Commentary

Yes He Can: Obama’s First Step Toward Zero

in Program

By Elise Connor – Since his inauguration, President Barack Obama has reinvigorated the international quest for disarmament and nonproliferation, bringing the nuclear debate to the forefront of his foreign policy agenda. Through his April 2009 speech in Prague committing America to nuclear disarmament leadership to the Global Nuclear Security Summit in advance of the NPT review conference, Obama has taken the first steps to achieving this ambitious goal. The President’s oratory in this area has been inspiring, but he must avoid criticism of empty rhetoric and use the upcoming political and diplomatic opportunities to make meaningful progress in the next six months.

Obama can begin by successfully concluding a follow-on to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which will signify a renewed commitment to nuclear restraint by the two countries whose nuclear arsenals make up 96% of worldwide stockpiles. However, the former Cold War adversaries should not expect the world to be satisfied by grand promises. While this argument may not find favor with hard-line advocates of the status quo, it remains a crucial first step on the path to zero.

President Obama must ensure that the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) matches his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. Past NPRs have fallen victim to the desires of nuclear bureaucrats in the Pentagon. President Obama should ensure that US military planning aligns with US diplomatic goals. The NPR should both enhance national security and send the right message to the international community.

Obama’s next major opportunity is the April 2010 Global Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC. The President should use this highly publicized forum to capture international attention and engage the public in his nuclear policy agenda. Never before have so many heads of state convened specifically to discuss vulnerable nuclear materials and how to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism. This summit could be a hallmark of Obama’s presidency if he achieves a summit-wide consensus on the need for more stringent nuclear security measures.

If successful, the Global Nuclear Security Summit will create momentum that will carry over to the NPT Review Conference. Summit participants must be careful not to force Summit decisions on the Review Conference. All nations should have the opportunity to voice their support and concerns regarding these initiatives. Concrete plans to reduce stockpiles and secure nuclear material on the part of the P-5 will quiet criticism that the nuclear weapons states are not adhering to their Article VI disarmament commitments.

A final way to signify US commitment to leadership in nuclear security would be to resubmit the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to the Senate for ratification. However, this should only be done when the Senate has the appetite for another arms control treaty. If START does not pass easily, the Obama administration and the Foreign Relations Committee should tread carefully when determining a timeline for reintroduction. The CTBT should not be up for debate unless the Obama administration has undertaken a rigorous campaign to gain support for the treaty’s ratification, enlisting Senate champions, NGOs, the intelligence community, and Department of Energy scientists who can vouch for its verifiability. The CTBT is one of Obama’s highest priorities, and it would be catastrophic to his nuclear agenda if the treaty failed as it did in 1999, when it became the first major treaty to fail in the US Senate since the Treaty of Versailles.

Arms control advocates have many reasons to be hopeful. The United States has not had a President so committed to arms control in decades. After a new START agreement is signed, new ideas are generated at the Global Nuclear Security Summit, and commitments are strengthened at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, new coalitions must be built. It is important for the US to capitalize on this energy by engaging in bilateral diplomacy with nations that are less willing to subscribe to the concept of nuclear abolition. Non-signatories to the NPT who possess nuclear weapons should be particular targets of US diplomacy. India, Pakistan, and Israel-all nations entrenched in regional security uncertainties-must be addressed with care. Negotiating for nuclear reductions is certainly a complex and sensitive subject, but open discussions amongst state parties are the only hope for taking worldwide nuclear arsenals from 23,000 to zero.

Photo Credit: Chuck Kennedy/White House Photo


Elise Connor was a research intern with the Managing Across Boundaries program.

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