Flying at Altitude: Obama Balances Disarmament against US Nuclear Primacy

Article excerpt

During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Barack Obama pledged to implement a new direction in US nuclear weapons policy. He would 'show the world' that the United States believed in its existing commitment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In other words, he committed to working towards, ultimately, eliminating all nuclear weapons. In his 2009 speech in Prague, Obama defined this transformative quest in greater detail and in doing so suggested what appeared to be a marked break from the policies of his predecessor. The Bush administration had banished the term 'disarmament' from its official vocabulary and broken with past nuclear policy pronouncements by pushing vigorously for an expanded role for nuclear weapons. There has indeed been a break from the declarations of an 'American Century'. However, while the Obama administration has presented optimistic rhetoric on disarmament, it has in essence pursued a policy of maintaining the nuclear balance while only taking incremental steps towards disarmament. These steps, I will argue, have been accompanied by clear measures to retain US nuclear primacy. This article will focus on the transition between the Bush and Obama administrations and, more specifically, the extent to which Obama has attempted to 'rebalance' the nuclear option. Beginning with the vision and goals posited in the 2009 Prague Speech and reaffirmed in the National Security Strategy of 2010, I will outline and evaluate the core Obama declaratory policies, initiatives and multilateral efforts, namely the Congressionally mandated Nuclear Posture Review and New START Treaty, while also acknowledging developments pertaining to the Nuclear Security Summits of 2010/12, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty An evaluation of such initiatives will illustrate the degree to which the lofty goals posited in Prague have turned away from the assertive nuclear path pursued by the Bush administration by flying high in a rhetoric of optimistic but unachieved possibilities.

The Promises of Prague

In what was perceived to be a landmark speech delivered four years ago in Prague's Hradcany Square, President Barack Obama posited his vision for strengthening the global effort to thwart the spread of nuclear weapons, drive disarmament measures and prevent nuclear terrorism.1 Emphasizing the moral imperative for action - which itself was a remarkable change in the Presidential 'lexicon for international security policy' - Obama enumerated a series of steps his administration would undertake as a means to put the vision into practice.2 The series of steps encompassed a dual pledge. The first was to 'take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons' and to 'put an end to Cold War thinking' by reducing 'the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same'. The second was to 'maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies'.3 To reduce US warheads and stockpiles, his administration would negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians. To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, the administration would immediately and 'aggressively' pursue US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, Obama would attempt to strengthen the NPT as a basis for cooperation.4

The Nuclear Posture Review of 2010

The release of the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) of 2010 was Obama's first attempt at transforming the Prague vision into reality. It stipulated that a reduced role for nuclear weapons, a reduced number of nuclear weapons, and a reduced potential to produce new nuclear weapons would be the core focus. The document was assertive in its rhetoric in committing the United States to work for non-proliferation and, for the first time, the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons was enshrined into the NPR. …