Obama in Berlin: Empty aspiration or inspiration to action?

By Bulletin Staff | June 19, 2013

In his speech delivered on Wednesday at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, President Barack Obama reprised history and tried to evoke the solidarity that linked Germany and the United States during the Iron Curtain era. Coming almost exactly 50 years after President John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” address, Obama’s speech repeatedly touched on the resilience of those who fought against communism and for personal freedom throughout the Cold War. The speech also dealt with recent revelations about covert electronic surveillance by US intelligence (a particularly touchy subject in Germany, given its history of secret service abuses) and with the need for the international community to address global climate change.

Primarily, however, Obama used the address to voice his nuclear arms policy goals, asserting his support for a one-third reduction in deployed US strategic nuclear weapons and for “bold” cuts in US and Russian tactical weapons in Europe. His administration will work to build support for the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the president said, and it will “call on all nations to begin negotiations on a treaty that ends the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons.”

The Bulletin asked an array of prominent nuclear weapons experts for their assessments of Obama’s Berlin speech. All of the appraisals agreed with the general aims Obama laid out in Berlin on nuclear weapons policy. A surprising number, however, questioned whether the president’s words could, would, or were even meant to be translated into action.

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Topics: Nuclear Weapons


Graham Allison, Harvard Kennedy School, director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs,

We should applaud President Obama for shining the spotlight again on nuclear danger. Amidst the swirl of urgent issues pressing upon his agenda, he demonstrates a great capacity to remember what is important.

The aspirations he articulated demand international attention. If these are to be achieved, the administration will now have to shape specific strategies and plans of action for each.

Those of us who follow these issues should not be shy in offering our best ideas about how these ambitions can become accomplishments. If and as they do so, we will all live in a safer world.

Thomas Pickering, , former US ambassador to the United Nations, India, and Russia,

President Obama, with the support of his military and civilian advisors, added a further set of steps to his continued effort to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons. He proposed that the United States would be willing to cut by one-third our operational nuclear weapons currently set at 1,550 under the New Start treaty.

He further added that he wanted a negotiated agreement with Russia, but advisors signaled he was willing, if that were not available, to see both sides reduce unilaterally. The absence of a treaty might once again raise the problem of weak verification as that absence lifted the requirement for ratification.

Without details, he pledged continued efforts at nonproliferation with Iran and North Korea. No mention was made of Rowhani’s election as president of Iran, but he treated carefully in his language the fact that Iran has not yet developed a nuclear weapon, according to US intelligence.

Some Russian commentators argued that reductions could not take place without some shift in the US position on ballistic missile defense (BMD). They apparently overlooked the fact that the president opened the door to US-Russian cooperation in this arena through his cancellation several months ago of the fourth version of a BMD interceptor with capabilities that concerned the Russians, given its design capacity to impact their offensive force.

He urged ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but gave no indication of when it would be put before the Senate for advice and consent.

Lawrence J. Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former assistant defense secretary, and Alex Rothman, policy analyst, the Center for American Progress, , ,

Since taking office, President Obama has made nuclear nonproliferation one of his signature foreign policy issues—reaffirming the United States’ commitment to working toward a world free of nuclear weapons, focusing international attention on the threat of nuclear terrorism, and providing “rogue” countries like Iran and North Korea with strong incentives to halt their nuclear programs.

The Obama administration’s announcement today that the United States is willing to work with Russia to jointly reduce their nuclear stockpiles below New START levels—to about 1,000 deployed weapons each—is yet another sign of this historic commitment.

Yet from both a strategic and a budgetary perspective, there is no reason for the United States not to make these reductions unilaterally. Our massive nuclear arsenal is a relic of the Cold War and largely useless in combatting the threats facing the nation today. We possess far more warheads than are necessary for deterrence and a secure second-strike capability; according to the Air War College and School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, our deterrence goals can be accomplished with an arsenal of just 311 nuclear weapons. Further, these reductions will save the country $58 billion over the next decade by allowing the Defense Department to scale back its plans to build new nuclear delivery systems, according to estimates by the Arms Control Association.

At a time when sequestration has forced the government to slash funding for critical domestic programs like Head Start, the Environmental Protection Agency, and infrastructure investments, the country simply cannot afford to continue wasting taxpayer dollars on outdated weapons programs that do nothing to enhance our security. We shouldn’t wait on Russia to reduce this wasteful federal spending.

Jim Walsh, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, research associate, Security Studies,

It is difficult to know what to make of the president’s speech. Of course, one welcomes his commitment to reduce the strategic nuclear arsenal and his continued support for securing fissile materials. Still, the speech was aspirational rather than practical. He wants a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a ban on the production of the fissile material, but surely he knows that it is unlikely that either will happen any time soon, the former because of a hostile Senate and the latter because of a hostile Pakistan, which has so far vetoed such a ban. And while many of his supporters would endorse eliminating tactical weapons, closing Guantanamo, “controlling” drones, and action on climate change, most of the items on this list were promised four years ago.

In the wake of the revelations about the National Security Agency’s domestic spying, his quote from James Madison—"No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare"—was particularly jarring. On that topic specifically, he emphasized the need for a public debate, a deeply ironic statement given that the program was run in secret and only became public because of a leak. If this debate were so important, why did it have to wait all these years?

