Obama's Nuclear Offensive
President Obama's new nuclear security agenda has had to weather a brutal political environment, cynics inside and outside the administration, and Cold War politics in both Russia and the U.S. Senate. But one year after his historic speech in Prague, Obama has forged internal administration consensus, lined up his initiatives, and and won congressional supporters.
The Obama team is finally ready to take the field.
As I wrote in a new article for the International Institute for Strategic Studies journal, Survival, the new strategy will roll out in a tight sequence of reports, events, hearings, and votes over the first half of 2010. The goal is to retire our current Cold War nuclear policy and set a U.S. nuclear policy that prevents, deters, or defeats the diverse threats of the 21st century. The outcomes of these policy events will determine if that happens.
These interrelated events are slated to unfold in quick succession in what will be the busiest nuclear weapons policy season in decades. Each initiative is a major opportunity to strengthen the security of the United States.
Here's a rundown of what's likely in store for the next two months.
If It's Tuesday, It Must Be the Nuclear Posture Review: On Tuesday, April 6, we will likely have the release -- on-line and unclassified -- of the Nuclear Posture Review. This is the document that gives the President options for setting U.S. nuclear policy for the next 5-10 years. This will be the "narrative" that ties together all the policies. Look to see of Obama keeps his repeated pledge that the review will reduce the role of nuclear weapons and pave the way for deep reductions. Will it be policy transformation or Bush Lite? Early adopters should go to the Department of Defense's site for the posture review on Tuesday.
START: On Thursday, April 8, back in Prague, the President will join Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to sign the New START treaty. This follow-on treaty to the 1991 START treaty will verifiably limit U.S. and Russian strategic forces to levels not seen since the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. The treaty will be sent to the Senate and Russian Duma for hearings by late spring. The treaty is so clearly in U.S. national security interests that the Senate will likely consent to ratification by a big margin. But nuclear reactionaries and political foes will be manning the barricades to make this a bruising fight.
Nuclear Security Summit: On April 12-13 in Washington, Obama will convene 44 heads of state -- now including Chinese President Hu Jintao -- to pledge (in varying degrees) to secure nuclear weapons materials worldwide within four years. If they follow through, this strategy could effectively prevent nuclear terrorism by stopping radicals from getting the one part of the bomb they cannot make themselves. Never have so many leaders gathered on nuclear policy -- or in Washington. Can Obama get strong commitments? Will it be a bland communiqué or real joint action? Either way, don't drive to work in Washington those two days.
NPT Review Conference: From May 5-28, the 189 member states to the Nonproliferation Treaty will gather at the UN to review the performance of the treaty and discuss ways to strengthen their commitments to disarmament and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. Can states build a consensus for making it harder for nations to get nuclear weapons and easier for those that have them to give them up?
Banning the Bang: The delay in negotiating New START has made it very difficult to get Senate agreement on the nuclear test ban treaty this year. That treaty -- signed by President Clinton and 181 other states -- would make it harder for states to acquire nuclear weapons and for existing nuclear powers to make deadlier warheads. Before the treaty and its strong verifications tools can take full effect, the Senate needs to ratify it and several key nations need to be brought on board.
Two coming reports should strengthen the argument for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The first study, by the National Academy of Sciences, will analyze the United States' ability to maintain the existing nuclear arsenal without testing and assess the treaty's verifiability. The second, a National Intelligence Estimate will also update analysis on the treaty's verification tools. Consideration of the treaty is now likely delayed until 2011. Will key Republican Senators come out in support this year?
Nuclear Plays & Strategic Victories
Have no illusion. The administration's nuclear security agenda faces a long, difficult fight. Succeeding with any one issue requires the administration to overcome resistance from the bureaucracies, uncooperative international partners, and stiff opposition on Capital Hill.
The administration will have to drive its policies and manage a dysfunctional Senate. By August, midterm elections heat up and all of Washington takes a long timeout, ending serious policy development.
There will be successes and setbacks throughout this process. However, the tide may be turning in favor of transformation. The key strength of Obama's policy is that it is not really his idea -- the vision of the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons and the practical steps for advancing towards that goal now enjoy broad, bipartisan consensus.
As former Secretary of State Colin Powell said in the new movie Nuclear Tipping Point, "This is the moment when we have to move forward, and all of us come together, to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and then eliminate them from the face of the earth."