On May 19, President Obama and his top national security advisers huddled in the Oval Office with an unlikely collection of Cold Warriors. After meeting for more than an hour with the bipartisan group that some have dubbed "the four horsemen of the anti-apocalypse," Obama emerged with critical backing for the administration's plans for resuscitating a moribund nuclear nonproliferation regime.
"I don't think anybody would accuse these four gentlemen of being dreamers. They're hard-headed, tough defenders of American interests and American security," Obama told the press, motioning to former secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn. "But what they have come together to help galvanize is a recognition that we do not want a world of continued nuclear proliferation, and that in order for us to meet the security challenges of the future, America has to take leadership in this area."
Ever since a signed article by the four former officials ran in a January 2007 issue of The Wall Street Journal under the headline "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons," they have galvanized the debate over nuclear proliferation. Absent urgent action by the United States, they argued, the world will soon enter a new nuclear age that "will be more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically even more costly than was Cold War deterrence."
As a candidate, Obama embraced the officials' vision, promising to put the United States back on "the long road toward eliminating nuclear weapons." In a speech in Prague on April 5, Obama outlined the difficult steps that his administration will take to begin the journey.
The United States will move quickly to negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, Obama pledged, as well as a multilateral Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty to end the production of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. He called for creating an international fuel bank to safely supply civilian nuclear energy programs and for more-robust verification inspections and tougher sanctions for cheaters to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Obama also pledged to fully secure global stockpiles of nuclear materials within four years, and he promised to "aggressively pursue" U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the Republican-led Senate rejected in 1999.
"I know that there are some who will question whether we can act on such a broad agenda," Obama said in Prague. "There are those who doubt whether true international cooperation is possible, given inevitable differences among nations. And there are those who hear talk of a world without nuclear weapons and doubt whether it's worth setting a goal that seems impossible to achieve. But make no mistake: We know where that road leads."
Taken together, these measures represent a dramatic departure from a Bush administration approach that viewed arms control treaties and multilateral nonproliferation agreements as inherently unverifiable and overly constraining on U.S. freedom of action.
The Bush White House thus ignored the CTBT; withdrew from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty to pursue a national missile defense system; and signed a cursory arms reduction treaty with Russia that didn't even include counting measures, let alone verification. The administration proposed developing a nuclear bunker-buster weapon; explored the option of putting anti-missile weapons in space; and reached a nuclear cooperation deal with India, which is not a party to the nonproliferation treaty. Bush also tried unsuccessfully to coerce nuclear rogues through threats of pre-emption.
Whatever you think about that approach, even proponents have conceded that the results were disappointing. During the Bush administration's watch, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon. On May 25, Pyongyang exploded a second, just weeks after testing a long-range missile. It has also kicked out international inspectors again, and taken steps to begin reprocessing plutonium.
For its part, Iran has announced a significant increase in the number of centrifuges being used to enrich uranium, and Tehran also recently tested a long-range missile capable of reaching Israel and other targets in the Middle East. If Iran and North Korea become established nuclear weapons states, many experts predict a cascade of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and Asia. Such an occurrence could collapse the structure of arms control treaties; multilateral and bilateral agreements; and threat-reduction and counter-proliferation programs that taken together form the international nonproliferation regime.
The Bush administration's argument that it needed new nuclear weapons and missile defense systems, and its perceived hostility to arms control agreements, has caused many countries to question the core pledge at the heart of the nonproliferation treaty. Under that treaty, the nuclear "haves" promised to reduce the role of such weapons and move toward disarmament on some indeterminable timeline, and to help non-nuclear powers with civilian nuclear power. In return, the 180 or so NPT signatories without nuclear weapons agreed not to pursue them.
"There's an old Winston Churchill saying that no matter how beautiful the strategy, occasionally you have to consider the results; and the results are pretty clear that we're heading in the wrong direction on nuclear proliferation," Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, told National Journal last year. "That's why [the four horsemen] tried to breathe new life into an old idea, because without the United States displaying leadership and a vision of a world that will someday be rid of nuclear weapons, we will not get the cooperation internationally for steps that are necessary to protect our own society."
Yet, as the Obama administration will soon discover, each of the steps it has proposed to reclaim leadership in the realm of nonproliferation is fraught with complexity and risk. On April 1 in London, for instance, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to conclude a follow-on strategic reduction treaty by December 5, when the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expires. To meet that deadline, the outline of a deal will probably have to be ready in July for a planned Obama summit with the Russians in Moscow, in order to leave time for Senate ratification hearings in the fall. By traditional standards, that represents arms control negotiations on fast-forward.
Nor are the potential disagreements between Moscow and Washington trivial. Under the 1991 START, both the United States and Russia are limited to 6,000 deployed nuclear warheads. The 2002 Moscow Treaty called for reducing that number to between 1,700 and 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads by 2012, but the agreement lacked verification mechanisms.
