferate and say, “See, we’re going to zero, so you shouldn’t get into this business,” while we really have no intention of doing anything like that?
AMY GOODMAN: Medvedev and Putin didn’t seem very happy to see Obama. There’s pictures in the media they keep showing of Medvedev not looking in his direction — Putin, as well, today, when they were sitting and Obama was speaking. Can you talk about what the tension is and this issue of the US missile defense program in Eastern Europe?
JONATHAN SCHELL: Yes. Well, Russia — the Russian leadership has been very upset by the United States over the last decade or two. And there are a whole array of issues that upset them. One of them was NATO enlargement. Another was the war in Serbia, Yugoslavia, and an array of other issues. And it very much includes this missile defense that the United States is planning to establish in Poland and the Czech Republic, if indeed we go ahead with that, because it’s under review now by the Obama administration. The fear there by the Russians is that that capability will erode their nuclear capacity to retaliate against the United States.
But, you know, what strikes me as I say these things is that I’m speaking as if the Cold War is still going on. Retaliate against the United States? Attack the Soviet Union? What amazes me is that these issues are still on the table, when, once again, we really have no political quarrel. There’s no political or moral or strategic or any foundation for having discussions of this kind at all, which again brings me back to my question. “Why do we insist on being in a relationship at all of mutual assured destruction with the Soviet Union?” I’m about to say, as if it existed still, but with Russia. You know, Obama said the Cold War is over. Well, he’s the fourth president since 1989 to say the Cold War is over. But that message doesn’t seem to reach the strategic brain of the United States. It has no consequence in the nuclear zone. And so, these arsenals kind of sail on, as I say, by a kind of blind and stupid momentum of their own.
AMY GOODMAN: And the US relationship with Pakistan and India — both now, of course, have nuclear-weapons — and Israel, which they’ll never confirm or deny, but we know they have more than 200?
JONATHAN SCHELL: Well, the Pakistan-India nuclear face-off, it has a very special significance and an extremely worrisome one, because it’s the only nuclear confrontation — it’s the first nuclear confrontation to grow up in history that is really entirely unrelated to the Cold War. It’s their own quarrel that’s been going on for decades, even for centuries. And so, it’s an illustration that if the proliferation problem, which is the other great issue that should be on the table here, is not addressed and actually solved, these weapons can sort of cede themselves into any conflict in the world, and very much including the Middle East, where Israel, of course, is already a nuclear power, and Iran may be heading in that direction.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think Obama’s real reason for going to Russia was?
JONATHAN SCHELL: Oh, I don’t know if he had any single real reason. I do think that the nuclear question is on his mind. I do think that he is serious about that, in spite of my disappointment at this agreement. And if you’re talking about nuclear weapons, you have to go to Russia.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you to stay with us, as we move on to our next segment, and it does have to do with Robert Strange McNamara —
JONATHAN SCHELL: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: — one of the key architects of the Vietnam War, died at the age of ninety-three at his home on Monday morning.