Obama’s Nuclear Legacy

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Experts from the nonpartisan Stimson Center analyze President Obama’s nuclear legacy in light of the conclusion of the final Nuclear Security Summit in Washington D.C. The summit  — which brought more than 50 world leaders to Washington last week to discuss nuclear security issues  — came seven years after President Obama made a commitment to seek a world without nuclear weapons.

Barry Blechman, Co-Founder, Stimson Center:  “President Obama entered office seeking to eliminate nuclear weapons from all nations. He leaves with three accomplishments: The START Treaty, which maintains caps on U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear weapons; an agreement delaying Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by 10-15 years; and progress toward securing fissile materials, thus making it harder for terrorists to build nuclear bombs. His major legacy, however, is a new nuclear arms race: both the U.S. and Russia are spending tens of billions to modernize their forces, while China, India, and Pakistan are all building larger nuclear arsenals of their own.”  

Debra Decker, Senior Advisor, Stimson Center: “President Obama’s legacy is his ability to find common ground with countries, in spite of difficult challenges. On nuclear security, this is truly evident. With China, despite hard differences over human rights and the South China Sea, the U.S. helped China develop its Center of Excellence for Nuclear Security; the two have vowed to continue to work together on nuclear security. The same is true with Russia. Despite President Putin’s absence from the summit, Russia and the United States will co-chair the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. Will such pragmatic security cooperation continue into the next administration?” 

Brian Finlay, President and CEO, Stimson Center: “The president’s record on securing the American people from the threat of nuclear weapons is a mixed bag. Like his predecessors, the president arrived in Washington with a grand design to reduce global weapons stockpiles and eliminate loose materials, but in reality, budgetary trade-offs, global circumstances, and political timidity leaves his successor with a substantial to do list.” 

Johanna Mendelson FormanSenior Advisor, Stimson Center: “President Obama’s problems in Latin America until the recent diplomatic rapprochement with Cuba, underscore another policy gap that comes into focus at the close of this nuclear summit: the lack of a concerted policy to address proliferation in a region of the world that for almost half a century has been a successful nuclear free zone. In a region where transnational criminal organizations and violence dominant many countries, there have been little resources dedicated to helping countries in the region prevent illicit transfers of nuclear materials. Insecure borders, weak national police forces, and unguarded port facilities, that are often the source of the transshipment of other goods like narcotics, are also in need of funds and policies that ensure the Western Hemisphere — from Mexico to Patagonia — remains a symbol of successful non-proliferation. This is an opportunity lost.”

Laicie HeeleyFellow, Stimson Center: “The security summits have delivered real progress — they mark a major step forward in keeping weapons-usable nuclear materials out of the wrong hands. But the summits must be a start — not an end — to an ongoing high-level international effort to prevent an incident of nuclear terrorism. Major challenges remain. It’s unacceptable that 70 years after the introduction of nuclear weapons, the international community still doesn’t have a standard, comprehensive, and measurable set of best practices for securing dangerous nuclear materials around the globe.”

Michael Krepon, Co-Founder, Stimson Center: “President Obama’s nuclear legacy is mixed, as is evident by his efforts to diminish stocks of fissile material that could be used by extremists to make ‘dirty’ bombs or improvised nuclear devices. He gets high marks for making this a priority and for convening a series of nuclear security summits. The administration’s biggest shortcomings relate to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a Code of Conduct for outer space. The CTBT never received the attention Mr. Obama promised; only modest preparatory work has been done to advance public and U.S. Senate understanding of the treaty’s value. As for space, the State Department ‘led from behind’ the European Union on the Code of Conduct, which was a recipe for failure. The State Department has yet to take ownership of the Code, despite the importance of space as a domain for potential conflict or cooperation.”
Founded in 1989, the Stimson Center is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank devoted to addressing transnational challenges in order to enhance global peace and economic prosperity.

Photo credit: minister-president via Flickr
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