Few national security issues are as important to President Barack Obama as reducing the threat posed by nuclear weapons. Obama devoted his first major foreign policy speech as president to the subject in April 2009 in Prague, where he pledged America’s commitment to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons. In particular, the president laid out a series of interim steps that the United States must take to reduce the risk of a nuclear catastrophe. In articulating this vision, Obama was acting on a growing bipartisan consensus most closely associated with Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn, who argued in a now famous 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed that the nuclear status quo — defined by the potential spread of nuclear weapons to additional states, the threat of nuclear terrorism, and the continued existence of bloated nuclear weapons and materials stockpiles — is no longer tenable.
With the November presidential election rapidly approaching and Obama’s first term drawing to a close, the time is ripe to assess the president’s follow-through on the ambitious nuclear security agenda he laid out in Prague. Overall, his record has been strong; the steps taken over the past three years have increased US national security and set the stage for further action. However, resistance from Russia, domestic political obstruction by Republicans, and the exigencies of an election year have combined to stymie next steps. In addition, Iran’s nuclear aspirations and North Korea’s intransigence continue to put significant pressure on the nonproliferation regime. Compared with what has been accomplished thus far, any further progress must await the result of the election.
Significant achievements. President Obama didn’t wait long to make his mark on US nuclear policy. Five months after the Prague speech, he became the first American president in history to chair a meeting of the UN Security Council. (The subject of the meeting was nonproliferation and disarmament.) The result was unanimous support for Resolution 1887, which endorsed the goal of nuclear abolition and a broad action plan to reduce the nuclear threat.
In April 2010, the White House released its Nuclear Posture Review, the first comprehensive reassessment of US nuclear weapons policy in a decade. The new review begins to reorient US nuclear policy to reflect the fact that nuclear weapons play a smaller role in US national security policy than ever, and it recognizes that the greatest nuclear threats in the 21st century are the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear terrorism. Days after releasing the Nuclear Posture Review, Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which verifiably limits each nation to 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed delivery systems. Russian stonewalling drew out the negotiation process and Republican opposition delayed consideration in the Senate. However, the administration persevered and painstakingly built a bipartisan and military consensus in support of the treaty. The Senate approved New START by a 71-26 vote in December 2010.
Obama has also spearheaded an international effort to strengthen global nuclear materials security and prevent nuclear terrorism. In 2010, he convened the leaders of 47 nations in Washington, DC, for the first global Nuclear Security Summit. There, 29 countries pledged more than 50 specific commitments to secure or eliminate nuclear materials, and prior to a second summit held Seoul in 2012, already roughly 90 percent of those national commitments had been completed. Since April 2009, the United States has assisted in the removal of more than 1,200 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and plutonium — including all the highly enriched uranium from eight countries. A third Summit is scheduled to take place in the Netherlands in 2014.
Dubbed the “Prague Spring,” the flurry of activity in early 2010 reinvigorated the arms control process and focused world attention on the critical issue of nuclear threat reduction. The achievements also strengthened the US position and contributed to a reasonably successful outcome at the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, which produced a consensus final document that detailed specific action plans on nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
Loose ends remain. Despite these significant early successes, the president’s nuclear security agenda began to stall in 2011.
Pursuant to the Nuclear Posture Review, the president asked the Pentagon to lead an interagency review (an “implementation study”) to develop several alternative approaches to deterrence and stability, including illustrative force size and postures to best support those alternatives. (The Nuclear Posture Review did not reevaluate the existing nuclear employment and targeting guidance; the New START levels were based on the George W. Bush administration’s guidance.) And yet, despite a July 2 Associated Press story indicating that there appears to be interagency consensus about reducing deployed warheads to 1,000-1,100, Obama has apparently decided to postpone a decision on new nuclear policy guidance and force levels until after the election. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans are attempting to block both the New START reductions and the implementation study. In addition, Russia has linked new treaty-based reductions to its concerns about US missile defense plans in Europe; efforts to reach a cooperative agreement with Moscow on missile defense have so far been unsuccessful.
Progress has also been slow in other areas. In Prague, the president pledged to “immediately and aggressively” pursue approval of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits any nuclear test explosions that produce a self-sustaining, supercritical chain reaction and which creates a robust international verification regime. But after the longer-than-anticipated effort to win Senate approval of New START, Obama postponed plans to seek a vote on the CTBT in his first term. Instead, the White House has begun a cautious campaign to engage the Senate on the merits of the treaty in preparation for a Senate vote in a possible second term. Meanwhile, efforts to negotiate a fissile material cutoff treaty to ban continued production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for use in nuclear weapons have been blocked by Pakistan. And though the president’s impressive record on nuclear material security rivals that of any previous administration, the second security summit in Seoul was rightly criticized for not moving the ball much beyond the original Washington summit.
And then there are Iran and North Korea.
Obama has pursued a mix of diplomatic engagement, biting sanctions, and covert cyberattacks to stem the progress of Iran’s nuclear program and to ensure it does not acquire nuclear weapons. To date, these measures have isolated and put unprecedented pressure on the ruling regime, but have not prevented Tehran from continuing to enrich uranium or from moving much of its nuclear program underground. Israel has threatened to take military action if the United States does not define clearer red lines for Iran’s nuclear program that would trigger a US military response. The Obama administration has repeatedly made it clear that it will neither launch a premature attack nor tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran. It has also rightly argued that there is still time for a diplomatic solution; after all, Iran has not made a political decision to acquire nuclear weapons and is not yet in a position to make a deliverable weapon. But recent talks involving the P5+1 and Iran have not reached a breakthrough. Election-year politics are not conducive to the compromises necessary to strike a deal with an adversary. Likewise the administration has met with little success in rolling back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, though it too is more isolated than ever.
As Obama hits the home stretch of his campaign for reelection, he has an impressive story to tell voters about the steps he has taken to protect the United States from the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. But there is still much work to do. What remains to be seen is whether or not President Obama will have the opportunity to finish what he started.
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