Obama’s second chance at nuclear disarmament

Wendy Stocker Nuclear Weapons

Cesar Jaramillo

The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 34 Issue 1 Spring 2013 

Achieving complete and irreversible nuclear disarmament has been an unequivocal aspiration of the international community since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entered into force more than four decades ago. No one state can hope to achieve this goal unilaterally. But one thing seems clear: a world free of nuclear weapons will certainly not happen unless the United States conscientiously assumes a leading role.   

The ‘Obama moment’
References to nuclear disarmament were nowhere to be found in President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address. But in April 2009, less than three months after taking office during his first term, Obama delivered a seminal speech in Prague articulating his vision for a world free of nuclear weapons. Some commentators believed that nuclear abolition would become a top foreign policy priority of his administration.

Obama’s bold words in Prague resonated around the world. It wasn’t long before ‘the Obama moment’ found a place in the lexicon of international disarmament circles, where it was used to reframe the context for nuclear abolition prospects.

The enthusiasm engendered by the speech certainly seemed warranted—not so much because of the novelty of the message itself, but because of the person delivering it. Although the urgent need for nuclear disarmament had been abundantly clear for years, the fact that the leader of the most powerful nation in history endorsed this objective infused it with an immediate sense of hope. 

Six months after the Prague speech, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland specifically pointed to this vision of a world free of nuclear arms as a key factor in the decision to award the most prestigious peace prize in the world to a U.S. president less than a year after he took office.

The prize was awarded not for what had been accomplished, but for the promise of what might be. For the first time in a generation, the United States—one of only two nations to count its nuclear arsenal in the thousands of warheads, and the only country to have ever used such weapons in conflict—appeared serious about leading the world on a path to nuclear disarmament. 

An empty promise?
With few exceptions, the grand rhetoric at Prague failed to translate into concrete results on nuclear disarmament. The optimism at the beginning of Obama’s first term has considerably waned as he starts his second. Unless the President revives the audacity with which he articulated his vision of a nuclear weapons-free world, the ‘Obama moment’ will have been nothing more than a political mirage.

It can be said that Obama’s first term got so bogged down in protracted political fights over such domestic issues as health care and the fiscal crisis that he had little political capital—or time—to spare. Moving forward on nuclear disarmament would have entailed a tumultuous ideological struggle with political and military establishments reluctant to embrace significant change.

But it might also be observed that, not only has Obama retreated from his vision, but the prospects for U.S. leadership on nuclear disarmament have actually diminished during his presidency. 

The Washington Post reported in September 2012 that “the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the most powerful but indiscriminate class of weapons ever created, is set to undergo the costliest overhaul in its history” (Priest 2012). The cost: more than $350-billion. 

This massive overhaul was the price demanded by Congress to ratify the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia. Although the new treaty is a welcome development, heavy investments in the modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal will only ensure that the threat posed by the most destructive weapons ever conceived is perpetuated for decades to come.

By modernizing its arsenal and holding fast to its nuclear doctrine, the United States creates strong disincentives for non-nuclear weapons states to adhere to their non-proliferation obligations. In fact, the discriminatory nature of the nuclear disarmament regime—whereby non-proliferation is framed as an obligation and disarmament as a mere aspiration—will always be untenable. Not surprisingly, the logic by which the very states that have developed, stockpiled, tested, and used nuclear weapons deem themselves fit to castigate others on the risks of proliferation is being challenged by a growing number of nations.

Other impediments to the vision of a world without nuclear weapons remain. The United States has yet to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, more than 15 years after it was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. And it remains the sole supplier of nuclear arms under NATO’s nuclear sharing agreements, with nuclear weapons permanently stationed in several European countries.

The troubling reality is that the United States still embraces nuclear deterrence as a valid security doctrine, despite overwhelming evidence that it is fundamentally flawed. Nuclear weapons do not enhance the national security of those that hold them and can only result in the indiscriminate killing of many thousands of individuals, making their use contrary to International Humanitarian Law.

