Analysis & Opinions - The Providence Journal

Rooting for Arms Control

| December 15, 2009

The first two Americans to win the Nobel Peace Prize were Republicans. President Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the 1906 prize. His masterly mediation to settle the Russian-Japanese war the previous year quickly erased his bellicose tendencies in Norwegian eyes.

The man who served as his secretary of war and then secretary of state, Elihu Root, got his prize in 1912. Root, a successful corporate lawyer of formidable intellect and brusqueness, was first named secretary of war by President William McKinley after the Spanish-American War to, among other things, supervise the administration of territories, primarily the Philippines and Cuba, acquired in the conflict with Spain. He continued in the post under Roosevelt and spearheaded some of the most lasting reforms of the U.S. Army, including the introduction of the General Staff and the reordering of officer training to effect the Army's transformation into a force commensurate with the nation's new status at the start of the century as a world power.

While a Republican senator from New York, Root was picked by Andrew Carnegie to become the first president of his recently endowed peace foundation, and the promise embodied in this new role certainly influenced the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. Other achievements cited in the awarding of the prize included Root's contribution to a "better understanding between the countries of North and South America." Despite these apparently anodyne credentials, Root was a hard-headed realist. This was reflected at the start of his Nobel Lecture when he warned:

". . . the continual recurrence of war and the universally increasing preparations for war based upon expectation of it among nations all of whom declare themselves in favor of peace, indicate that intellectual acceptance of peace doctrine is not sufficient to control conduct, and that a general feeling in favor of peace, however sincere, does not furnish a strong enough motive to withstand the passions which lead to war when a cause of quarrel has arisen."

While not completely dismissive of appeals to humans' better nature, Root believed that any resultant inclination toward peaceable behavior was inevitably vulnerable to the savage forces that lay, more or less dormant, just under the civilized veneer of modern man. He was encouraged that the world had embraced the process of international arbitration as established by the Hague Convention, which he credited with settling 16 international disputes over the preceding dozen years. Each war averted reinforced a habit of peace.

What were needed, in Root's opinion, were regular Hague conferences to establish a body of international laws to determine the rights and obligations of countries. In addition, there should be efforts to educate general populations on the agreed, international, legal standards of conduct, since constitutional governments were reluctant to embark on war without popular support. Equally, Root recognized that there is always an attempt to justify acts of international aggression — "The wolf always charges the lamb with muddying the stream" — but he hoped that the advent of improved communications, expansion of international trade and more information available to the general public would lead to them passing sound judgment on the just and unjust conduct of nations.

How would an up-to-date Elihu Root apply his political philosophy if he found himself in today's U.S. Senate? There is no doubt that he would recognize the international tensions and complexities surrounding the issue of nuclear weapons, and want to strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that has limited the spread of these weapons rather effectively over nearly four decades.

There are two pieces of legislation pending that directly impact the future of the NPT. The first is the renewal of START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), a major arms-control agreement initiated by President Reagan and brought to fruition by the administration of George H.W. Bush during the perilous break-up of the Soviet Union. The renewal of START is due by the end of this year and would represent a significant pact between the United States and Russia, which still possess over 90 percent of the world's nuclear warheads between them. The renewal would demonstrate further progress toward nuclear disarmament, an obligation that the nuclear weapon states (NWS) have accepted under Article VI of the NPT and one that the non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) are pressing to be honored.

The second piece of legislation is the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) that was signed but failed Senate ratification during Bill Clinton's presidency. The objectives of this ban are twofold: to prohibit NNWS from holding the tests necessary to develop nuclear weapons and to prevent NWS from building ever more destructive and sophisticated warheads.

There were two major technical reservations about the CTBT when ratification failed in the Senate — detection of tests and the necessity of future testing to assure the reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Since 1999, there have been steady improvements in the detection thresholds and coverage provided by global monitoring systems, and a review by senior American scientific advisers has concluded that the active cores, the plutonium pits, in U.S. nuclear weapons will show no meaningful physical deterioration for at least 85 years.

The U.S. has not conducted a nuclear test since 1992 so in that sense is already complying with the CTBT. Problems remain with the treaty, its organization bears the unwieldy bureaucracy typical of the U.N., but its purpose is crystal clear — to end all nuclear test explosions — a goal first pursued by the Eisenhower administration. The political process stipulated at the U.N. to bring the treaty into force may prove impossible, but even if there are a handful of nuclear-capable countries that refuse to sign or ratify it, surely the U.S. does not wish to be grouped with them.

Russia has ratified it and China, which has signed, is probably watching to see what the U.S. does. India and Pakistan have not yet signed, but again the United States may have a significant influence if the Senate finds the necessary two-thirds majority to ratify it. Obviously the more countries that ratify the CTBT, the more credible it becomes as a global norm, and the more condign should be the penalties for breaking the ban.

The ratification of foreign treaties in the U.S. Senate requires overcoming a high barrier and this is as it should be, since such treaties bind successive administrations and trump U.S. law. Any treaty involving arms control is especially daunting because of the imputed risk to national security.

Dwight Eisenhower was the first Republican to recognize that the achievement of an international system to restrain the proliferation of nuclear weapons would be well worth a minor abrogation of national sovereignty. It is to be hoped that the necessary handful of Republican senators will endorse the collective wisdom of predecessors Root, Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and join their Democratic colleagues in supporting START renewal and ratification of the CTBT.

President Obama may be the type of man, who Root said, occasionally comes along and through his "exceptional power of statement or of feeling and possessed by the true missionary spirit, will deliver a message to the world, putting old truths in such a way as to bite into the consciousness of civilized peoples and move mankind forward a little," but to really advance the cause of nuclear disarmament he will need to convince Republicans in the U.S. Senate to be bold.

Andrew Brown is a research associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School and a member of the national advisory board of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Brown, Andrew.“Rooting for Arms Control.” The Providence Journal, December 15, 2009.

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