Reshaping the Nuclear Arms Debate

By Joshua Reiman
Staff Writer
November 1, 2009

When President Obama spoke in Prague last April about a world without nuclear weapons, some critics deemed his proposals a fairytale. They thought it fitting that the backdrop of his speech was the Hradcany Castle.

Those that chose this line of attack knew that President Obama’s speech would be split up into sound bites and headlines. They figured they could paint a picture of the President as out-of-touch with political reality and chalk it up as another instance of President Obama leaning on his “hope” platform, rather than one of realism.

These critics, however, miss the point when they dig their heels into partisan corners. Rather than advocating a fantasy world of countries playing “nice” together and mollifying their security policies solely because a smooth-talking American president asked them to, Obama instead spoke of pragmatic steps and proffered a new path to a safer world.

In his speech, Obama was much more nuanced and sophisticated than he was given credit for. He stated unequivocally, “I'm not naïve. This goal will not be reached quickly— perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change.”

He also reassured those who feared his optimistic vision would jeopardize American security by asserting, “Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.”

Rather than argue over whether a world free of nuclear weapons is possible, observers must look at how nuclear weapons impact current geopolitics and Obama’s strategy for lessening their role. Joseph Cirincione, President of the Ploughshares Fund and author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, responded to the new strategy at George Washington University last month, saying, “We are in the middle of a profoundly transformative moment.” Obama’s Prague speech was a signal for the world that the United States was dramatically changing course.

Obama has proposed new multilateral solutions while insisting that the United States pull its weight on enduring issues, such as negotiating a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia and finally ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The Obama administration’s new proposals include a treaty to end the production of fissile materials intended for use in nuclear weapons, an international nuclear fuel bank, and a Global Summit on Nuclear Security to be hosted by the United States next year. The unanimous passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1887 on disarmament and non-proliferation in September is further evidence of change.

As often happens when the world’s most powerful country takes the lead on an issue of mutual consequence and compounds its proposals with substantive actions, other nations have been receptive. The Global Nuclear Summit already has 37 nations signed on to attend. This list includes declared nuclear powers Pakistan and India (non-signatories of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty), and Israel, a non-declared nuclear power, yet widely recognized as one. In support of these efforts, the Nobel Committee awarded Obama the Peace Prize, emphasizing his foreign policy approach centered on multilateralism, dialogue and negotiations.

As the President admits, nuclear weapons are not going away any time soon. The know-how is viral, access to the technology is increasingly prevalent and their effectiveness as a military deterrent cannot be understated. Thus, in all likelihood, some states and some non-state actors (e.g. al Qaeda) will continue to pursue them for either their use or the leverage they offer. As a result, the chess game of maintaining the nuclear status quo will continue for some time.

However, the President is betting that international consensus, non-proliferation and universal disarmament are the path to a more pervasive peace. If successful, Obama will have laid the foundation for what Cirincione calls “the rise of a new security paradigm.”

Ultimately, Obama’s international standing depends on his ability to produce tangible results. He must consolidate domestic support for his initiatives, successfully complete negotiations with Iran, and convince other nations that a world without nuclear weapons is in their own interest.

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