Michael KreponPortents of a Difficult Year

Prospects for arms control in 2013 look bleak on most fronts, with a few important, potential exceptions. Prognostication is a fool’s game, since surprise – pleasant, but more often painful – comes with this territory, but here goes…

In the United States, President Barack Obama’s top priorities in Term II are domestic matters, beginning with fights over budget cuts and deficit reduction. The President has promises to keep on the domestic front, including the agenda items of immigration reform and gun control that were avoided in his first term. These promises are likely to trump the President’s promise in 2008 to pursue the Senate’s consent to ratification of the CTBT. Whatever initiatives Mr. Obama chooses to pursue, he will be butting heads with Republican Members of Congress who fear challenges from their right flank and abhor deal-making with the White House.

The world continues to be an unruly place, with the proposed “rebalancing” of U.S. military capabilities toward Asia complicated by retrograde political movements in Egypt, Israel, and Gaza; the disruptive implications of Assad’s demise in Syria; and a long-delayed reckoning with Iran’s nuclear program.

The Iranian nuclear issue is likely to demand the President’s diversion from domestic issues. A negotiating strategy built around small tests of trusts has run its course; the time has come to pursue a chancy package deal that allows Tehran to save face (i.e., an enrichment program consistent with the stated purpose of generating electricity), alongside the cessation of production and removal of material more applicable to a nuclear weapons stockpile. A deal of this kind would require the acceptance by Tehran of wide-ranging inspections and a monitoring regime designed to provide early warning of the resumption of troubling activities.

Most experts who follow Iran closely doubt that this outcome is achievable. I still hold out the hope for a possible settlement. However long the odds, this effort seems necessary in 2013. If it succeeds, expect fierce criticism of the deal from the usual quarters, difficult negotiations over the sequencing of its implementation, and new stumbling blocks along the way introduced by Tehran.

Mr. Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons has generated more horror and hope than similar statements by previous U.S. Presidents. As is par for the course, progress by means of negotiated agreements with Moscow will be slow going, especially with Vladimir Putin at the helm in the Kremlin. Reductions in the U.S. stockpile and constraints on BMD programs will mostly be driven by budgetary compulsions. In the absence of a new Treaty, defenders of the U.S. nuclear arsenal will seek to postpone new reductions by demanding that they be codified in Treaty form and by focusing on concerns over Russian compliance with previous compacts — a tactic last employed with gusto during the early 1980s.

One option for further reductions proposed by the Department of State’s International Security Advisory Board — parallel reductions “if Russia is willing to reciprocate” — has already drawn heavy flak from those who seek a long pause before pursuing further cuts. Reductions, whether by unilateral or by informal, reciprocal means, will require affirmative, majority votes by both the House and the Senate via authorization and appropriation bills for the Departments of Defense and Energy.

As for nuclear risk reduction in South Asia, Washington’s role is likely to be peripheral, as before, except when it comes to crisis management. The nuclear competition on the subcontinent is ramping up with Washington relegated to the sidelines. Modest steps by India and Pakistan to ameliorate risks are possible, but political leaders in both countries are slow-walking bilateral diplomacy while awaiting the outcome of national elections. The opening of direct trade has a significant upside potential, but promising developments on this front are also being nibbled down by those entrusted with their care.

Bold leadership on the subcontinent comes along rarely, such as when Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee rode a bus across the Punjab divide to meet with Pakistani leaders after the 1998 nuclear tests. In this context, Narendra Modi, the controversial Chief Minister of Gujarat and possibly the BJP’s standard-bearer in the next election, is worth watching in 2013. Modi was denied a visa to visit the United States in March, 2005 because of apparent state-supported bloodletting directed against Muslims in 2002. A delegation from Karachi recently invited Modi to visit to discuss trade and investment. The constrictions of India-Pakistan relations could relax greatly if he crosses a disputed border demarcation to visit Sindh.

North Korea’s nuclear program may demand the Obama administration’s attention in 2013. If Kim Jong Eun decides to sing from a new, cheery sheet of music, it would be as surprising as, say, Mikhail Gorbachev concluding that the Red Army needed a major down-sizing. The old DPRK libretto, consisting of soothing sounds followed by the roar of rocket engines and jagged EKG scratches on seismographs, has lost its deep-pocketed audience.

Not a promising landscape. Heavy lifting will be required by Secretary of State-designate John Kerry to make headway in this difficult terrain. The biggest strategic opportunity in a second Obama Administration may well be using space cooperation as a door opener to Beijing, a subject of previous posts. This, too, is a long shot, especially if the State Department views a Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring nations as small change, and as long as it outsources this initiative to the European Union.


  1. blowback (History)

    “A negotiating strategy built around small tests of trusts has run its course”

    What negotiating strategy? The only examples I’ve seen – the deal for fuel elements for the TRR brokered by Brazil and Turkey and a few aircraft components in exchange for renouncing enrichment – demonstrated that Washington can neither be trusted at all nor is populated by people with any intelligence whatsoever. All the rest has been stupid demands from Washington with the useless threat of “all options being on the table” when anyone with half a brain knows that those particular options really aren’t on the table. In the meantime the reputation of the United States in the Middle East is somewhere close to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, unless you’re a despotic theocratic monarch in the Gulf. Until Washington accepts that “regime change” in Tehran is not possible in the foreseeable future, there will be no solution and Washington and its poodles in London, Paris and Berlin are too arrogant and/or stupid to do that.

  2. John (History)

    Re: “Prospects for arms control in 2013 look bleak on most fronts”

    Agreed that it will be a difficult year for sure, if Obama doesn’t pay attention to the disarmament agenda and continues to pursue a hardline policy toward our “adversaries”–putting all the blames on Iran, DPRK, Russia, etc.

    However, there is still room for progress in 2013 if Obama can re-orient his foreign policy from the ineffective sanctions-driven/”strategic patience” policy to real engagements with our adversaries which he had promised, after all, in his 2008 campaign.

    Perhaps, he is trying to move in the new direction with the nomination of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel.
    Let’s hope this is going to be a real change we can believe in!

  3. Bradley Laing (History)

    Russia is to start building two new advanced nuclear-powered Borei class submarines before year’s end. Once complete, they will be lurking under the sea with 20 Bulava nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles each.

    One of the submarines may be named Aleksandr Suvorov after one of the most decorated generals of the Russian Empire, a source in the defense industry told the media. Its construction is expected to start on July 28, which is Russian Navy Day.

    The second vessel is likely to be named after Mikhail Kutuzov, the iconic Russian general of the Napoleonic Wars. Its keel is to be laid down in November.

    The vessels are to be built by the shipbuilder Sevmash in Severodvinsk in the north of Russia