The optimist in me hopes that this speech marks a return by the president to his first principles, and that pretty words will be followed by substantive action. The cynic in me suspects that the remarks were aimed at his Democratic base here in the United States, a base whose support has plummeted in the wake of the NSA scandal. The notion of “peace with justice” will certainly appeal to those supporters, but tangible results and promises kept will count for more.

Pavel Podvig, Stanford University, research associate, Center for International Security and Cooperation,

When President Obama declared in his speech in Berlin that the United States can safely reduce its strategic nuclear arsenal by up to a third–which would bring it to the level of about 1,000 deployed warheads–it was hardly news. This option was the least radical and therefore the safest of the proposals that his administration was reported to consider. The news that everybody was waiting for was whether Obama would be ready to make these reductions unilaterally. He wasn’t. The speech and the new Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy that was released shortly afterward leave little doubt that the reductions would come only as part of “negotiated cuts with Russia.” Given the political realities in Washington, it is an understandable decision, but it is also a wrong one.

Russia, for many reasons, most of them internal, is not going to engage in a new round of nuclear arms reductions any time soon. But there is no reason why the United States could not reduce the number of its operationally deployed warheads down 1,000 or even less unilaterally, while still keeping the New START limit. To preserve its leverage in future negotiations with Russia, the United States could simply move warheads to active reserve and keep open the option of bringing them back. It many ways this would not be a real reduction of nuclear forces, but it would be a very bold step that could help end the situation when every nuclear disarmament step is a hostage to Russia’s intransigence. 

Kingston Reif, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, director of nuclear nonproliferation,

President Obama outlined a series of initiatives he plans to pursue in his second term to advance the nuclear threat reduction agenda he first laid out in Prague over four years ago. Updating US nuclear strategy to comport with the realities of the 21st century is long overdue, and if implemented the steps outlined by the President will strengthen US national and fiscal security.

The most notable announcement from the speech is that the president has updated high-level nuclear weapons policy guidance, paving the way for up to a one-third reduction in deployed strategic nuclear warheads with Russia below the New START limit of 1,550 warheads.

This new guidance was the result of a careful and thorough Pentagon-led interagency review of US nuclear deterrence requirements that has the full support of the US military and US Strategic Command. It updates guidance that had not been reexamined in over a decade, since the beginning of the George W. Bush administration. Since then the international security environment has changed dramatically.

There is an emerging bipartisan and military consensus that a significantly smaller stockpile would meet our security needs and those of our allies. Further bilateral nuclear weapons reductions would reduce the Russian nuclear threat and set the stage to include other nuclear powers such as China in the arms control process.
In this time of economic uncertainty, updating US nuclear strategy could also create significant cost savings that would free funding for higher-priority security programs. According to one estimate, the United States could save $58 billion over the next decade if it reduced its arsenal to the still-enormous level of 1,000 deployed strategic warheads.

The president has identified the right priorities. Ultimately, however, he will be judged not on his words, but on his success in fulfilling this agenda.

Greg Mello, Los Alamos Study Group, executive director,

The import of this speech is minimal in most respects. In key respects, the administration means very nearly the opposite of what it seems to say today. In April the Obama administration unveiled a massive program of nuclear modernization, which was nowhere mentioned today. This program will cost literally hundreds of billions of dollars over three decades. 

When the president says he will “work to build support in the United States to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty,” he really means a larger wave of spending by the crony contractors who run the nuclear weapons complex.

We urge everyone to look into the president's actions—and the lack thereof—not his words. The words and actions are far from aligned. It is up to all of us to ensure that President Obama's nuclear legacy will not lie in nuclear modernization and the perfection of propaganda that aims to guide us to the opposite conclusion.

Lisbeth Gronlund, Union of Concerned Scientists, senior scientist and co-director, the Global Security Program,

In his speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate this morning, President Obama announced that the United States will work with Russia to reduce the number of both countries’ deployed strategic nuclear weapons as well as the number of US and Russian tactical weapons in Europe. 
We applaud this step. The Berlin wall fell more than two decades ago, and these reductions are long overdue. The president’s initiative implicitly acknowledges that today nuclear weapons are a liability, not an asset. 
However, the United States need not wait for Russia to reduce its nuclear arsenal. It can maintain a robust deterrent with less than 1,000 nuclear weapons—including strategic and tactical, deployed and stored—independent of Russia’s arsenal. Maintaining more weapons than needed undercuts U.S. security and wastes taxpayer dollars. These reductions should be accompanied by other measures to bolster national security and distance ourselves from outdated, Cold War thinking. For example, the United States still maintains nuclear land-based missiles on high alert so they can be launched quickly in the event of an attack. This practice is dangerous because it increases the risk of a Russian accidental or inadvertent launch, which could destroy the United States as a functioning society. It is also unnecessary because US nuclear missiles on submarines are invulnerable to attack and provide an overwhelming deterrent. Accordingly, the United States should eliminate its launch-under-attack options and urge Russia to follow suit. Finally, in conjunction with the president’s speech, the White House issued a fact sheet on Wednesday morning that stated the administration is narrowing the focus of US nuclear strategy to “only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners. President Obama should go further by declaring that the only purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter, and if necessary respond to, the use of nuclear weapons by another country.

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