The Politics of Nuclear Policy in Washington, D.C.

Early this morning, Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, delivered the keynote address at the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization Preparatory Commission’s (CTBTO) Intensive Policy Course in Vienna, Austria. The CTBTO is working to bring into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a treaty that would ban all nuclear explosions globally.

Joe’s speech focused on the politics of nuclear policy in Washington, D.C. He described the nuclear policy landscape that the Obama Administration inherited when they came into office, specifically, the numerous proliferation challenges left over from the Bush Administration.  Fortunately, nuclear policy was an issue that the new President cared deeply about. He had been actively involved on the issue during his days in the Senate.

In his first major foreign policy address in Prague, President Obama set forth his vision for a world without nuclear weapons. Reduce the massive, outdated, Cold War nuclear arsenals, specifically in the United States and Russia, prevent a new nuclear state such as Iran and North Korea from acquiring the bomb, and secure the tons of nuclear materials that remain in order to ensure that they do not fall into the hands of terrorists.

His speech arrived at a great time, as a growing consensus was forming among policy experts that nuclear weapons are no longer an asset, but rather a liability.  In 2010, four veteran Cold Warriors — former Secretaries of Defense George Shultz and William Perry, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and former Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Sam Nunn — publically endorsed nuclear elimination in two major op-eds for the Wall Street Journal. These op-eds created the political space necessary to build this new consensus, endorsing arms control as a viable solution.

The Obama Administration used this new consensus and political space to negotiate the New START treaty with Russia, which stipulated lowering our deployed strategic arsenals to 1,500 nuclear weapons. After a tough battle in the Senate, the treaty was ratified on December 22, 2010, effectively pushing forward his efforts to reduce nuclear weapons.

Obama also convened the first ever Nuclear Security Summit held in Washington D.C. on April 12 and 13, 2010. The goal of the summit was to determine how to better safeguard fissile material stockpiles around the world and prevent nuclear terrorism.  Significant progress was made and a non-binding communiqué was issued that outlined the steps each nation agreed were necessary in order to improve global nuclear security.

The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review also significantly shifted US nuclear policy, ruling out new plans for additional nuclear weapons as well as the need for any new nuclear tests.

There is so much more to be done. Unfortunately, right now in Washington, we are entering the political doldrums that hit the town every four years. This is especially unfortunate because nuclear policy can be a winning issue for the Obama Administration. This is a legacy issue for the President. He has the chance to put his stamp on history by making deeper cuts to the nuclear arsenal, supporting a political solution to the situation in Iran, and working to ratify the CTBT.

The case for U.S. ratification of the CTBT has never been stronger. Despite serious conflicts, no nation has used a nuclear weapon since 1945. These conflicts have shown that when the U.S. military is forced to choose between conventional weapons and nuclear weapons, they don’t choose nuclear. In a potential second Obama Administration, it is likely that the President will pursue ratification of the CTBT. The treaty was initially championed by Eisenhower, achieved in a limited way by Kennedy, and was finally negotiated by Clinton. It would be a major victory if Obama can achieve ratification.

Sometimes, it seems impossible to make progress on this issue. But Joe reminds us that when people say that something is impossible, what they really mean is that it is just really hard.  Looking back through world history, we have overcome many obstacles that were seemingly impossible.  It is not easy, but it is possible.

To watch the full speech, click here. For the cliff notes version, follow @plough_shares on Twitter and check out the live tweets we sent during the address.

Photo by Senor G