The International Interest

Preparing for a Nuclear Disarmament Treaty.

With the United States now having added its considerable weight to the list of countries officially advocating global nuclear disarmament, it seems only a matter of time before a movement to initiate a Nuclear Disarmament Treaty gathers momentum. On the long road to a nuclear weapons free world there will be many bottlenecks and tenuous points, but none is so pressing is the moment this momentum takes hold and the parties commit themselves to negotiations. How might this come to pass? How could nuclear weapons states credibly commit to negotiate in earnest—toward submitting their treasured arsenals to rigorous international inspection, verification, and dismantlement—rather than trying to preserve a way out?

Reading through Ivan Oelrich and Steve Fetter’s excellent contribution on verification standards under a hypothetical disarmament regime to Barry Blechmann and Alex Bollfrass’ Elements of  a Nuclear Disarmament Treaty, it occurred to me that the most important events with regard to the feasibility of verifiable disarmament may well occur while the Convention is under negotiation or even before. Oelrich and Fetter stress the fact that it is the more advanced countries that are more difficult to disarm because the small error rate for the tracing of these countries’ vast supplies of fissile material represents hundreds of weapons rather than dozens or handfuls. These countries are also the ones better able to circumvent the strictures of a verification regime through the manufacture of false warheads, dummy plutonium pits or subassemblies, parallel weaponization programs, concealed facilities, and so forth.

The result is that it ought to be more difficult for established nuclear weapons states to credibly commit to a robust verification regime, and so difficult to bring non-nuclear weapon states to the table in the first place. Though Oelrich and Fetter do not quite say so, the best opportunity for a country to slip the noose of a disarmament treaty would be to prepare to do so before they sign the treaty and submit themselves to initial inspection. This means that the process of convening a disarmament treaty drafting convention could be expedited by taking steps now to establish a reputation for cooperation, a base of data upon which to build, and facilities that simplify the inspection process (like the new Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant). Nuclear weapons countries could:

  • compile data from existing arms control treaties and databases;
  • expand voluntary IAEA inspections;
  • unilaterally divulge information about the size and character of their nuclear arsenals (as the United States and Britain recently did);
  • renovate existing mining, reprocessing, research, and civilian power facilities to promote inspection, or construct new ones to these standards;
  • refrain from producing weapons systems that could be easily converted from conventional to nuclear delivery, or renovate or retire old ones that meet this description;
  • develop uniquely conventional systems to assume the roles plausibly occupied by nuclear systems;
  • rewrite nuclear and military doctrine to deemphasize nuclear deterrence and warfighting.

It might be thought that there is nothing nuclear weapon states can do to facilitate disarmament short of disarming. In fact, the path to disarmament can start well before; it can start now.


Filed under: Arms Control,

New nuclear installation construction.

This passage in the Economist encouraged us to fill out a list of other major reactor construction projects currently being constructed: “The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor became plain ITER following public anxiety about anything that has ‘thermonuclear’ next to ‘experimental’ in its name.”

  1. Large-Scale Undergraduate Test Bed (LSUTB)
  2. Waziristan University Plutonium Production Reactor (WUPPR)
  3. The Paul Nitze Center for Orbital Radiological Research
  4. Nigerian National Uncooled Supercritical Reactor (NNUSR)
  5. GWU Advanced Pebble Bed Tester
  6. Mahmoud al-Mabhouh Memorial Fast Breeder Reactor
  7. Sarah Palin Mendenhall Glacier Nuclear Power Station
  8. Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power station

a.j.m. + Brian

Filed under: Arms Control,

The international interest in financial stability.

I was wondering lately on this page about whether the Senate or the House scheme to defray the costs of future bailouts—by putting together a fund now or by collecting those funds after a crash occurs. David Leonhardt and the I.M.F. have been pushing a third way: tax banks proportionate to the riskiness of their holdings. Not only would this raise the necessary funds to ensure that the American taxpayer is not stuck footing the bill for the irresponsible behavior of others, but it would also incentivize responsible behavior: it would try to prevent, rather than promote, a moral hazard problem from developing.

Accomplished properly, it has another benefit, too, which Leonhardt only hints at with the following thought experiment.

