At the end of 2008, following President Obama’s election but prior to his inauguration, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation put forward “A Nuclear Disarmament Agenda for President Obama,” focusing on his first 100 days in office (100-Day Agenda). During his campaign for the presidency, candidate Obama had spoken about a nuclear weapons-free world being in the interests of America and the world. The Foundation put forward the 100-Day Agenda to encourage President Obama to keep the issue of nuclear disarmament high on his agenda. The Foundation urged the president to act boldly and take a number of steps during his first hundred days in office. The steps that were proposed were divided into three categories: public commitment, bilateral engagement, and global action.
President Obama has, in fact, acted quickly and boldly on a nuclear disarmament agenda. He assumed office on January 20, 2009 and almost immediately posted on the www.whitehouse.gov website a series of steps that he and Vice President Biden intended to take on nuclear policy issues. These fell into three areas: secure loose nuclear materials from terrorists, strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and move toward a nuclear free world. In the latter area, it stated, “Obama and Biden will set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and pursue it.”
President Obama met for the first time with Russian President Dimitriy Medvedev in London on April 1, 2009. Following their meeting, the two presidents issued a Joint Statement in which they reaffirmed “that the era when our countries viewed each other as enemies is long over….” They pledged their resolve “to work together to strengthen strategic stability, international security, and jointly meet contemporary global challenges, while also addressing disagreements openly and honestly in a spirit of mutual respect and acknowledgement of each other’s perspective.”
They discussed “nuclear arms control and reduction” and made a number of specific pledges, including “working together to fulfill our obligations under Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and demonstrate leadership in reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world.” Article VI of the NPT contains the treaty’s nuclear disarmament obligation. The two presidents also committed their countries “to achieving a nuclear free world,” while recognizing that this would be a “long-term goal.”
A few days later, on April 5, 2009, President Obama spoke in Prague, devoting his speech almost entirely to “the future of nuclear weapons in the 21st century.” President Obama called this an issue that is “fundamental to the security of our nations and to the peace of the world.” In his speech, he struck a moral tone, unusual for a US president when discussing US responsibilities. “[A]s the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon,” he said, “the United States has a moral responsibility to act.” He recognized that the US cannot succeed in achieving nuclear disarmament alone, but that it can lead. The speech was historic in accepting moral responsibility for nuclear disarmament and setting forth a commitment for US leadership to achieve a world without nuclear weapons. President Obama took a far different approach to nuclear disarmament than had been seen from the two most recent past presidents, Clinton and Bush, who had preceded him in office.
Below in bold are the major points made in the Foundation’s 100-Day Agenda on Nuclear Disarmament. Following each point there is an indication of what President Obama has said regarding it. As can be seen, most of the 100-Day Agenda has been fulfilled, although there are some points that he has not spoken to or that raise some concerns. These include his indication that the timeframe for achieving a world without nuclear weapons may be a long one, perhaps not in his own lifetime; his emphasis on nuclear deterrence in the interim, although without indicating who is being deterred; and his general support for nuclear power, which is likely to draw societal subsidies away from truly sustainable forms of energy and make a world without nuclear weapons far more difficult to achieve.
Three specific issues called for in the 100-Day Agenda that President Obama failed to address were a policy of No First Use of nuclear weapons; specific numbers related to the next round of bilateral reductions with the Russians; and a timeframe for convening the other nuclear weapons states to negotiate further reductions. It is not necessary that any of these be achieved within President Obama’s first hundred days in office, but they would be valuable and, in the case of numbers related to the next round of reductions, will be essential to address as the US and Russia proceed with their bilateral negotiations.
On balance, President Obama’s oft-stated commitment to a world without nuclear weapons appears genuine and he is off to a strong start in his first 100 days in office. Perhaps most important, he has changed the tone of US nuclear policy, so that the US has become a leader for nuclear disarmament rather than the principal obstacle to its achievement, as it was under the Bush administration.
Make a major foreign policy address, affirming US commitment to initiate a global effort to achieve a world with zero nuclear weapons. (Speech in Prague on April 5, 2009: “[T]he United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it. So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” WhiteHouse.gov website: “Obama and Biden will set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and pursue it.”)
Deemphasize reliance on nuclear weapons in US military policy. (Speech in Prague: “To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same.”)
Commit to not developing new nuclear weapons. (WhiteHouse.gov website: “[Obama and Biden] will stop the development of new nuclear weapons….”)
Seek Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. (Speech in Prague: “To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.”)
Launch a major global initiative to assure control of all nuclear weapons and the material to construct them. (Speech in Prague: “So today I am announcing a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years. We will set new standards, expand our cooperation with Russia, pursue new partnerships to lock down these sensitive materials.”)
Points of concern
Timeframe: The president offered no timeframe for achieving “a world without nuclear weapons.” Rather, he stated in Prague, “I’m not naïve. The goal will not be reached quickly – perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence.” Shifting direction again, he said, “But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can.’”
Deterrence: Following his commitment to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy, he stated in Prague, “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….” He leaves it unclear, however, which potential adversaries require being deterred. He also makes a common error in equating deterrence with defense.
