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Obama and Nuclear Disarmament: Drivers and Substance

Dr S. Samuel C. Rajiv is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • October 08, 2009

    From the streets of Prague to the halls of the United Nations, President Barack Obama has actively espoused the cause of nuclear disarmament. In his landmark speech at Prague on April 5, Obama gave the call for a world free of nuclear weapons and eloquently stated his intention to pursue such a goal vigorously. In his speech at the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, Obama listed non-proliferation and disarmament as the first of the four pillars that leaders must strive to erect to ensure a secure future for the world’s children. The next day, he chaired a Summit meeting of Heads of Government of the 15-member UN Security Council, a first for a US President and only the fifth time that such a meeting has been held in the Council’s 63 year history. UNSC Resolution 1887 passed at the meeting called for a revitalized commitment to work towards a world without nuclear weapons, urged progress on nuclear arms reductions, sought a strengthened non-proliferation treaty (NPT), demanded full compliance on Security Council resolutions on Iran and North Korea, encouraged efforts to ensure peaceful uses of nuclear energy, reaffirmed the essential role of the IAEA in preventing nuclear proliferation, urged strengthened controls to govern the export of nuclear materials, reiterated support for bringing to fruition the provisions of UN Security Resolution 1540, among others. The Obama White House has also actively pursued arms control measures, with Washington and Moscow agreeing on a successor treaty to START 1 in July 2009 under the terms of which each side will reduce its nuclear warheads to between 1,500 and 1,650.

    Drivers of Obama’s Disarmament Activism

    The drivers behind President Obama’s disarmament activism are varied. The dangers of proliferation in West Asia/Middle East and Northeast Asia and the complications this would entail for US foreign policy and regional stability are prime factors that seem to have revived American memories about obligations under Article VI of the NPT. Obama has stated that “it will be naïve for us to think that we can grow our nuclear stockpiles … and be able to pressure countries like Iran and North Korea not to pursue nuclear weapons themselves.” Not coincidentally, Obama’s April 5 speech was on the same day that North Korea made another demonstration of its brinkmanship – a missile test mocking international efforts aimed at constraining its behaviour. Obama on September 26 also termed Iran’s Qom facility, the existence of which was revealed by Tehran to the IAEA on September 21, “a serious challenge to the global non-proliferation regime and continues a disturbing pattern of Iranian evasion". Iran has since agreed to allow the IAEA to inspect the site on October 25.

    The Obama administration’s policy activism on issues like nuclear disarmament, energy security and climate change is also testament to efforts geared towards shaping a legacy distinct from that of the previous administration. (See “Obama First 100 Days,” IDSA Strategic Comments, May 1, 2009). It has followed a policy of pragmatic and renewed engagement on intractable issues like Israel-Palestine, as well as in its dealings with Iran and North Korea, to the chagrin of critics and allies who perceive threats from the continued intransigence of these antagonists.

    Analysts have also pointed out that Obama’s personal convictions have shaped his stance on disarmament. At Prague, he argued against the “fatalism” that the spread of nuclear weapons and technology cannot be stopped and the “moral responsibility” of the US to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Some reports suggest that Obama’s views on nuclear disarmament need not be seen as acquired traits quickened by realist compulsions, but a viewpoint which he has consistently argued since his student days, through his time as a Senator and during the presidential campaign as well. The New York Times for instance (July 5, 2009) has pointed to his 1983 article “Breaking the War Mentality” in a Columbia University student magazine, wherein he argued against the “relentless, often silent spread of militarism” in the US and called for a “nuclear weapons free world.” In 2005 while serving in the Senate, Obama espoused the view that “any attempt by the US government to develop or produce new nuclear weapons only undermines US non-proliferation efforts around the world.”

    World Reactions: Mixed and Mostly Sceptical

    The reactions from other Nuclear Weapons States to Obama’s calls on disarmament have been mixed. A conventionally inferior Russia, fast losing the accoutrements of its great power status, continues to hold fast to the sole card that is a remnant of its past glory. Moscow is continuing its nuclear forces modernisation, with a new generation of ICBMs, the RS-24, scheduled to be inducted in December 2009. President Medvedev at the UN Security Council on September 24 argued that in order to give impetus to the nuclear disarmament process, the “principles of equal security, mutual respect and compliance with the norms of international law” should be given prime importance.

