The President and Nuclear Weapons

Barack Obama personally addressed the United Nations Security Council recently, becoming the first President of the United States to preside over a Security Council meeting.  That gesture in and of itself is a pretty big one, and it underscores a difference between liberals and conservatives.  Many liberals still see the United Nations as an important instrument in the cause of world peace and international co-operation.  Many conservatives have come to see the U.N. as worthless at best and a popular place for totalitarian regimes to convene and snipe at us at worst.

The topic on the President’s agenda was an important one:  He wants us to someday live in a world without nuclear weapons.  The Security Council voted unanimously to adopt a U.S. resolution that outlines the plan to start us on a journey from here to there.

Is such a goal realistic?  If the United States of America, China, Great Britain, and Russia really wanted to stop everyone from having nuclear weapons, could these four powers do it?  One aspect of the plan is to pass a treaty that would stop production of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.  Would these countries be willing to do whatever it took to enforce such a treaty?  One wonders.  In his speech, the President cited North Korea and Iran as countries that were pursuing nuclear agendas, but the resolution did not mention them because Russia and China balked at singling any countries out.  If they are unwilling to to confront uncooperative nations even that much then where is the will to stop wrongdoers going to come from?  Are the United States and Britain going to have to do all the heavy lifting alone?

The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty is another part of the puzzle.  According to the Constitution, the President or someone he designates can sign treaties with other countries, but the Senate must ratify a treaty for it to go into effect here.  The Senate defeated the Test Ban Treaty in 1999.  It is being argued that if the United States ratifies the treaty now, it will put additional pressure on other countries to follow suit.  More than 140 countries have already agreed to the treaty, but the vast majority of them don’t have nuclear weapons and aren’t pursuing them, so what do they care?  The notion that by agreeing to the document the U.S. puts more pressure on North Korea or Iran seems a little naive.  If they cared anything about what we thought, they’d have changed their ways already.  Countries have been trying to bargain with Iran for the last five years to no avail.  If offering them enticements hasn’t worked, why would they respond to our formal approval of a treaty that we already seem to be following in practice?

A world without nuclear weapons seems like a nice place to imagine, and talking about moving in that direction is nice, too.  But what will the U.N. do if it is necessary to do more than talk?