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Joseph Gerson's Main Speech - Third China-U.S. Civil Society Peace Forum, Changzhou, China June 20

Joseph Gerson Smiling with Zhu Rui
Photo: AFSC

American Continuities: Obama’s Asian and Nuclear Weapons Policies

Dr. Joseph Gerson

Changzhou, China, June 20, 2010

I have been asked to say a few words about the Obama Administration’s overall foreign and military policies, focusing on its policies toward China and the Asia-Pacific and its approach to nuclear weapons.

Last year, when AFSC was privileged to host an impressive delegation from CPAPD just months after President Obama’s inauguration, we were encouraged to hear from State Department and other officials that the U.S.-China relationship is the most important bi-lateral relationship in the world. They stressed that neither side should permit marginal disagreements and internal political dynamics to disturb cooperation, especially in addressing the existential challenges of climate change and the global economic crisis.

Yet, despite the scale of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, held in May, we meet at a time when U.S. political discourse is marked by fears of “A More Forceful China” and calls for “comprehensive review” of Washington’s China policies.[1]

Obama campaigned for the presidency with promises of “hope” and “change.” There have been changes, but they have not been as significant as most anticipated. Our president now speaks in complete and comprehensible sentences. He is intelligent and intellectually curious. And his administration is attempting to compensate for many of the military, economic and strategic blunders of the Bush-Cheney years.

Yet, as He Jun reminded us on our first night in Beijing, even if one attempts to heal wounds one has inflicted, the scar tissue remains.

There has been change. In numerous speeches that have since been enshrined in its National Strategy Document, the Obama Administration has rejected the Bush-Cheney “romance of ruthlessness” and its unilateral campaign to impose “the arrangement for the 21st century” to guarantee continued United States’ global dominance. Obama clearly recognizes that there are limits to U.S. military power. While not ruling out possible U.S. unilateral military attacks in times of crisis, his administration has repeatedly signaled a commitment to putting diplomacy first. It has returned to Washington’s 20th century style of imperialism, best described by Walter Russell Mead (now of the elite Council on Foreign Relations), in which the U.S. works to preserve its dominant role through a hierarchy of multilateral alliances, coalition building, and international organizations.[2]

Thus the United States has returned to the multilateral diplomatic structures including ASEAN, ASEAN +3, APEC and others. There is also greater respect for international law and treaties. Despite the continuing violence in Iraq, Obama appears to be committed to the near-complete withdrawal of U.S. military forces from that long tortured nation. He has also signaled at least a modicum of frustration with Israel by denying visas to several Israeli nuclear scientists and accepting the Non-Aligned Movement’s demand for a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone conference. Domestically, he has won the passage of modest health care reform legislation and appointed Supreme Court judges who are not completely enthralled by corporate power.

That said, there is disappointment that the Obama Administration is more an expression of continuity than change. Robert Gates, President Bush’s Republican Secretary of Defense/War, remains the master of the Pentagon and of much of U.S. foreign and military policy. Many in the administration served President Clinton. And, despite the economic crisis and the national debt, the country’s crumbling infrastructure, and the urgent need to create “green” jobs, President Obama has further increased the Pentagon’s core budget which consumes roughly half the government’s discretionary budget and equals the rest of the world’s military spending combined.

Obama may well have subverted his presidency by fulfilling his campaign pledge to escalate the war in Afghanistan, even as the counter-insurgency strategy has failed so publicly in Marja. There is the growing civilian death toll and Karzai government corruption which continues to alienate the Afghan people from their government, and Karzai himself has threatened to make common cause with the Taliban.

Obama’s Asia & China Policies

With the exception of the greater emphasis being given to multilateral diplomacy, U.S. Asia policy remains essentially unchanged from the Bush era.

The source of the continuity lies in the analysis articulated most cogently by Joseph Nye, who served as Assistant Secretary of Defense and played a major role in conceiving and implementing U.S. Asia policy during the Clinton years. Nye has repeatedly observed that during the 20th century the dominant powers (the U.S. and Britain) failed to integrate rising powers (Germany and Japan), resulting in two catastrophic world wars. It is of utmost importance, he argues, to ensure China’s integration into (U.S. dominated) global systems through engagement and, as necessary, containment to avoid a repetition of the last century’s catastrophic history.  As he has written more recently, there are “three major powers in the region — the United States, Japan and China — and that maintaining our alliance with Japan would shape the environment into which China was emerging. We wanted to integrate China into the international system…but we needed to hedge against the danger that a future and stronger China might turn aggressive.”[3]

Both Washington and Beijing understand the opportunities and challenges of our “competitive interdependence”. Yet, domestic political considerations, especially in the U.S., have obscured our common interests. And, given the partisan warfare that now defines U.S. politics, it is likely that more attention will be given to containment rather than engagement as our election cycle approaches and as unemployment and economic insecurity remain intolerably high.