Many arms control advocates want the new treaty to limit deployed strategic warheads to a maximum of 1,000. Such a dramatic decrease, however, raises other contentious issues, such as the U.S. missile defense system proposed for Eastern Europe; Russia's much larger stockpile of tactical nuclear warheads; and the nuclear arsenals of third-party nations, including China, France, Great Britain, India, Israel, and Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Pentagon will not complete a congressionally mandated Nuclear Posture Review in time to influence the negotiations this year, a sticking point sure to be raised by lawmakers.
"My personal preference would be a treaty that limits deployed warheads to 1,000. But with the Nuclear Posture Review still under way and only seven months to complete the START follow-on, I think they should set the limit at a more modest 1,500 warheads and address the more-contentious issues at a later date," said Steven Pifer a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution who wrote a recent paper on the subject. "In his Prague speech, President Obama made pretty clear that this treaty only represents a first step in an arms reduction process that will eventually tackle issues such as missile defense, tactical nukes, and third-party arsenals."
Test Ban Battle
Even if a new agreement with Russia is signed and ratified by December, a nonproliferation treaty review conference scheduled for the spring of 2010 imposes another difficult deadline. At the last NPT review, in 2005, the Bush administration infuriated many participants by sending a midlevel delegation that essentially stood on the sidelines and ignored calls for strengthening the treaty. At the 2000 conference, the Clinton administration committed to resurrecting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Because the Senate's 1999 rejection of the CTBT is seen by many as the first sign that the United States was stepping back from a nonproliferation regime largely of its own making, many delegations at the upcoming review conference will be expecting the Obama administration to have made good on its pledge to ratify the treaty.
In that regard, the recent report by the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States was not encouraging. Although the commission supported further, unspecified reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, it split down the middle on the goal of ratifying the test ban treaty and disagreed on the desirability of seeking a world without nuclear weapons.
"On the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, I believe the United States will not be able to assume leadership in the world on nonproliferation if we do not ratify the treaty, but I must say the commission is split by that issue," said Co-Chairman William Perry, speaking recently at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "About half our members disagree with the goal of ratifying CTBT; and indeed, if the Senate proceeds to hold hearings on that, I suspect some of our members may be testifying on one side of the issue and others will testify on the other side."
The test ban treaty has well-known weaknesses in terms of verification and definitions of exactly what constitutes a nuclear test. Some experts believe that the commission's inability to reach consensus on such a fundamental issue, however, reveals the same party-line divisions that scuttled the agreement in 1999. That raises the possibility that a unified Republican caucus could deal Obama's nonproliferation agenda a potentially crippling blow with a vote to once again reject the test ban.
"The Obama administration talks a lot about the need for bipartisanship, and they are going to find it's absolutely critical on arms control treaties that require a two-thirds Senate majority for ratification," said John Isaacs, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. "My reading at this point is that there are likely 60 Democrats in the Senate united in favor of ratifying the CTBT, and 40 Republicans united in opposition. At the end of the day, it's probably going to come down to Obama or [Vice President] Biden sitting down with seven to 10 key Republicans and saying, 'OK, what do you need in order to pass this treaty?' "
The most significant challenge to the nonproliferation regime and the Obama agenda comes, of course, from former or current NPT signatories, such as North Korea and Iran, respectively, who circumvent its strictures with secret nuclear weapons programs. Such nuclear rogues not only erode confidence in the nonproliferation regime itself but also pose the threat of starting a chain reaction as neighboring states and potential adversaries scramble for their own nuclear deterrent. Presented with the reality of an Iranian nuclear test one day or further nuclear weapons development by North Korea, and the possibility that the U.S. nuclear umbrella will have to be extended, the Senate is unlikely to look favorably on dramatic reductions in America's nuclear arsenal or a test ban treaty.
"There's no question that the NPT regime has become a little shaky in recent years, but the truth is that what the United States does in that regard is less important than what Iran does," said James Schlesinger, the former Energy and Defense secretary who co-chaired the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States. "If Iran achieves a nuclear weapons capability, it would probably end our hopes for nonproliferation."
With the nonproliferation regime rocked by repeated blows in recent years, other experts believe that it must be shored up quickly to avoid an outright collapse. In this view, the sequence of arms reductions, treaty enhancements, and confidence-building measures outlined by the Obama administration can rebuild a firewall that makes a nuclear breakout less likely.
Joseph Cirincione is a longtime arms control advocate who now heads the Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit grant-making organization. "There's no question that nuclear proliferation threats are still growing, having built up a fierce momentum over the past six or seven years. President Obama is not going to be able to reverse that momentum quickly, but already he has changed the dynamic by indicating that the way to solve the problem of Iran and North Korea is to first look at our own obligations and responsibilities," he said in an interview.
Cirincione believes that the disarmament steps Obama has outlined will eventually lead to more cooperation on preventing proliferation, which will increase security, making room for further disarmament and cooperation. "With luck, that coin will just keep flipping over and over, until eventually a lot of things become possible," he said. "My biggest concern, however, is the cynicism that has built up on this issue that tends to disparage the whole nonproliferation agenda. That cynicism chills politicians and officials who are worried about looking weak, and it demoralizes those who fear they are wasting time on a hopeless agenda. That kind of fatalism really is our greatest adversary."
This article appears in the May 30, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.