No First Use: The president talked about reducing the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy, but made no commitment to a policy of No First Use. Such a policy would mark a major change of course in US nuclear policy, and would be the surest way to deemphasize reliance on nuclear weapons. If all countries committed to No First Use, and backed this up with appropriate nuclear policies, the possibility of any use would be dramatically reduced.
US nuclear weapons in Europe: President Obama emphasized US commitment to NATO, while making no reference to removing the US nuclear weapons currently stored in five NATO countries.
Missile defenses: President Obama framed missile defenses in Europe as being set up against a potential attack from Iran, although these defenses are still perceived by the Russians to threaten them with a US first-strike potential. The president said in Prague, “As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven.” Of course, “cost effective and proven” may be a very large, if not impossible, hurdle for the missile defense program to achieve.
Open negotiations with Russia on a range of nuclear policy issues. (Speech in Prague: “To reduce our warheads and stockpiles, we will negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians this year. President Medvedev and I began this process in London, and will seek a new agreement by the end of this year that is legally binding and sufficiently bold. And this will set the stage for further cuts….”)
Negotiate to take both sides’ ballistic missiles off high alert status. (WhiteHouse.gov website: “[Obama and Biden will] work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair trigger alert….”)
Negotiate extending the verification provisions of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I). (Joint Statement by President Medvedev and President Obama, April 1, 2009: “We agreed to pursue new and verifiable reductions in our strategic offensive arsenals in a step-by-step process, beginning by replacing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with a new, legally-binding treaty.”)
Agree to the verifiable reduction to under 1,000 nuclear weapons each (deployed and reserve) by the end of 2010. (“WhiteHouse.gov website: “[Obama and Biden will] seek dramatic reductions in U.S. and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material….” Joint Statement by President Medvedev and President Obama: “We committed our two countries to achieving a nuclear free world, while recognizing that this long-term goal will require a new emphasis on arms control and conflict resolution measures, and their full implementation by all concerned nations.”)
Points of concern
Reductions: The president referred to reducing the size of nuclear arsenals when he stated in Prague, “But we will begin the work of reducing our arsenal.” He gave no specifics, however, on what level of reductions could be expected. Currently both countries are obligated under the SORT agreement to lower their nuclear arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 deployed strategic weapons by the year 2012. Whatever next step is agreed upon by the two leaders should be bold and substantially lower than the existing agreement and should include all nuclear weapons, not only those that are deployed and strategic.
Organize to convene a meeting of all nuclear weapons states prior to the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference to negotiate a new treaty for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons. (Speech in Prague: After calling for further cuts in US and Russian arsenals, President Obama stated, “…and we will seek to include all nuclear weapons states in this endeavor.”)
Additional promises for global action (not in the NAPF 100-Day Agenda)
Strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty. (Speech in Prague: “Together we will strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a basis for cooperation…. We need more resources and authority to strengthen international inspections. We need real and immediate consequences for countries caught breaking the rules or trying to leave the treaty without cause. And we should build a new framework for civil nuclear cooperation, including an international fuel bank, so that countries can access peaceful power without increasing the risks of proliferation.” WhiteHouse.gov website: “Obama and Biden will crack down on nuclear proliferation by strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty so that countries like North Korea and Iran that break the rules will automatically face strong international sanctions.”)
Convene a global meeting of states to cooperate in preventing nuclear terrorism. (Speech in Prague: “[W]e must ensure that terrorists never acquire nuclear weapons…. We should start by having a Global Summit for Nuclear Security that the United States will host within the next year.”)
Ban the production of weapons-grade fissile materials. (Speech in Prague: “And to cut off the building blocks needed for a bomb, the United States will seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons.” WhiteHouse.gov website: “Obama and Biden will negotiate a verifiable global ban on the production of new nuclear weapons material.”)
Create a global ban on intermediate-range missiles. (WhiteHouse.gov website: “[Obama and Biden will] set a goal to expand the U.S.-Russian ban on intermediate-range missiles so that the agreement is global.”)
Points of concern
Timeframe: President Obama gave no indication of when he would move to convene all nuclear weapons states in negotiations for nuclear disarmament.
Nuclear energy: President Obama supported the right of countries, including Iran, to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy “with rigorous inspections.” It remains questionable, however, whether even with rigorous inspections it will be possible to create an impermeable wall between nuclear energy and weapons.
Ban on missiles: While calling for a ban on intermediate-range missiles, President Obama fails to mention long-range missiles, the kind of missiles more likely to be used by many of the existing nuclear weapons states.
In his first 100 days, President Obama has set forth a vision of a world without nuclear weapons, begun negotiations with Russia on a new treaty to replace the START I agreement that expires in December 2009, and provided the first indications that the US will seek to involve all nuclear weapons states in negotiations to create a world without nuclear weapons. Committing to the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world is the first step toward achieving the goal. President Obama has done this. The next steps are developing a full plan to achieve the goal and implementing that plan. Developing and implementing such a plan will no doubt be extremely difficult, but it is not impossible and this work must begin.
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and a Councilor of the World Future Council.