President Barack Obama’s practical approach to policy problems has produced a surprisingly large number of positive results in the foreign policy arena: renewed US relations with Myanmar and Cuba, the Nuclear Security Summits, the Iran nuclear deal, and New START, the US-Russia treaty reducing nuclear stockpiles. All these measures have been based on persistent negotiations and reframing issues to bring about dramatic change. It’s hard to argue with Obama’s incremental, consensus-building approach when it has proven so successful.
But when it comes to nuclear weapons, patient incrementalism may not always be sufficient. The greatest progress in arms control and weapons reduction has come when leaders took bold action in response to public outcry and world events. The 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union was the result, in part, of public distress at the effects of atmospheric nuclear testing. The Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1989, banning a class of nuclear weapons in Europe, responded to political shifts within the Soviet Union as well as demands by European citizens at the end of the Cold War. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s demise, US President George H.W. Bush undertook unilateral decreases in the US nuclear arsenal, and a few years later, under President Bill Clinton, the US created the Cooperative Threat Reduction program to dismantle former Soviet arsenals. In these cases in particular, to overcome bureaucratic inertia in the military industrial complex, US presidents used public outcry, legislative action, and the support of international partners to move the government from nuclear business as usual to rapid action. They bring to mind the oft-quoted lines of Daniel Burnham, the influential architect and urban planner who left his visionary stamp on many American cities:
“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”
Every day in Obama’s hometown of Chicago, we see the magic of Burnham’s master plan in the parks and avenues he laid out in the early 1900s. Although Burnham could not have conceived of the additions that grace these lands today—inventive modern sculptures, the Frank Gehry band shell, climbing walls, an ice skating ribbon—his plans and diagrams provided the imaginative scaffolding upon which marvelous public parks have been built.
Just as Burnham could not foresee all the developments to come to the lakefront park system he created, Obama understands that his goal of “peace and security in a world free of nuclear weapons”—as he articulated in a 2009 speech in Prague—will not be realized soon. Obama has expressed a vision, one that many in the United States and Russia have sought for decades. A vision without a concrete plan, though, is just a wish. Without big plans that provide “logical diagrams” to realize the vision, we may never see the day when nuclear weapons no longer threaten humanity.
This is not to say that no one has devised such plans. Dozens of blueprints have been produced, beginning with the US State Department’s own Acheson-Lilienthal report in 1946, and including publications by international expert commissions, UN documents, US National Academy reports, academic papers, and think tank briefings. Many have recommended that government leaders place nuclear weapons under international control, reduce their numbers, or in some cases eliminate them entirely.
Given the mountain of reports on how to deal with nuclear weapons, it is no wonder that a president might be skeptical about drawing up yet another plan. Yet if President Obama is serious about implementing his Prague vision, then he must create a diagram for future presidents and citizens to use as they work toward a world free of nuclear weapons.
A visit to Hiroshima next month would be the ideal place for Obama to unveil such a “logical diagram.” It should call for the United States and Russia to take weapons off high alert, reduce nuclear stockpiles, and pledge never to use nuclear weapons again. Among other measures, it should lay out plans to halt fissile material production, construct repositories for nuclear materials, and implement a ban on nuclear weapons, just as the world banned chemical and biological weapons. Such concrete steps laid out now will not come to fruition during Obama’s presidential term. But they can offer a solid scaffolding upon which to build a nuclear-weapon-free future for our children.