Even now, Barack Obama is being hailed as a transformer for the vision of a “world without nuclear weapons” he articulated during his first year in office. The 44th US president has left an indelible mark on the nuclear debate, but his policies have failed to live up to the hope he has inspired.
Obama established nuclear disarmament as a key foreign policy objective in April 2009. Speaking at Hradčany Square in Prague, he rejected the logic of deterrence as a form of fatalism and committed the US to seeking the “peace and security of a world” where nuclear weapons were obsolete.
It was a watershed moment. As has been noted elsewhere, Obama’s predecessors had spoken of pursuing nuclear disarmament, but none had made “global zero” a strategic objective.
The contrast with the George W Bush years was particularly stark. Seeing arms-control treaties as a constraint on US foreign policy and difficult to enforce in practice, Obama’s predecessor did little to promote disarmament. Indeed, his administration explored expanding the role of nuclear warfare in US foreign policy: pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to pursue a missile defence system and proposing a nuclear bunker-buster weapon.
In this context, the Prague address was radical. Global zero would “not be reached quickly – perhaps not even in my lifetime,” he conceded, but it could be achieved through international cooperation. The first step was to “ignore the voices who tell us the world cannot change” and insist “Yes, we can”. Ten months later, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Visions and policy gaps
Since that first speech, Obama has sought to keep his vision alive. In September 2009 he sent Hillary Clinton to the UN’s Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) conference. It was both the first time the US had participated in ten years and the first time it had sent a secretary of state as its delegate. Ten months later, the US established a new forum for international discussion, hosting the first Nuclear Security Summit. Acts like these were largely symbolic but underlined the depth of Obama’s conviction.
Obama made his most memorable gesture of all on May 27 of this year when he became the first serving US president to visit Hiroshima. Despite domestic and international opposition, he reaffirmed his commitment to disarmament in a speech at the city’s Peace Memorial Park and reflected on the horror of nuclear war.
Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder a terrible force unleashed in the not-so-distant past.
We come to mourn the dead … their souls speak to us, they ask us to look inward, take stock of who we are and what we might become.
Yet for all this rhetoric, the president has struggled to implement change. His longstanding plan to persuade the Senate to ratify the CTBT and a more recent initiative to commit the US to a “no first use” policy, to name but two examples, were ultimately abandoned in the face of opposition.
This is not to claim that Obama has had no success. He closed a controversial non-proliferation deal with Iran and signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia, which committed both nations to a limit of 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons.
Since signing the New START treaty in 2010, the US has also reduced its total stockpile of operational warheads from 5,066 to 4,571: down roughly 10%. This is a worthy achievement but does not amount to setting a new political trajectory. The US nuclear arsenal has grown smaller under every president since Nixon (see graphic). And US stockpiles have shrunk less under Obama than any other administration since the end of the Cold War.
Such modest progress has also been bought at great cost. The political price of ratifying New START was a commitment to renovating existing warheads and modernising the “nuclear triad” of delivery systems: planes, submarines, and inter-continental missiles. This will likely require an investment of $1 trillion (£817 billion) over the next 30 years. In an era of budgetary constraints, this could mean cuts to conventional forces.
Policy advocates argue this is necessary to ensure the reliability and safety of the arsenal. But the former secretary and assistant secretary of defence, William J Perry and Andy Weber, have countered that the investment exceeds the US’s deterrence needs and may increase the likelihood of nuclear conflict. This is a return to “Cold War thinking, and it is dangerous”, they argue.
Their concern is shared by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, who last year moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight. It is now 11:57, meaning the world is judged closer to catastrophe than at any point since 1983, when Cold War relations “were at their iciest”. In justifying the assessment, the Bulletin cited the “extraordinary and undeniable” threat posed by “the nuclear arms race resulting from the modernisation of huge arsenals”.
The true consequences of nuclear modernisation remain to be seen. It seems clear, however, that Obama has not radically altered the US’s nuclear posture. At best, investing in a smaller, more modern nuclear arsenal will preserve the status quo. At worst, it could spark a costly new arms race. Neither outcome fulfils Obama’s promise to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons” in US foreign policy.
Claims of hypocrisy, however, are largely spurious. Obama was always clear that progress would be slow. And Russian aggression, Chinese sabre-rattling and North Korean nuclear ambitions have raised new concerns about global security, galvanising resistance to his plans in both the Senate and the international community.
Regardless, the president is running out of time to realise his rhetoric. The gap between hope and political change remains noticeably wide. For all his great ambition, Obama’s legacy on nuclear weapons may amount to little more than symbolism.