From the Eagle Square Deli to the United Nations
by Arnie Alpert
“Arnie Alpert is a friend who is well known in New Hampshire as someone who “bird dogs” candidates during the presidential primary season. In Iowa, we also participate in the “bird dog” process, and by doing so have influenced national policy on issues like health care, immigration and green jobs. Following is an article Arnie wrote describing how he and a small group in New Hampshire influenced policy with then Senator Obama. This article is reprinted with the permission of the author.”
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When Kurt Ehrenberg phoned to say Barack
Obama would pay a lunchtime visit to the Eagle Square Deli, Martha Yager, Erin
Placey and I hustled right over for some lunch and politics, New
It was Feb. 12, 2007, a typical day in the
long buildup to the New Hampshire Primary. On Obama's second visit to the state
he was already a political phenomenon. But Eagle Square hadn't been on his
announced itinerary, and we were able to order sandwiches and find a table
before the senator arrived.
When Obama eventually walked in and made
his way to our table, Martha and I had short chats with him as his escort, Anne
McLane Kuster, tried to move him along.
But Erin was not going to miss her chance.
Already an experienced “bird-dog,” the 24-year-old activist stuck out
her hand and, without missing a beat, asked Obama if he supported the abolition
of nuclear weapons. The senator explained his support for nuclear
non-proliferation, but Erin wouldn't let him go. “Under Article 6 of the
Non Proliferation Treaty,” she insisted, “we are obligated to work
for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.” The former law professor said
he'd look into it.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or
NPT, is based on a historic tradeoff. Forty years ago, the nuclear powers said
they would provide the non-nuclear nations with civilian nuclear technology as
long as they would pledge to refrain from building nuclear weapons. In
exchange, the nuclear powers, dominated by the United States and Soviet Union,
said they would begin good-faith negotiations for the elimination of their own
By and large, the non-nuclear parties to
the NPT have held up their end of the bargain. Not so the leading nuclear
states, which have modernized their arsenals while agreeing to a series of
treaties that kept the arms race only somewhat in check. The negotiated
abolition as mandated by the treaty's Article 6 has stayed off the agenda, and
without progress in this area, the NPT regime is destined to become unglued
sooner or later.
After all, a system in which some nations
maintain their right to possess powerful weapons but deny the right to others
is inherently unstable.
That September I saw Obama at a Manchester
house party and asked him again about negotiating nuclear abolition only to
receive another vague answer.
It was a welcome surprise, then, when
Obama delivered a speech a month later at DePaul University in Chicago, where
he pledged, “Here's what I'll say as president: America seeks a world in
which there are no nuclear weapons. “
In a speech covering a variety of foreign
policy topics, Obama outlined the essence of nuclear policies we have seen
unfold in recent weeks, including “a global effort to secure all loose
nuclear materials during my first term in office.”
“We will not pursue unilateral
disarmament. As long as nuclear weapons exist,” Obama said, “we'll
retain a strong nuclear deterrent. But we'll keep our commitment under the
Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty on the long road towards eliminating nuclear
In all fairness, Erin and I weren't the
only ones trying to get his attention. Others calling for nuclear abolition
included the likes of George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam
Nunn, who issued their own call for “a world free of nuclear weapons”
in a much noted Wall Street Journal op-ed on Jan. 4, 2007. The “Four
Statesmen,” as they became known, had come to realize that in the
post-Cold War era the risk that nukes could fall into the hands of terrorists
had become more alarming than any threat that could be deterred by our own
Adopting a view they would have seen as
heretical just a few years earlier, they wrote, “Reassertion of the vision
of a world free of nuclear weapons and practical measures toward achieving that
goal would be, and would be perceived as, a bold initiative consistent with
America's moral heritage.” A bipartisan array of scholars, diplomats and
military leaders joined their call. With his DePaul speech, Obama jumped on
So far none of Obama's steps have been
dramatic. The Nuclear Posture Review, released April 6, takes only a small step
back from longstanding U.S. policies regarding first use of nuclear weapons.
The New START agreement, signed April 8, is merely the next step in a long,
bipartisan tradition of nuclear arms control that even George W. Bush endorsed.
The need to control “loose
nukes” is hardly controversial. Plans to put the Comprehensive Test Ban
Treaty to a ratification vote in the Senate keep receding into the future. The
president's budget for fiscal year 2011 includes a record increase in spending
on the nuclear weapons infrastructure. There is still no roadmap to a world
without nuclear weapons.
But that could change when the Non
Proliferation Treaty undergoes review at the United Nations next month. As they
do every five years, world leaders will meet to assess their progress at
restraining the spread of nuclear weapons, including progress toward
implementation of Article 6.
Peace activists from around the world will
march through the New York streets on May 2, this time to cheer on the
delegates as much as to protest their stalling and hypocrisy. Millions of names
have been collected on petitions calling for negotiation of an international
agreement abolishing nuclear weapons.
So far there is no indication the
president is paying attention.
But then again, we didn't know he was
paying attention to Erin Placey at the Eagle Square Deli.
~Arnie Alpert is New Hampshire program
coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee and director of the
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Project at New Hampshire Peace Action.)