Remembering the Prague Speech

On April 5th, 2009, two years ago today, young President Barack Obama rose to the podium in Hradčany Square at the heart of historic Prague, Czech Republic. In one of his most eloquent and significant foreign policy speeches, Obama took up the mantle of American leadership and reoriented U.S. policy towards the goal of a nuclear weapon-free world.

“Today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” said Barack Obama, barely two months into his presidency.

It was not a policy rooted in idealism or naiveté. Rather it recognized the concrete steps necessary to begin the long journey of persistent nuclear reductions and most importantly normalized the goal of nuclear zero for decades to come.

The Prague Agenda was laid out with four main objectives:

  1. Reduce the total number and role that nuclear weapons play in the defense postures of nuclear-armed nations
  2. Strengthen the international nonproliferation regime by holding rogue states accountable
  3. Secure loose and vulnerable nuclear materials around the world while strengthening international cooperation on nuclear security
  4. Support the safe and secure growth of nuclear power in ways that reduce the spread of dangerous technologies

Despite the well-known ups and downs of his tenure in office, President Obama has largely stuck to his nuclear principles and elevated the level of discussion around the long-sought vision of a nuclear weapon-free world. The vision, codified in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, preached by Ronald Reagan, endorsed by the Four Horsemen, and resurrected by Barack Obama, remains key to ensuring the safety and security of the United States. 

Despite major successes like the Nuclear Posture Review, the Nuclear Security Summit, and the New START Treaty, much work remains to be done. Ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is necessary to stem the production of new nuclear weapons and limit dangerous and destabilizing posturing between nuclear states. The negotiation of a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty must move forward (with or without the Conference on Disarmament) to stop the flow of the dangerous ingredients for nuclear warheads. The United States and Russia must reach an agreement to cooperate on ballistic missile defense in order to build confidence for further reduction of nuclear weapons, both strategic and non-strategic. None of these tasks will easy and they are only the part of a larger plan, but the work is already underway.

It will be an uphill battle, no corners can be cut, and progress must often be made incrementally. Still, it is clear that the vision of a nuclear-free world is alive and well in 2011.

The reasons for such a policy have not changed in the last two years. Assessing the threat in 2009, Obama remarked: “Today, the Cold War has disappeared but thousands of those weapons have not. In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.” Terrorists still seek to buy, build, or steal nuclear material and thousands of nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, threatening to be launched by accident, miscalculation, or madness.

We need not live under this shadow of nuclear annihilation much longer. Leadership and persistence on concrete policy goals can alter the course of history. As Obama concluded in Prague, “Human destiny will be what we make of it. Here, in Prague, let us honor our past by reaching for a better future. Let us bridge our divisions, build upon our hopes, and accept our responsibility to leave this world more prosperous and more peaceful than we found it.”

Two years hence the United States must continue to embrace the vision of a nuclear-free world. It is desirable, it is possible, and it is necessary.