Obama’s Nuclear Initiatives: Neither “Sufficient” Nor “Bold”

From Shane J. Maddock, author of Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present, we welcome this guest post addressing Barack Obama’s most recent nuclear initiatives. If you missed Maddock’s January guest post, “The Delicate Art of Nuclear Jujutsu,” go back and take a look.–ellen

President Barack Obama renewed the U.S. commitment to a nuclear-free world in April 2009 when he declared in Prague that he would take steps “sufficiently bold” to move the globe closer to that long-term goal.  His recommitment to reducing nuclear threats played a key role in his selection as the Nobel Peace Prize winner later that year.

Now twelve months after his Prague speech, Obama has revealed his first major nuclear policy initiatives, including a nuclear disarmament treaty with Russia, a new nuclear defense policy, and proposals concerning nuclear materials security and nuclear nonproliferation.  All of his new initiatives do more to advance nuclear peace than anything proposed by his two predecessors, and they do much to correct serious backsliding and errors under George W. Bush.  But Obama’s proposals are neither sufficient to address the current nuclear dilemmas nor bold enough to make the largest possible advance toward a nuclear-free globe.

Obama’s new nuclear defense policy makes no-first-use the official U.S. policy for the first time.  While Bush explicitly threatened to use nuclear attacks against any and all threats to U.S. security, the new nuclear policy document pledges that the United States will not threaten non-nuclear states with nuclear attacks and will not use nuclear retaliation against states in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  The document does hedge on the question of biological and chemical attacks, leaving open the possibility of nuclear retaliation to such attacks if the threat grows.  But the largest loophole in the new policy is its definitive exclusion of North Korea and Iran from the no-first-use pledge.  While this exclusion may play well with domestic audiences, it does little to increase U.S. security.  Closing this loophole would not prevent Washington from retaliating for a North Korean or Iranian nuclear attack on one of its neighbors, and reserving the right to strike first adds little to the deterrent value of America’s overwhelming conventional superiority in relation to both states.  The exclusion of Pyongyang and Tehran from no-first-use also allows nationalists in both states to justify their quest for nuclear weapons as necessary to guard against possible U.S. attacks.  If the threat of preemptive strikes from Washington were eliminated, much of the domestic justification for the two states’ nuclear arsenals would evaporate.

The nuclear security summit meeting, which convened April 12-13, 2010, displayed the same mixture of timidity and short-sightedness.  The Obama administration sought only voluntary action by nations to secure their nuclear materials and no timetable or clear guidelines were produced.  It has highlighted the examples of Chile and Ukraine, which have both agreed to turn over highly-enriched uranium to the nuclear superpowers so that it can be secured from theft by terrorists, to cajole other states into doing the same.  But this type of action is mere temporizing.  The real goal should be a nuclear-free world, not just a nuclear-weapons-free world.

At the beginning of the nuclear age, scientists warned that access to nuclear power technology moved powers much closer to acquiring nuclear weapons.  That fact has never been confronted directly by any U.S. administration and many presidents of have exacerbated the problem by expanding access to nuclear power technology.  Israel, India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea have all used aid from other powers originally granted for nuclear power production to advance their nuclear weapons programs.  The sufficiently bold move at this juncture would be to call for a phase out of nuclear power production around the globe.  But instead Washington is merely trying to prevent the diversion of fuel and nuclear waste into terrorist hands, while it encourages others to seek nuclear power by backing new power plants here in the United States.

The new START treaty that Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed on April 8, on the surface, seems the most important new initiative.  The two nuclear superpowers trumpeted the commitment to cut their nuclear arsenals by a third.  But a careful reading of the text reveals little real progress.  Because of the treaty’s method of counting nuclear weapons, Russia will need to eliminate few, if any, warheads from its deployed launchers and the United States will only need to make minor cuts.  The treaty’s limit of 1, 550 warheads for each side relies on accounting techniques that would look familiar to Wall Street.  The treaty counts each strategic bomber as a single warhead, even as the seventy-six allowed Russian bombers can deploy 800 individual bombs, and the allowed forty-eight U.S. bombers are allotted 500 bombs.  Plus, the agreement does not call for the destruction of inactive and undeployed warheads and delivery vehicles, calling into question how permanent many of the cuts will be.  Some upper limit does exist in the form of a maximum limit of 800 deployed and undeployed launchers (bombers, ICBMs, and SLBMs).  In the end, the treaty does not push total stockpiles much lower than the inadequate Moscow Treaty signed by Bush and Vladimir Putin in 2002.

With Obama declaring that nuclear terrorists are the main threat to U.S. security and that the Cold War nuclear threat no longer exists, now is the time to push for minimum deterrence levels (no more than 500 strategic warheads) so that the next wave of nuclear disarmament talks can legitimately press for cuts in the British, French, and Chinese arsenals.

When Obama accepted his Nobel Peace Prize, he admitted it was premature and that he now had to go out and prove he deserved the honor.  His new nuclear policies are really the minimum that anyone could expect from him. He promised bold action last April and he has failed to deliver.  One can only hope that further “sufficiently bold” actions loom over the horizon.

–Shane J. Maddock
Stonehill College
author of Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present