What Obama should say on nuclear weapons

By Kingston Reif | June 18, 2013

One of the many rumors echoing around Washington, DC, is that President Barack Obama will soon deliver a speech outlining his second term nuclear policy priorities. While the exact date of the address is uncertain, the president may touch on nuclear issues as early as June 19 in Berlin, Germany, where he is scheduled to speak at the Brandenburg Gate.

Since first outlining an ambitious nuclear risk-reduction agenda in an April 2009 speech, the president has negotiated a new nuclear arms control agreement with Russia, overseen modest revisions to nuclear-weapons strategy through the Nuclear Posture Review, and led a renewed global push to lock down weapons-usable materials. However, this agenda lost momentum and focus during the second half of his first term. Since his reelection last November, the president has taken only baby steps to pick up where he left off. In May he sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin that reportedly contained a proposal for cooperation on missile defense and a framework for further nuclear weapons reductions below the levels called for in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

So what does Obama plan next? The time has come for him to describe in greater detail his second-term nuclear security goals, as well as his strategies for achieving them. In particular, Obama should tout the security and financial benefits of further nuclear reductions, warn of the dangers of relying too heavily on nuclear weapons, and put forward initiatives that the United States can implement immediately and unilaterally—three themes that were given short shrift in his 2009 speech.

President Obama and high-ranking administration officials have said that even after New START, the United States will have more nuclear weapons than are required to maintain security. But they have shied away from explaining how further nuclear reductions would enhance US security, which gives the impression that the president only seeks further cuts for the sake of further cuts.

In his next speech on nuclear weapons, Obama should do more than simply state that the United States has more weapons than it needs. Instead, he should explain that the current US arsenal of nearly 5,000 deployed and reserve weapons is driven by Cold War-era assumptions that no longer apply. Specifically, the United States still targets and prepares its forces to promptly carry out a disarming first strike against Russia’s similarly-postured forces, meaning each side must keep at least as many nuclear weapons as the other. Given that Washington and Moscow are no longer enemies, retaining the ability to preemptively target Russia’s nuclear weapons is flagrantly anachronistic and needlessly increases the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch. Moreover, it contributes nothing to deterrence—that is, the ability to prevent Russia from deliberately using nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies. Even if the United States wanted to launch a disarming nuclear first strike against Russia, it could not do so without inviting a devastating Russian nuclear response. If the United States stopped insisting on targeting Russia’s nuclear forces, it would require far fewer weapons than the 1,550 strategic warheads it plans to keep deployed under New START.

Putting to rest the Cold War thinking behind US nuclear strategy would help make the case for another round of bilateral reductions with Russia. As I detailed in a column earlier this year, mutual reductions would reduce the Russian nuclear threat and set the stage to include other nuclear powers such as China in the arms control process.

President Obama should also emphasize the enormous financial expense of sustaining the current stockpile. Modernizing US nuclear warheads, their delivery systems, and the infrastructure that supports them will cost hundreds of billions of dollars over the next two to three decades. This is a steep price to pay for excess, especially in a time of budget austerity. 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 rightly stated that so long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States must maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter any adversary and guarantee the same defense to US allies. But he should add that it is neither affordable nor wise to retain a pointlessly large arsenal at all costs.

President Obama should also carve out space in his speech to discuss what the United States learned from its Cold War nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, and what those lessons tell us about the utility of nuclear weapons today. The role of nuclear weapons in US security policy continues to shrink, but other nuclear-armed countries such as Russia, India, and Pakistan appear to be placing a greater emphasis on these weapons and considering new missions for them.  

During the Cold War, US efforts to strengthen the credibility of its deterrent by building more and different kinds of weapons did not bring greater security. Defense officials experimented with and attempted to implement elaborate schemes to tailor deterrence to different adversaries, control nuclear escalation, and fight limited nuclear wars, but these labors repeatedly floundered against the reality that the United States and Russia had more than enough weapons to destroy one another. If anything, America’s nuclear strategy experiments heightened mutual suspicion, made crises more dangerous, and contributed to an unparalleled arms race. Furthermore, though nuclear weapons may have helped deter large-scale aggression, the Cuban Missile Crisis and other brushes with disaster during and since the Cold War demonstrate that nuclear deterrence is not foolproof. It is susceptible to misperception, miscalculation, technical failure, and accident.

Some may argue that, delivered by a US president, such reminders would come across as patronizing to the other nuclear-armed states, given that the United States relied so heavily on nuclear weapons during the Cold War. However, in being honest about the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear weapons, President Obama can help define principles for the responsible stewardship of these weapons that other nuclear-armed states can be pressured to follow.

Another objective of a presidential speech on nuclear weapons should be to outline unilateral initiatives that the United States can take that are aimed at increasing security and preparing for further bilateral and multilateral threat-reduction efforts. While significant nuclear weapons reductions will likely require Russian reciprocity, Obama can breathe life into arms control by suggesting steps that do not require cooperation.

For example, President Obama could announce that he has instructed the military to begin moving away from targeting Russian nuclear forces with nuclear weapons and encourage Russia to follow-suit. He could also make public the total size of the US nuclear weapons stockpile, information that was declassified for the first time in 2010 but has not been updated since. This would put added pressure on other nuclear-armed states to be more transparent about the size of their arsenals. In addition, the US President could announce near-term steps to reduce the risk of an accidental nuclear exchange with Russia. A 2003 RAND Corporation report outlined nearly a dozen possible options, including pulling US nuclear ballistic missile submarines away from Russia, reducing the launch readiness of a portion of US land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and removing the W88, the most powerful US nuclear warhead, from the deployed arsenal.

A major speech by Obama on nuclear policy would send the message to his national security team, Congress, the American people, and the rest of the world that nuclear threat reduction will be one of his top priorities for the remainder his presidency. Ultimately, of course, President Obama’s legacy will not be determined by his words, but by his actions.

Together, we make the world safer.

The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent nonprofit organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.

Get alerts about this thread
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


Receive Email