Imagine the year is 2020, and a major financial firm is collapsing. The financial regulation bill that President Obama signed back in 2010 was meant to deal with just such a problem. It gave regulators something called “resolution authority.” They could seize a dying firm, wipe out its shareholders, fire its top executives and keep it operating until its surviving parts could be sold off in an orderly fashion. Now, in 2020, the regulators are preparing to use that authority for the first time.
But as they dig into the details, they realize they are facing a raft of problems. One of the biggest is that the firm has 70 percent of its assets abroad (roughly the share of Citicorp’s business that was overseas in 2009). Washington can’t simply seize assets held in London, Shanghai or Moscow.

An international financial system requires international regulation. The prospects for tax evasion and hiding risky assets are too lucrative for large financial institutions to ignore, and these behaviors pose not only a risk to a national economy but to the international economy. Just like seizing and liquidating dangerously over-leveraged firms requires international resolution authority, disincentivizing dangerous behavior requires international disincentives. As Leonhardt makes clear, the global economy moves faster than national government—to say nothing of global governance structures; compelling globalized financial firms to behave responsibly means proving that irresponsible behavior is impermissible everywhere.

Expect to see more such talk in coming years.


Filed under: Economics,

Beinart on the Israel lobby.

Peter Beinart is a funny figure for me. Often, I find his work brilliant. Other times, more rare, I find myself wondering whether he’s really invested in what he’s writing, or wondering where he expects to go with it. I suppose many people think similarly.

Nowhere recently has Beinart’s former tendency been on brighter display recently than in his recent New York Review of Books piece called The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.

In it, Beinart argues that the American Israel lobby makes common cause with only one segment of Israeli society—one that is prominent, growing, illiberal, and increasingly extremist. As this segment is ascendant in Israeli society, it is in decline in American society among the total population of young Jews, who, he says, tend to be liberal, sympathetic to the Palestinian plight, skeptical of Israel’s commitment to human rights, and increasingly disinterested in the domestic politics of the Jewish lobby. As a result, Beinart expects that the growing population of American Orthodox Jews will increasingly control this country’s Israel lobby, pushing it further to the right. Beinart himself wants to find some middle ground between them—fully outraged at Israeli extremism but optimistic about the prospects for a better Israel. In short, Beinart wants a sort of liberal Zionism.

The article is well-written and appropriately furious at the extremism that is blighting Israeli society, but it makes one wonder: if the demographic trends in Israel and in the United States are steadfastly against liberalism, peace, and democracy, what warrant have we for optimism in a better Israel? And how, indeed, ought we as Americans to go about encouraging one?

It seems to me that the proper lesson of Beinart’s piece is not optimism but pessimism. In the United States I think we tacitly assume that the arc of the moral universe is long and that it bends toward justice—that social and political pressure is perpetually arrayed behind those who would build a more just world. Not so for Israel, says Beinart, and not so for the Israel lobby. It seems clear that it will be more difficult for an American President to negotiate a stable and equitable peace five years from now than it is today. We might say that if there is to be peace, it must be now—but, truthfully, it seems that this could only be said five years ago. The current Israeli governing coalition and its treatment of the United States is evidence enough that such a statement cannot apply today. The efforts made by the Obama administration have been utterly without force or momentum; partially this is because they have been poorly formulated, arbitrarily timed, and backed by little more than the pleas of distinguished American diplomats, but partially it is because Israeli leaders have reacted with disdain.

Even without take a position the human rights record of the Israeli government or situation in Gaza, it is clear that this situation is unacceptable for the United States. No country, anywhere, is owed an unconditional commitment from a liberal democracy—and if George H.W. Bush was willing to leverage more pressure on Israel than is President Obama

Beinart ably demands a justification from the Israel lobby.

The heads of AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference should ask themselves what Israel’s leaders would have to do or say to make them scream “no.” After all, Lieberman is foreign minister; Effi Eitam is touring American universities; settlements are growing at triple the rate of the Israeli population; half of Israeli Jewish high school students want Arabs barred from the Knesset. If the line has not yet been crossed, where is the line?

Because Beinart never presents the case for optimism about Israel’s future, one has to wonder: what would it take for Beinart to lose faith? Why shouldn’t we?


Filed under: Liberalism, Middle East, ,

Fuel efficient freight trains.

Trehugger posts an astounding set of facts about the fuel efficiency of rail. Keep in mind that this is without a national commitment to improving rail technology and without widespread public scrutiny. These numbers underscore that our stagnating national rail system deserves every public incentive vis-a-vis bus and car transportation.

