Obama’s Nobel Rests On A World Free Of Nuclear Weapons

Obama nobelWhile the common view in the US and among our media is that Obama got the prize for not being Bush, in fact the major reason he received it was for his work on nonproliferation, namely his dramatic speech last April in Prague where he laid out his vision for a world free of nuclear weapons. For the leader of a country that has nearly half of all the world’s nuclear weapons to declare that he desires a world without these weapons is actually a very big deal. As President Obama said in his speech today in Oslo:

One urgent example is the effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and to seek a world without them. In the middle of the last century, nations agreed to be bound by a treaty whose bargain is clear: All will have access to peaceful nuclear power; those without nuclear weapons will forsake them; and those with nuclear weapons will work toward disarmament. I am committed to upholding this treaty. It is a centerpiece of my foreign policy. And I am working with President Medvedev to reduce America and Russia’s nuclear stockpiles.

Most don’t think very much about nukes anymore, but they were the preoccupation of the world for fifty years – a world that saw two powers feverishly build and build the capability to destroy the world and while the Cold War has ended the chance of nuclear attack has increased. Joe Cirincione noted the Nobel “is not about Obama… This is about 23,000 hydrogen bombs in the world ready to use.”

Now the President and his Administration have a long way to go. But they have begun taking steps to advance this vision and will face crucial tests in the coming months.

What has the Administration achieved thus far?

1) It has elevated the priority of arms-control on the international agenda. While the Bush administration basically rejected the concept of arms-control (like with Climate Change), this Administration has done a 180 and placed it square at the top of the international agenda. At the UN Security Council in September the President chaired a session on nonproliferation and reasserted US leadership on this issue. And Washington will host a Global Nuclear Security Summit next April that will focus on safeguarding nuclear materials and preventing nuclear terrorism.

2) The US has rebuilt relations with Russia and has worked with the Russians to cut nuclear weapons. This effort will be ongoing, but the first big step is just about complete, as negotiations over a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which further reduces US and Russian strategic nuclear weapons, are wrapping up.

What does the Administration hope to achieve in the coming months?

1) The Administration will release a new Nuclear Posture Review that will test whether the military is really ready to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons” in its strategic posture. This will perhaps be the most critical test, since the President has total control over this process and if the President is unable to tame his own bureaucracy’s reliance on nukes, than convincing the world of our seriousness will be impossible.

2) The White House must push the Senate to ratify the new START treaty, as well as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Senate ratification requires 67 votes and while analysts feel somewhat confident about START, CTBT will be a real political fight, despite the fact that the US hasn’t physically tested a nuclear weapon in 17 years and with advances in technology there is not, and will not be, any need to. The world will be highly skeptical of American intentions if we refuse to ratify a treaty that would prevent us from doing something that will will almost certainly never do.

3) The US must achieve progress at the Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in May. This treaty is the bedrock of the nonproliferation regime and serves to prevent cascading proliferation of the nuclear bomb. Yet the treaty is under increasing strain and if the White House is unable to achieve progress on ratification of START or CTBT or if it fails to produce an NPR that is reflective of the President’s Prague speech the conference will in all likelihood fall well short.