    President Sarkozy had earlier expressed open scepticism about Obama’s plans, terming them as “naïve.” At the UN Security Council meeting, Sarkozy stated that President Obama “dreams of a world without weapons … but right in front of us two countries [Iran, North Korea] are doing the exact opposite.” The French White Paper on Defence and National Security 2008 also reiterates the importance of nuclear weapons for French national security and strategic autonomy.

    British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, at the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2009, ranked nuclear proliferation at the third position out of five “urgent challenges that demand momentous decisions” (as against Obama’s first pillar). He urged “statesmanship, not brinkmanship” to achieve “the ambition of a nuclear-free world.” Brown stated his country’s interest to sponsor a uranium bank and establish a nuclear centre for excellence to develop proliferation-resistant technologies and to consider reducing the British nuclear submarine fleet, pending a review.

    China has squarely placed the onus for progress on disarmament on the United States and Russia. President Hu on September 24 for instance stated that in order to maintain global balance and stability, the Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) “with the largest arsenals should reduce those arsenals, after which the countries with smaller arsenals should also begin to reduce their stocks.” Judging by the equipment on show at the Chinese National Day parade on October 1, where new missiles, including ICBMs, were displayed for the first time, it seems Beijing is in no mood to follow through on its advice to its peers.

    India’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations Hardeep Puri welcomed Obama’s initiative at the Security Council and reiterated the country’s “unwavering commitment to global efforts for preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.” He however called for the “global elimination of nuclear weapons on a non-discriminatory basis” and asserted that India cannot accept calls for universalization of the NPT. Puri pointed out that nuclear weapons “are an integral part of India’s national security and will remain so, pending non-discriminatory and global nuclear disarmament.” . Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, meanwhile on September 29, 2009, promised India’s constructive participation in the negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty at the Conference on Disarmament.

    An Assessment

    Obama is the first American president to actively pursue the goal of nuclear disarmament. His initiative at the UN Security Council was praised by former high-ranking US officials, George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn, who noted that steps like UNSC 1887 can help build the “necessary political will” to achieve the goal of nuclear disarmament.

    However, roadblocks on the road to disarmament nirvana, as envisaged by Obama, remain. Domestic opposition to his efforts is strong, with Republican politicians criticising him for pursuing “dangerous, wishful thinking.” Getting the required 67 votes for a Senate ratification of the CTBT continues to present a difficult challenge. The US and other Nuclear Weapon States continue to hold nuclear weapons dear and Washington has also not agreed to adopt a no-first-use posture yet, a stance being advocated by scholars like Scott Sagan, and neither does UNSCR 1887 require NWS to do so. Obama himself has affirmed that the US will retain its deterrent capacity “as long as there is a country with nuclear weapons.” The administration’s policy of engagement with Iran and North Korea could backfire if these countries fail to reciprocate in which case the current imbroglios would persist and in fact get worse.

    NPT dilemmas seem starker than ever as May 2010 approaches. As Manmohan Singh pointed out on September 29, 2009, for global non-proliferation efforts to be successful, they should be “universal, comprehensive and non-discriminatory and linked to complete nuclear disarmament," a proposition which is currently not operational. Iran and Arab nations continue to point out the need to involve Israel in any disarmament mechanism.

    Obama’s call at the UN General Assembly to ensure that the “future does not belong to fear” is eloquent. But after living by the doctrine of nuclear deterrence religiously for the past 60 years and still being regulated by its tenets, for America to champion the cause of disarmament does seem out of place. However, it is also a fact that without American interest and support, whatever be the driving rationale, achieving any goals on the road to nuclear disarmament is almost impossible. While Obama has been candid enough to admit that he harbours “no illusions about the difficulty of bringing about a world without nuclear weapons,” it remains to be seen if the momentum that he has sought to create can be sustained into May 2010 and beyond.