The Administration’s “National Security Strategy”, from which Christopher Wurzel of the Consul General’s office quoted, was issued before the recent “chill” in military relations set in.  Reinforcing the commitment to containment, the Strategy explains that “Our alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand are the bedrock of security [read U.S. hegemony] in Asia….” It stresses that “Japan and South Korea are increasingly important leaders in addressing regional and global issues…”[4]

Even as the U.S. pledges to reinforce its regional alliances, the “Strategy” reiterates that the U.S. seeks “to pursue a positive, constructive, and comprehensive relationship with China.” But it also warns that “We will monitor China’s military modernization program and prepare accordingly to ensure that U.S. interests and allies, regionally and globally, are not negatively affected”  And, with what may well be unconscious condescension, it states that “We welcome a China that takes on a responsible leadership role in working with the United States and the international community” and “we will encourage China to make choices that contribute to peace, security and prosperity as its influence rises.”[5]  One wonders if the United States’ “all options are on the table” approach to Iran and its confrontational behavior toward North Korea are expressions of “responsible leadership” that “contribute to peace.”

It is in this context that the Obama Administration contributed to Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama’s recent downfall.  Hatoyama had pledged to equalize the relationship between the two allied nations and to reopen negotiations with the U.S. to ensure that the relocation of the Futenma air base did not simply transfer the abuse of Okinawans and their environment from one part of Okinawa to another. Hatoyama had also called for the creation of an East Asian Community that would inevitably marginalize U.S. regional influence.

By forcing Hatoyama to renege on his promises, Secretary Gates and his allies won a pyrrhic victory that will reinforce Okinawan nonviolent resistance. The shame of kowtowing to Washington, Japan’s long-term economic interests, and what historian Paul Kennedy termed the “imperial overstretch” will ultimately conspire to force the U.S. to withdraw its hundreds of military bases and installations from the East Asian periphery.

Despite the Obama Administration’s efforts to maintain the status quo and to influence China’s rise, it takes two to tango, and the recent rifts between Washington and Beijing are leading to calls in Washington for a “comprehensive review” of Obama’s “China strategy and policy from top to bottom.”[6]  

During the past six months, U.S. press reports about U.S.-China relations have been dominated by the rift at the Copenhagen climate change summit and differences about monetary and trade policies, cyber security, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama. Most recently, there has been the “military chill.” What has been described as Rear Adm. Guan Youfei’s “biting lecture on American ‘hegemony’” during the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and the sharp exchange between Secretary of Defense/War Gates and General Ma Xiaotian at the Shangri-La Dialog were experienced as unexpected and unwelcome challenges to the respect the hegemon believes is its due.[7]  These challenges are fueling calls for a major policy review, and in elite circles like the Council on Foreign Relations there are calls for U.S. and European collaboration, the merger of NATO and the E.U. to ensure that “the West is not doomed to decline as a center of power and influence.”[8]

Obama’s Diplomatic Nuclear Offensives

President Obama’s recent diplomatic nuclear offensive has sought to compensate for perhaps the greatest and potentially most dangerous strategic blunder of the Bush Administration: its encouragement of nuclear weapons proliferation.

Since the 9-11 attacks, the first priority of U.S. national security policy has been to prevent nuclear attacks by non-state terrorists and “rogue” nations. Two key elements of this policy are prevention of nuclear weapons proliferation and the political and psychological denial of Washington’s history and current practice of threatening first strike nuclear attacks to enforce U.S. global dominance. The U.S. has, in fact, prepared and threatened such first strike attacks more than thirty times since Nagasaki.[9]

Among the most dangerous campaigns of the Bush Administration was its subversion of the 2005 Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT) Treaty Review conference. The NPT was among the seminal agreements of the 20th century, providing that all non-nuclear nations except Israel, India and Pakistan which didn’t sign the treaty forego obtaining nuclear weapons in exchange for the nuclear powers’ Article VI commitment to “good faith negotiations” to eliminate all of the world’s nuclear weapons. The Bush-Cheney-Bolton disregard for treaties and their refusal to negotiate seriously during the last NPT Review subverted the Treaty and placed the NPT regime in jeopardy.

Key figures of the U.S. elite, including George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, recognized this strategic blunder, prompting them to seek ways to reestablish U.S. legitimacy and leverage in non-proliferation diplomacy. Thus they called for limited arms control reductions and reaffirmation of Washington’s commitment to Article VI of the Treaty. This, along with pressure from community-based activists, led Obama to announce his commitment to a nuclear weapons free world, albeit “perhaps not in [his] lifetime.”[10]

Thus, during the run up to this May’s NPT Review Conference, President Obama signed the ‘New START” treaty, issued his Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, and held the “Nuclear Security Summit.” While serving a variety of agendas, the timing was designed to reclaim U.S. legitimacy and negotiating traction on the eve of the NPT Review Conference.