The Association of American Railroads announced that in 2009, freight trains in the U.S. averaged 480 ton-miles-per-gallon. This mean that a 1-ton car would have to get 480 MPG to match it, and a 2-ton SUV would need 240 MPG! And that would be just to move the vehicles around, no other payload.

What’s most impressive is the improvement over the past 30 years: “Overall, freight rail fuel efficiency is up 104 percent since 1980. In 2009, railroads generated 67 percent more ton-miles than in 1980, while using 18 percent less fuel.”

As for tractor trailer fuel efficiency—and I want to stress that I have no idea what I’m talking about here—if there are 130,000 BTU/gallon of diesel fuel and “a combination truck requires 3.1 thousand Btu to haul 1 ton of cargo 1 mile in 1991,” the comparable figure trucks is 42 ton/mpg—or about 10% as efficient as trains.


Filed under: Energy, sustainability, ,

Enough oil can cause even Congress to slip toward the future.

It’s a shame that this is how it’s come to pass, but because the policy is win, win, win, win, win, the intent or use for the funds is secondary to the sheer fact of the matter: H.R. 4213, the House’s catchall bill to extend unemployment insurance and push back the doc fix, also includes a provision to quadruple the national gas tax! The additional $11 billion will be added to a fund to help clean up oil spills in environmentally sensitive areas when the perpetrator cannot or will not pay for the cleanup themselves quickly (the funds may also be spent and later repaid by the liable party). Though the use of the money isn’t unreasonable I think this could be better solved by the kind of self-insurance system recently set up for large financial institutions and that the funds from a gas tax could better be spent solving the underlying problem rather than cleaning up its disgusting messes.

That said, because the gas tax is so wildly positive sum, disapproving of the uses to which gas tax money will be spent in no way obviates one’s support for the initiative. In short, a gas tax creates so many benefits, that the specific beneficiary of the resulting revenue is less important than that it was enacted at all. The broader point is that radical policies like gas taxes will become more and more attractive in the coming years; though lawmakers may not always have their sights on transitioning this country away from fossil fuels, the myriad ways that oil negatively impacts our society mean that there will be more and more excuses to do the right thing. When the harms caused by a social fact are so plentiful, countervailing policies have plentiful benefits.


Filed under: Energy, sustainability, , , ,

A high standard for drilling.

A couple of weeks ago, I suggested on this page that we hold oil companies to a very high standard for drilling: we should make it prohibitively expensive to drill when and where there is significant chance of causing an irreparable environmental disaster. The fact of the matter is that no amount of effort expended on cleanup can return the Gulf of Mexico to its rightful state because the costs of drilling cannot be internalized by private business and so they should be prevented in the first place. That said, if we make every real effort to compel internalization it will surely serve as a deterrent to those extraction operations that cannot be conducted safely.

The interesting thing is that the White House seems to be moving toward a similarly absolutist position. This was posted to Barack Obama’s facebook page a couple of days ago describing his weekly radio address:

We need to take a comprehensive look at how the oil and gas industry operates and how we regulate them. We can only pursue offshore oil drilling if we have assurances that a disaster like the BP oil spill will not happen again.

While I wouldn’t be content with assurances from these people, it’s clearly a step in the right direction.

There’s been more news regarding dispersants, by the way—or more lack of news. I want to quote these from a Times story from this afternoon that has since deleted the information. (I don’t know why or when they were removed, but their removal explains the incongruous headline.)

At the same time, BP was locked in a tense standoff with the Environmental Protection Agency, which had ordered the company to end its use of a toxic chemical dispersant called Corexit by Sunday.

The oil giant continued spraying the chemical on Monday, despite the E.P.A.’s demand that it use a less toxic dispersant to break up the oil.


The original E.P.A. order instructed BP “to identify a less toxic alternative — to be used both on the surface and under the water at the source of the oil leak, but it also said that if BP were “unable to identify available alternative dispersant products,” it could instead provide the Coast Guard and the E.P.A. with a detailed description of the dispersants it had investigated and the reason it did not believe they met the required standards.” On Thursday night BP invoked that latter option.

