The Transformation of U.S. Nuclear Policy

President Barack Obama pledged in Prague on April 5, 2009, to pursue “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Key treaties, negotiations, and conferences in 2010 will demonstrate whether he can deliver on his pledge to develop a new U.S. strategy to reduce rising nuclear dangers.

Today’s Threats

The people of the world confront four types of nuclear threats. The first is the possibility of a terrorist group getting a nuclear weapon and detonating it in a major city. The second is the danger of an accidental, unauthorized, or intentional use of one of the existing 23,000 nuclear weapons held by nine nations today. The third is the emergence of new nuclear-armed nations: North Korea today, perhaps Iran tomorrow, and others to follow. The last is the possible collapse of the interlocking network of treaties and controls that has slowed, if not altogether prevented, the spread of nuclear weapons.

During the 1990s, smart policies reduced these threats:

  • The United States and Russia, who together have 96 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, negotiated treaties that drastically cut their arsenals.
  • Many states gave up nuclear weapons and weapon programs, including Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Iraq, and South Africa.
  • The United States, Russia, and other nations began programs to secure and reduce stocks of nuclear bomb materials, decreasing the risk that terrorists could get or make a bomb.
  • Dozens of nations joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty and worked together to strengthen and extend its global restraints to almost every nation in the world.

There were serious setbacks, however, including nuclear tests by India and Pakistan and developing programs in North Korea and Iran. In 2001, the administration of President George W. Bush adopted a strategy emphasizing U.S. military action to eliminate foreign regimes that it considered hostile and that might get nuclear weapons. This doctrine guided and supplied the justification for the war in Iraq.

The strategy failed. During the 2000s, the threats grew dramatically worse:

  • Al-Qaida-style terrorist groups spread while programs to secure nuclear materials failed to keep pace — raising the risk of nuclear terrorism.
  • The United States stopped negotiating reductions with Russia, and both nations drafted policies for using nuclear weapons against conventional targets, including underground bunkers.
  • The nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran accelerated, advancing more in the past five years than they had in the previous 15.
  • The nonproliferation regime weakened, with many fearing its collapse and the start of nuclear weapon programs in many new states.

New York Times reporter David Sanger wrote recently that, after it became clear Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, “Mr. Bush’s theory lost so much credibility that he stopped talking about what constituted an imminent or severe enough threat for America to act alone.”

New Policy

The Obama administration has a new strategic approach, one less unilateral than the Bush administration’s and more comprehensive than the Clinton administration’s.

It starts with a recognition that nuclear threats are connected. For example, failure to enforce nonproliferation treaty rules expands the probability of additional states developing nuclear weapons. This increases, in turn, the number of sites from which terrorists might get weapons. The reverse is also true: Large decreases in global nuclear arsenals could help generate the international cooperation needed to secure and eliminate nuclear materials, making it less likely terrorists could steal or build a bomb.

The Obama strategy recognizes the central role of U.S. nuclear policy in reducing the threats. “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act,” the president said in Prague. “We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it.”

Obama joined with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to negotiate new reductions in both nations’ weapons. While earlier U.S.–Russia joint statements often focused on the threat of other nations’ weapons, Obama and Medvedev on April 1, 2009, focused instead on their own weapons and their own obligations. They said:

“We committed our two countries to achieving a nuclear-free world, while recognizing that this long-term goal will require a new emphasis on arms control and conflict resolution measures, and their full implementation by all concerned nations.”

The emerging plan can be summarized as reduce, secure, and prevent. Work on all three levels would proceed simultaneously:

  • Reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world and their role in national security strategies — beginning with the United States and Russia but eventually including all nuclear-armed states.
  • Secure all stockpiles of nuclear weapons materials, preventing nuclear terrorism and building international cooperation.
  • Prevent the emergence of new nuclear states through a combination of tough sanctions to penalize states that violate their treaty obligations and realistic engagement to offer these states a more secure non-nuclear future.

Tying these practical steps together is the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. Once considered a utopian ideal, the elimination of nuclear weapons is now embraced by a bipartisan alliance among many of America’s leading national security thinkers. Since their January 2007 joint op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, Republicans George Shultz and Henry Kissinger (both former secretaries of state) and Democrats William Perry (former secretary of defense) and Sam Nunn (former U.S. senator) have led a campaign for global nuclear weapons abolition and for practical steps — such as those in the Obama plan — for moving towards that goal.

Two-thirds of the living former national security advisers and secretaries of state and defense, including James Baker, Colin Powell, Melvin Laird, Frank Carlucci, Warren Christopher, and Madeleine Albright, have endorsed their vision. Dozens of organizations and research institutes now promote this vision and these steps. The Obama plan thus represents a broad consensus of leading American security experts and former officials.

Trouble Ahead

However logical on paper, the Obama strategy must overcome formidable political and practical obstacles.

Most visible is the opposition of nuclear weapons proponents. Editorials in some conservative publications denounce the administration’s approach as weak and naïve. This argument is sustained by some conservative commentators and think tanks who uphold Cold War assumptions about the deterrent value of a large nuclear arsenal, do not trust verification regimes, or simply reject arms control as an approach to international security.

But true nuclear hawks are few in number, “clinging,” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says, to nuclear weapons and the failed policies of the past century.

Perhaps a more critical obstacle is the competition for the president’s time and energy from other pressing crises. Rarely in American history has a new president inherited such a broad array of problems, including two wars, a worldwide recession, a health care crisis, an energy crisis, a deeply divided political system, and the global unpopularity of some recent U.S. policies. Though nuclear policy is an important and personal priority for President Obama, it must compete with other issues for his sustained attention.

The president has identified another obstacle: a cynicism that spans the political spectrum. “Such fatalism,” he argues, “is our deadly adversary.” One sees this fatalism in the thought of those who believe that security in a world with fewer or without nuclear weapons would be unverifiable. Or in those who argue that nuclear disarmament is desirable but unachievable, not worth wasted effort. And in those who think it both desirable and achievable, but not by this administration.

Obama addressed all these critics when he told his Prague audience: “There are those who hear talk of a world without nuclear weapons and doubt whether it’s worth setting a goal that seems impossible to achieve. ... We know where that road leads. ... When we fail to pursue peace, then it stays forever beyond our grasp.”

Obama’s success can be measured by his ability to meet a number of goals he has set for his administration:

  • Senate approval of a new nuclear reduction treaty with the Russians.
  • A new declaratory posture that reduces the role of nuclear weapons and opens the door to deeper negotiated cuts.
  • Agreement on a joint plan at the president’s Nuclear Security Summit this April to secure all nuclear weapon materials in four years.
  • A Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in May that unites nations around real enforcement of treaty rules.
  • Senate approval of the 1996 nuclear test ban treaty.

Those deeds would turn the promise of Prague into the genuine transformation of U.S. nuclear policy.


This article appears in the February 2010 issue of eJournal USA, A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.

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