In April 2009, President Obama went to Prague and told the world that the United States seeks “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” A year later, his administration is moving forward toward this goal. The Obama administration released its Nuclear Posture Review on April 6, 2010. On April 8, 2010, the president flew back to Prague to sign a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with the Russians.

In both tone and substance the new Nuclear Posture Review is far more positive and hopeful than that of the George W. Bush administration. The Obama nuclear posture puts its primary focus on preventing nuclear proliferation and terrorism. “The threat of global nuclear war has become remote,” it says, “but the risk of nuclear attack has increased.” It views nuclear terrorism as “today’s most immediate and extreme danger.”  

To prevent terrorists, such as al Qaeda, from obtaining nuclear weapons, the Obama administration seeks to bolster the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and secure all loose nuclear materials globally. It convened a Nuclear Security Summit on April 12-13, 2010 in Washington, with leaders of 46 other countries participating in making plans to prevent nuclear terrorism. The Obama administration is also pursuing arms control efforts, including the New START agreement, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.  

The administration has been straight forward in stating that it is taking these steps “as a means of strengthening our ability to mobilize broad international support for the measures needed to reinforce the non-proliferation regime and secure nuclear materials worldwide.”  In other words, the Obama administration understands that the US needs to show that it is taking steps to meet its own nuclear disarmament obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (something the Bush administration never grasped) if it hopes to have the support of other parties to that treaty for keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists.

Many advocates of a nuclear weapon-free world, including the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, encouraged the Obama administration to go further and adopt a policy of No First Use; that is, committing to use nuclear weapons only in response to a preceding nuclear attack.  While the administration did not demonstrate this level of leadership, it did consider a policy of making the deterrence of a nuclear attack the “sole purpose” of nuclear weapons. However, it dismissed even this step, while offering some hope that it will work toward this end in the future.  

The administration did take a smaller step by committing in the new Nuclear Posture Review not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states that are in compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It referred specifically to North Korea and Iran as countries out of compliance with the treaty. The new nuclear posture will please some advocates of nuclear weapons by leaving open “a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW [chemical or biological weapons] attack against the United States or its allies and partners.”  

The new Nuclear Posture Review states that the “fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons, which will continue as long as nuclear weapons exist, is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners.” This suggests confusion in the policy. If terrorists are, in fact, the greatest threat to the country, and as non-state actors they cannot be deterred, then who exactly are the weapons deterring? The review may be contemplating Russia or China, but it also recognizes that the US is interconnected with these countries and the chances of war with them are very low. Or, it may be contemplating some unknown contingency in the future, but if this is the case then wouldn’t the country be better off moving more rapidly toward the goal of a world without nuclear weapons?  The review makes clear that the US “would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners.” This approach, and the vagueness of “vital interests,” will likely be viewed internationally as an unfortunate double standard that other countries may also choose to rely upon.

In the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the US and Russia will reduce their deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550 each and reduce deployed delivery vehicles to 700 each with 100 reserve delivery vehicles each by the year 2017.  It is not a large step forward, but it is a step in the right direction, and the Obama administration is committed to seeking further reductions with Russia.  Together the two countries have some 95 percent of the world’s 23,000 nuclear arms.  The new US nuclear posture indicates that the US “will place importance on Russia joining us as we move to lower levels.”  In the document, however, there are no constraints on the ability of the US to deploy missile defenses.  Since this is a major concern to Russia, it could limit the possibilities for additional progress toward nuclear disarmament.  

One of the phrases that recurs throughout the new Nuclear Posture Review is “ensuring the safety, security and effectiveness” of nuclear warheads.  Safety and security both make sense.  If we are to retain nuclear weapons, we want them to be both safe from accident and secure from theft.  But what does “effective” mean?  That the weapons will serve the purpose of deterring?  If so, who?  Effectiveness would be impossible to measure unless we can answer the question, “Effective for what?”  In the end, “safe, secure and effective,” appear to be arguments for modernizing the US nuclear arsenal and spending an additional $5 billion on its nuclear weapons laboratories over the next five years.

The Nuclear Posture Review concludes by looking toward a world without nuclear weapons. It recognizes that certain conditions are necessary for such a world. These include halting nuclear proliferation, achieving greater transparency into nuclear weapons programs, improving verification methods, developing effective enforcement measures, and resolving regional disputes. The review states that such conditions do not exist today. However, with the requisite political will, these conditions could be developed in the process of negotiating a Nuclear Weapons Convention – a treaty for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons. While pausing to celebrate the incremental steps in arms reductions and the limitations on nuclear weapons use that are being made now, we should also recognize that a policy of No First Use and a commitment to negotiate a Nuclear Weapons Convention would move us far more rapidly toward the peace and security of the nuclear weapon-free world envisioned by President Obama.