President Obama has seemingly set an ambitious agenda around nuclear issues. "Seemingly" because the nature of these endeavors and the wider context of his foreign policy vision which is motivated by "reaching out"; "resetting"; taking blame and apologizing, brings up the questions of sincerity, motivation, and effectiveness.
Obama has announced his goal of achieving a "nuclear weapons free world"; not exactly a breathtaking new mission. Since the first nuclear weapon destroyed Hiroshima in 1945, individuals, domestic groups, NGOs, and various UN officials have sought the same thing, only to be hampered by the realities of world politics, especially the Cold War and other international rivalries.
Undaunted by these same realities, Obama recently negotiated and signed a revision of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) which lowered the number of nuclear warheads and delivery systems which the U.S. and Russia could now possess. Is this a significant step towards the broader goal of a nuclear weapons free world? Hardly.
Does this revision significantly reduce the risk of a nuclear exchange between Russia and the U.S.? No. The reasons are based on simple math:
The treaty reduces allowable warheads to 1,550 and delivery systems to 700.
Essentially this does not reduce the ability of either nation to destroy each other and any of the world's other 195 or so nations. Thus it also does not detract from the deterrent value of either the U.S or Russian nuclear weapons arsenal. But it's value with respect to the nuclear free world movement is symbolic only. Coming just ahead of the five year review conference of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), it is clear that the new START was intended to pre-empt long standing criticism by non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) that the nuclear weapons states (NWS) were not living up to their treaty obligation to reduce and eliminate their nuclear arsenals over time.
The President has also called for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban for nuclear weapons which the U.S. Senate has previously refused to do. With significant cuts in the numbers of weapons under START, there is a legitimate concern that the reduced inventory actually be reliable. Modernization, and thus testing then becomes and issue.
Obama has also announced a significant revision to the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Defense Strategy. Now the U.S. will not respond to an attack by non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction i.e. chemical or biological with nuclear arms if that attacking nation is a member of the NPT. It is fair to ask what advantage to the U.S. deterrent policy this change brings? The answer of course is "none". Keeping the nuclear response option open, no matter how remote, enhanced the deterrent posture of the U.S. with respect to it's own national security and that of its non-nuclear allies.
Finally, the Obama Administration changed decades of national security policy by disclosing the actual number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. inventory, formerly highly classified data. No practical reason for this announcement is was provided as it is just another public relations ploy.
Nuclear weapons proliferation is indeed a pressing problem as the programs of North Korea and Iran attest. A recent forty nation conclave hosted by Obama in Washington D.C. attempted to deal with this problem but little was accomplished. At the UN meeting on the NPT, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for "strengthening" the treaty. However, the problem is not the weakness of the NPT as much as it is the failure of will amongst the nations making up the membership of the UN Security Council, the only international body with the authority to impose "mandatory" sanctions against violators of the NPT. The UN's own nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has declared Iran in violation of the NPT yet Russia and China, permanent members of the Security Council with veto power, continue to block sanctions. North Korea, a former member of the NPT simply withdrew from the treaty and openly developed nuclear weapons with only a mild response from the international community. President Obama has made continuous threats of significant sanctions to come, but has been unwilling to put together a "coalition of the willing" to impose sanctions outside of the Security Council venue. Such sanctions could not be expected to deter Iran from continuing its nuclear weapons program but it would exact a cost to that activity, give some credibility to the NPT, and be a consideration for potential proliferators in the future.
Putting the prestige of the U.S. presidency behind the dreamlike goal of a nuclear free world seems to be a naive rejection of reality. It will inevitably be seen as disappointing "lip service" by the "nuclear free world" community when few concrete steps are forthcoming.
Since the NPT came into force in 1970, the five nations of the nuclear weapons club has grown to nine with the inclusion of Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea. Iran is said to be just two years away. How many of these nine or ten nations will be willing to give up their nuclear weapons?
Israel?: a tiny country of 7.5 million people surrounded by hostile regimes with whom it has fought four wars of survival and who now confronts an Iranian regime that has stated it's desire to "wipe Israel from the map".? Pakistan or India who have had a hostile relationship for sixty-three years and who have fought three wars? North Korea who has defiantly withstood the political pressure of the U.S. and regional governments and is actively developing delivery systems for it's new nuclear weapons inventory? Even the U.S., Russia and China cannot realistically be expected to give up their nuclear deterrents. China and Russia are distrustful neighbors with Russia trying to reestablish it's regional influence and China engaged in a massive modernization of it's military.
President Obama has much work to do in managing the nuclear landscape that exists. He should not waste his credibility nor contemplate dangerous cuts in the U.S. deterrent capability to please ill informed foreign public opinion or naive activists at home.