BP’s behavior is well beyond the bounds of propriety here. It’s brazenness in defying the E.P.A. is just too disgusting. But one has to wonder about how E.P.A. director Lisa Jackson is conducting herself here: if the E.P.A. wants a different dispersant sprayed, why not pick the best option, order BP to cease and desist under heavy financial penalty for spraying toxic chemicals, and have the National Guard spray the correct dispersant (or don’t, given that there is no scientific consensus on the matter)?

Requiring BP to pick a different option? When your toddler tells you she’s going to bed at midnight, you don’t politely ask her to please pick another time.


Filed under: Domestic, Energy,

Making a mess of the cleanup.

It’s been two days over a month since the explosion that sunk the Deepwater Horizon rig and caused oil to gush into the Gulf of Mexico.

First, I should post a correction of sorts. Recent estimates of the quantity of oil spilling into the gulf have been revised upward by at least an order of magnitude. That means that BP’s oil spill now outpaces that of Ixtoc I, meaning that if it is uncapped it could easily become the worst accidental oil spill in history. The New York Times has more on the differing estimates on its interactive map.

The ways in which BP’s response has been insufficient are too many to count, but this week’s discussion of the company’s choice of dispersants has been particularly infuriating. The Times summarizes:

BP PLC continues to stockpile and deploy oil-dispersing chemicals manufactured by a company with which it shares close ties, even though other U.S. EPA-approved alternatives have been shown to be far less toxic and, in some cases, nearly twice as effective.

The EPA issued BP a directive on Thursday giving them 24 hours to identify a less toxic alternative to Corexit, and 48 more to begin using it. On Friday, BP—well, “demurred” would be the diplomatic term, but diplomacy isn’t warranted here—gave the EPA the finger for no apparent reason. The New Orleans Times-Picayune has an excellent discussion of this and other issues relating the dispersants—including responses from environmental groups who argue that the cleanup effort should forego using dispersants altogether. Dispersants cause surface oil to split into smaller particles and sink to lower strata of the ocean, the environmental impact of which is not at all clear.

EPA data shows that 12 of 18 approved dispersants are more effective than Corexit, and all twelve are less toxic (some ten to twenty times less toxic). To sum

Let’s hope Obama’s EPA doesn’t take “Fuck you” for an answer.


Filed under: Domestic, Energy,

Solar sails unfurled.

Japan’s space exploration agency, JAXA, and the Planetary Society have launched the first solar sail, called IKAROS. IKAROS will sail to venus, studying that planet with a variety of cameras. Next year, the Planetary Society (no relation) will begin its own LightSail program, the third of which intends to reach one of the earth/sun Lagrangian Points to monitor solar storms. While solar sails, propelled entirely by the suns photons, not material solar wind, sound like something from an unusually poetic science fiction novel, the fact that they can accelerate indefinitely without continuously burning heavy fuel means that they may represent our best hope for exploring deep space.


Filed under: Space,

My downwinder dad would want testing.

It takes a special sort of politician to advocate the resumption of nuclear testing on the continental United States after an eighteen year moratorium when there is little reason for it—but it takes a special kind of human being to do so when your father died from non-Hodgkins lymphoma due to spreading fallout from nuclear tests. And the party that nominated two such sons of downwinder fathers? Unfortunately, not so rare.


Filed under: Arms Control, Nuclear, ,

About TII

ADAM MOUNT (web, c.v.) is a doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University for international relations and philosophy. His writing has appeared in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, and Security Dialogue.()

August 2014
« Aug    

The Personal Interest

° The Dirty Projectors & Björk at Housing Works earlier this year.

° Wes Anderson's beautiful trailer for Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox.

° Happy of the day: kitty ♥ blow-dryer.

° Jason Kottke is right. Put this on full screen and spend two minutes watching them swim.

° Iron + Wine's lovely acoustic takes of the production-drowned tracks on The Shepherd's Dog.

° Clay Sharkey on The Cognitive Surplus

° Dean Ornish on the World's Killer Diet


P.P. goes to the vet.

- "No, no. His name is in all caps, like on the card we gave you."

- "What? Why?"

- "It's convention. And it's half acronym."

- "Oh. What does P.A.V.E. stand for?"

- "Nothing. PAVE is an Air Force Program name."

- "..."

- "PAWS is Phased Array Warning System."

- "Well, um. Like I say, he's such a sweet cat."


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