Obama’s Berlin speech this week urging Russia to join the US in making sweeping cuts to their stockpiles of nuclear weapons was fittingly delivered at the German capital’s historic Brandenburg Gate.
For it was another Obama «landmark» delivery of style over substance; histrionics over history; and sentimentalism over seriousness. Unfortunately, 6,000 invited German guests bought the charade with resounding, frequent applauses.
Historians may note that the world-famous Berlin gate was commissioned back in 1788 by the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II as a «triumphal symbol of peace».
But, sadly, the Brandenburg Gate has in actuality come to be associated with wars and conflict. This mismatch in reality and illusion is appropriate for Obama’s «landmark» declamation this week.
A brief history recounts how the gate was adopted as an icon by Nazi Germany to adorn the trappings of its war machine. After the Second World War, the neoclassical arch then stood at the heart of the division of Berlin and Europe by the nuclear-powered Western allies and the Soviet Union. Western historians typically blame Moscow for establishing the Berlin Wall, without the context of Washington and London instigating the Cold War aggression under the threat of nuclear weapons at the close of the Second World War, when the Western allies also covertly rearmed the Nazi war machine against the Soviet Union.
So, just like the Brandenburg Gate itself, Obama’s speech this week belongs more in the realm of fanciful sentiment and deception rather than in credible substance.
The supposed highlight of the American president’s speech was his declared aim to push harder for nuclear arms reduction. Let’s take a closer look at his supposedly earnest words.
Obama declared: «Because of the New START Treaty, we’re on track to cut American and Russian deployed nuclear warheads to their lowest levels since the 1950s.»
That is partially true. The world’s nuclear arsenal – of which the US and Russia account for 90 per cent – has been on a steep decline since the end of the Cold War in 1991. There is currently estimated to be about 17,000 nuclear warheads worldwide – down from the high point of 68,000 in 1985. The US and Russia currently account for about 8,000 total nuclear weapons apiece.
Of these, only about 25 per cent of the stockpiles are believed to be active, giving about 2,000 each. The New START accord of 2010 referred to by Obama in his speech seeks to limit the arsenals to 1,550 each. Obama is now saying that after «a comprehensive review» he wants Russia and the US to push even harder for deeper cuts to about 1,000 warheads – a further one-third reduction than the START deal obliges.
The tenor of Western media coverage in the wake of Obama’s «historic» speech in Berlin was «bravo» for the American president… now why doesn’t Russia reciprocate? Following Obama’s panegyric to world peace, Moscow responded with a cool dismissal. Russian deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said that Obama’s offer could not be taken seriously.
This response from Russia was portrayed in the Western media as a churlish and uncharitable rebuff to a noble American initiative.
To understand what is really going on, to separate symbol from substance, then we have to parse Obama’s grandiloquent words.
In his speech, Obama went on to say: «So today, I’m announcing additional steps forward. After a comprehensive review, I’ve determined that we can ensure the security of America and our allies, and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third. And I intend to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures».
What Obama is referring to specifically for nuclear arms reduction «by one-third» are the stockpiles of «strategic weapons» held by both the US and Russia. These are the long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that have a strike range of over 5,500 kilometers and could wipe out whole cities at once.
But what Obama is not earmarking for reduction is the arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons that both the US and Russia possess. These are the close-range weapons that generally carry less destructive explosive power than the ICBMs.
Here is what the American leader said on that score: «At the same time, we’ll work with our NATO allies to seek bold reductions in US and Russian tactical weapons in Europe.»
Note that while Obama is purporting to cut strategic nuclear weapons by one-third, he was only giving a vague commitment «to seek reductions in tactical weapons in Europe». Yet, it is this very aspect of the nuclear arsenals that concerns Moscow most keenly.
Moreover, this vague commitment to reduce tactical weapons is flatly contradicted by fact. Only last month, the Obama administration announced that it was embarking on a $10 billion upgrade of its tactical nuclear arsenal in Europe over the next 10 years. Part of this revamp is the fitting of gravity-dropped B61 bombs in Europe with new precision-guided tail systems that will increase the overall strike capacity of the American nuclear arsenal.
Obama is therefore making the Russians an unreasonable, if not insulting, proposition. This is because the US will still retain, in fact increase, its arsenal of tactical nukes in Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey – that is, near the borders of Russia. This is a lopsided strike advantage arrogated by the US, which has long been protested by Moscow… Why should the US be permitted to effectively hold nuclear weapons to the head of Russia, when Russia has no such close-range weapons pointed at American territory?
This lopsided balance of terror in favour of the Americans afforded by the close-range tactical weapons dates from the Cold War era when the Western NATO powers claimed that Europe was under threat of a Soviet invasion. More than 20 years after the official end of the Cold War such a rationale is no longer tenable or justifiable. Nevertheless, Washington wants to retain that terror advantage.
Furthermore, the US is simultaneously advancing its so-called missile defence system closer to Russia’s border. The interceptor missiles are to be deployed in Poland, the Czech Republic and other East European countries. Washington is also advocating that breakaway Russian republics, such as Georgia, be admitted to NATO, which presumably may mean that these countries contiguous with Russia will also install interceptor missiles.
As Russian deputy Prime Minister Rogozin points out, Washington insists on refusing to give legally binding assurances that the missile system is not targeting Russia. Rogozin also points out that the encroachment of the «defence system» as part of the strategic and tactical strike threat is an overall offensive front since it reduces Moscow’s ability to retaliate if needed.
Russia is therefore correct to rebuff Obama’s latest charm offensive. If the US and its Western allies are serious about global nuclear arms reduction, then the onus is clearly and historically on Washington to remove its tactical weapons out of Moscow’s face; and on Washington to halt its ballistic encirclement of Russian territory under the guise of a missile «defence» system.
Lest we forget: the US introduced the scourge of nuclear weapons to mankind in 1945 (four years before the Russians managed to develop the bomb); and the US is the only country to have used this barbaric technology to annihilate human beings, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Since Obama made no mention of addressing in concrete, practicable terms this historic imbalance of terror that the US holds over Russia, then Moscow is right to be skeptical over Obama’s overtures.
Indeed, the US president’s track record of articulating hollow words increasingly make his speeches and policy claims to be occasions for deep caution, if not repudiation and contempt.
After all, in another historic speech in Prague in 2009, Obama declared his ambition to make the world free from all nuclear weapons. Four years on, he is overseeing upgrade and expansion. What Obama says and what the American imperialist war machine does are two very different matters; and Russia is prudent to not confuse the two.
One final proof: how can Obama profess genuine nuclear arms reduction and «world peace with justice» when this president is currently planning along with other NATO allies, Britain and France, to supply more weapons to drown Syria in a bloodbath that his country has created over the past two years? Obama is an accused war criminal, not a messenger of peace.