“New START” is widely recognized as a “very modest’ step”, and in briefings National Security Council members have stressed its primary importance in stabilizing U.S.-Russian relations. Seven years after its ratification, the U.S. and Russia will still possess more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. We are told that the two sides’ deployed arsenals will be reduced by roughly a third, leaving each with 1,550 thermonuclear warheads. They don’t tell us these will have the destructive capacity on the order of 60,000 Hiroshimas. As The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists informed us, due to the arcane arms control counting methods in which a fully armed B-52 bomber will be counted as a single warhead, the reductions will be significantly smaller than most anticipate. The treaty also fails to address the more than 15,000 nuclear warheads in U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles. And, the Federation of American Scientists informs us that New START “doesn’t force either country to make changes in its nuclear structure.”[11]  

The Nuclear Posture Review, with its ostensible reduction in U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons, offers little more hope. What the Posture Review gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. While pledging that the U.S. will not threaten or use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear nations that comply with their NPT obligations, it also provides for possible nuclear first strikes against opponents threatening or using chemical or biological weapons. It asserts that “nuclear forces will continue to play an essential role” in U.S. foreign and military policies. To hammer home continued U.S. reliance on first strike threats, Secretary of Defense Gates reiterated that “all options are on the table” to roll back North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear programs.[12]

There also remains the reality that, in the midst of crises and conflicts, a military which believes it has a first strike nuclear capability will use it.

As if seeking to broadcast U.S. double standards, President Obama’s budget called for a $2 billion increase to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons production infrastructure. His budget also provides more money to study development of the new nuclear weapon that the Nuclear Posture Review says the U.S. won’t be building, and $800 million to develop a new nuclear-capable cruise missile.

President Obama’s “Nuclear Security Summit” proved to be more about spin than substance. Chile’s decision to ship its fissile materials to the U.S. and Ukraine’s commitment to pursue a similar path are to be celebrated, but the world’s nations could not ignore Obama Administration’s refusal to confront Israel and India. Israeli intransigence is the primary obstacle to a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. And, the U.S. violation of the spirit of the NPT by providing India nuclear fuel and resources provides a dangerous incentive and precedent for China to similarly undermine the NPT by providing such materials to Pakistan.[13]

It was in this environment that, with partner organizations, AFSC initiated the organization of the 2010 NPT Review International Planning Committee of 25 leading peace and abolition NGOs to impact the outcome of the NPT Review. I am pleased to report that our international conference was addressed by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Our rally and march constituted the largest peace demonstration since the 2008 presidential election campaign. We also presented more than 17 million petition signatures calling for implementation of Article VI to the NPT Review President and to the U.N. High Commissioner for Disarmament. It is impossible to accurately measure the impact of these events, but they certainly contributed to the positive, if limited, achievements of the Review Conference. For the first time the final document cited the importance of negotiating a nuclear weapons (abolition) convention, and the Non-Aligned Movement’s and the Arab League’s call for a regional conference to lay the foundations for a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone was adopted.

Despite these limited victories, I confess to being heart sick in recent weeks as I reread the Nuclear Posture Review and its call for expanding and modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure to ensure nuclear dominance for the next 30 years.  Since the NPT Review, in order to win ratification of New START, President Obama has pledged to increase spending for that moderization to $180 billion over the next decade. President Putin responded in kind, signing an order authorizing funding to expand and modernize Russia’s nuclear weapons infrastructure over the next half century.[14].

Much work thus lies ahead of us. Our 2010 NPT Review International Planning Committee is now spending the summer and early fall considering whether to continue as a formal network, and if so on what basis. The campaigns we are currently considering include supporting efforts to launch an Ottawa-like campaign to begin the negotiations on a nuclear weapons convention and a possible international campaign pressing for a freeze in the expansion and modernization of the nuclear powers’ nuclear weapons infrastructures. It would be most helpful to learn if you believe that, from the perspective of China’s peace advocates, either or both of these approaches would be fruitful.

How then to conclude? While we have been liberated from the dangerous excesses of the Bush Administration, contrary to the needs and interests of the U.S. and many other peoples, in the Obama era the U.S. military-industrial complex and the culture which has long supported it remain alive, well, dangerous as it continues to dictate much of U.S. foreign and military policy. If crises are to be avoided, and if our societies are to prosper within a climate defined by mutual respect, common and human security, there is much left for us to do.






[1] Michael Wines. “Behind Gusts of a Military Chill: A more Forceful China”, New York Times, June 9, 2010.

[2] Walter Russell Mead. Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1987

[3] Joseph Nye. “An Alliance Larger Than One Issue”, New York Times, January 6, 2010 

[4] National Security Strategy, May 2010,p. 42

[5] National Security Strategy p. 43

[6] Michael Wines. “Behind Gusts of a Military chill: A More Forceful China”, New York Times, June 9, 2010

[7] Ibid.

[8] William Drozdiak. “The Brussels Wall: Tearing Down the EU-NATO Barrier:, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2010

[9] Joseph Gerson. Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World, London: Pluto Press, 2007, pp. 37-38.

[10] President Barak Obama. Prague, April 5, 2009

[11] Pavel Podvig. « Assessing START Follow On » Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 29, 2010; START Follow-On: What Sort of Agreement, Federation of American Scientists Security Blog, July 9, 2009;

[12] :”Gates: All options are on the table”, -


[14] Pavel Podvig’s blog:

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