In the 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama spoke of efforts to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the “wrong hands.” But ALL hands are the “wrong hands.”

Needed: profound changes
In Obama’s Prague remarks, hopefulness was tempered by an acknowledgement of the difficult road ahead. “I am not naive,” he said. “This goal will not be reached quickly, perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence.” He was right. And if he is to use his second term in office to advance the goal of nuclear disarmament, he must realize that, beyond patience and persistence, certain fundamental changes to global governance mechanisms and international security arrangements are required.

In one of their op-eds on nuclear disarmament published by The Wall Street Journal in 2011, former U.S. secretaries of state and defense George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn insightfully stated that “a world without nuclear weapons will not simply be today’s world minus nuclear weapons.” The primary implication here is that the pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons must include changes in the global polity that will support nuclear disarmament.

What would a world without nuclear weapons be like? Which institution and sets of relationships need to be revised? What norms must emerge? Which long-accepted truths need to be challenged? These questions must be addressed.       

Some fertile areas for examination: 

  • The state of the multilateral disarmament machinery: Embodied by the troubled Conference on Disarmament, which has been unable to agree even on a program of work for over 15 years, the disarmament machinery is in a severe state of disrepair.
  • United Nations Security Council membership: The case has been made for several years that permanent membership in the UNSC by five states (which also happen to be the five Nuclear Weapons states under the NPT) is an anachronistic arrangement that must be revisited.  
  • The development and deployment of missile defence systems: Although missile defence has increasingly become a defining feature of security arrangements involving, among others, the United States, Europe, Iran, China, India, and Russia, both its technical merits and its purported security advantages are increasingly disputed. 
  • The role of the International Atomic Energy Agency: In a nuclear weapons-free world, the structure, budget, and mandate of the IAEA may need to be revisited. Alternatively, a new international agency could ensure that progress on nuclear disarmament is permanent and irreversible. 
  • The threat of non-state actors: Efforts of non-state actors to secure nuclear weapons have been widely documented, but multilateral treaties such as the NPT remain state-centric and can only regulate the behaviour of states parties. 
  • The unequal application of norms within multilateral institutions: The pursuit of certain capabilities is often portrayed as either ‘provocative behaviour’ or ‘business as usual,’ depending on the country involved. But the capabilities must be universally censured, no matter which regime wields them.  

A time for action
The capacity for global leadership by the United States on issues it deems important remains unrivaled. With its vast diplomatic apparatus—reinforced by a mighty military and a still powerful economic engine—the United States is uniquely positioned to lead the international community on a path to nuclear disarmament.

For the same reasons, the country’s reluctance to prioritize this goal and its outright resistance to concrete actions that would bring the world closer to nuclear disarmament will severely hinder any significant progress.

During the last election campaign, President Obama vowed to “finish what we started.” Having won a second term, he has another chance to actively pursue the vision of a nuclear weapons-free world. One can only hope that this second chance does not mean a second missed opportunity.   


Obama, President Barack. 2009. Remarks by President Barack Obama, Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic. The White House, April 5.   

_____. 2013. The 2013 State of the Union. The White House, February 12. 

Priest, Dana. 2012. Aging U.S. nuclear arsenal slated for costly and long-delayed modernization. The Washington Post, September 15.

 Shultz, George, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn. 2011. Deterrence in the age of nuclear proliferation. The Wall Street Journal, March 7.  

 Bold words by Obama in Prague 

The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the cold war.


One nuclear weapon exploded in one city—be it New York or Moscow, Islamabad or Mumbai, Tokyo or Tel Aviv, Paris or Prague—could kill hundreds of thousands of people. And no matter where it happens, there is no end to what the consequences might be for our global safety, our security, our society, our economy, to our ultimate survival.


As a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it; we can start it.


We will strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a basis for cooperation. The basic bargain is sound. Countries with nuclear weapons will move towards disarmament, countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them, and all countries can access peaceful nuclear energy. 


I know there are some who will question whether we can act on such a broad agenda…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.


Today I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.


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