Obama's Nuclear Arms Challenge

Washington Matters

Obama's Nuclear Arms Challenge

The work isn’t over with the treaty signing ceremony.

President Obama seems to be on quite a foreign policy roll lately.

The first strategic arms reduction treaty between the U.S. and Russia in seven years was signed in Prague, Czech Republic, with great presidential pomp on April 8, just two weeks after the bilateral deal was struck.

The dramatic revamp of U.S. nuclear weapons doctrine was announced April 6 and embraced by the Secretary of Defense -- a Republican holdover from the Bush administration -- and also from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Plus, one of the largest gatherings of world leaders in nearly 60 years is set to take place in Washington April 12-13 with the aim of locking down dangerous nuclear material to keep it from falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue states.

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By all appearances, and certainly by his rhetoric, President Obama is on a tear to justify the Nobel Peace Prize he accepted with so much marked modesty last December in Oslo.


The reality is rather more prosaic. The Nuclear Posture Review is meant to take place roughly every four years. This one was long overdue -- the last one was sent to Congress just a few months after 9/11. Yes, it’s a novelty to have so much of the latest report unclassified and freely available, but the document contains few surprises. It formally names nuclear proliferation and terrorism as the leading areas of concern for U.S. nuclear policy. In practice, that’s been the case since former President Bush delivered his 2002 State of the Union address, gave us the phrase “Axis of Evil” and started beating the drums for war in Iraq.

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty -- or New START, as the administration has dubbed it -- is also several months behind schedule. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev first announced plans to negotiate the treaty over a year ago. The 1991 START I agreement, which New START is designed to replace, expired in December. And even with the new treaty signed, the diplomats still have to work out a number of annexes. It’ll be weeks, if not months, before the White House sends it to the Senate for ratification. Odds are that the clock will run out on the current session of Congress before the treaty can come up for a vote.

The treaty itself isn’t particularly controversial, at least from the U.S. standpoint. If ratified, the U.S. and Russia agree to cut their respective strategic nuclear arsenals by roughly one-third, to a ceiling of 1,550 warheads, 800 launchers and 700 deployed delivery vehicles -- a catch-all that includes ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers. It specifically excludes constraints on U.S. missile defenses, a point that will garner enough bipartisan support to win eventual Senate passage.

But the debate doesn’t end with the treaty signing.


Obama and other administration officials are plumping New START as a platform for much more radical reductions in the global nuclear arsenal: Slashing the number of strategic warheads from thousands to hundreds, expanding arms treaties to include tactical weapons and enacting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The last of these is a nonstarter even with the current makeup of the Senate, and it’s likely to slip further out of reach with Republican gains in November. Too many members have too many objections to the treaty as it stands, particularly regarding its mechanism for verification.

Also, meeting the other two goals depends on getting far more cooperation from the Kremlin than the current regime will provide. While Obama and the Pentagon want to reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons in favor of conventional ones, the Putin government still sees nukes as essential, both to Russia’s national security and to its claims to great-power status. It’s likely to balk at deeper cuts to the country’s arsenal -- particularly its tactical weapons, where Russia maintains a considerable lead over the U.S.

Russia might go along with some additional cuts to the number of strategic warheads, but there’s only so far the two countries can go down that path before they have to bring smaller nuclear powers into the talks. Britain has long had mixed emotions about nuclear weapons, and France unilaterally cut its nuclear weapon arsenal by a third two years ago. But China is another story.


Which brings us to next week’s Nuclear Security Summit. The more parties involved in such a large and high-level negotiation, the harder it is to reach agreement on anything. That much we’ve seen in recent years, with the repeated failures to conclude the Doha round of world trade talks and the Copenhagen summit to develop a new agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced virtually at the last minute that he wouldn’t be attending, after he learned that Turkey and Egypt were likely to raise awkward public questions about Israel’s nuclear weapons -- officially undeclared, but one of the worst-kept secrets in the Middle East. Another thorny issue at the summit: Neither India nor Pakistan will willingly accept inspections of their arsenals or related nuclear materials.

Add it all together and it’s easy to see that any document coming out of the conference will reflect the lowest common denominator.

What must be remembered in all this, and what the administration has done a poor job of communicating, is that all these efforts are geared toward a single goal: Reducing the global threat of nuclear weapons. Not just from Iran, North Korea or terrorists, but from any hostile power, ever.

Talk about a tall order. Obama has long since lost any post-election halo he had in the U.S., even though he still gets high marks in foreign policy and diplomacy in many overseas capitals. Also, his administration is eager to turn attention full time to the domestic economy and jobs. Plus, his domestic political capital has been heavily spent already on health care, and he’s bracing for Democratic losses in Congress later this year.

Being perceived as being on a foreign policy roll is important, though. In foreign policy, perhaps more than in any other realm of politics, perceptions have the power to shape reality. For that reason, the president must be seen at least as trying.