Published in the Waterloo Region Record
References to nuclear disarmament were nowhere to be found last week in U.S. President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address.
But in April 2009, less than three months after taking office for his first term, Obama delivered a seminal speech in Prague articulating his vision for a world free of nuclear weapons,
leading some to believe that nuclear abolition would become a top foreign policy priority under his administration. And it didn’t take long for the notion of “the Obama moment” to gradually find a place in the lexicon of international disarmament circles, where it was used as a key point of reference to frame the context for nuclear abolition prospects going forward.
Six months after the Prague speech, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Norwegian Nobel committee chair Thorbjørn Jagland specifically highlighted Obama’s vision of a world free of nuclear arms as a key driver for the decision to award the most prestigious peace prize in the world to the president less than a year after taking office.
The message seemed clear: the prize was awarded not for what had been accomplished, but for the promise of what might be.
Cautious optimism was in the air. 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.
However, with few exceptions, the grand rhetoric at Prague failed to translate into concrete results on nuclear disarmament, and the optimism at the start 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 be nothing more than a political mirage — a faint vision on the horizon with little meaningful action taken.
At best, one can say that in his first term the president 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. Substantially moving forward on nuclear disarmament would entail a tumultuous ideological struggle with political and military establishments reluctant to embrace any significant change.
At worse, not only has Obama retreated from his vision, but the prospects for American leadership on nuclear disarmament have actually diminished during his presidency.
Regrettably, most evidence points to the latter.
The Washington Post reported last September 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.” At a time of severe fiscal constraints, the cost alone of this modernization — estimated at more than $350 billion — would be utterly disconcerting. But the greatest cost is borne by a severely weakened international security climate.
Although it is understood that this massive overhaul was a necessary trade-off to get the U.S. Congress to ratify the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia — no doubt 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.
What’s more, by modernizing its arsenal and holding fast to its nuclear doctrine, the United States creates strong disincentives for non-nuclear weapons states to continue adhering to their non-proliferation obligations.
The reality is that 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 increasingly challenged by a growing number of nations.
Other issues are hard to reconcile with Obama’s vision of a nuclear weapons-free world, and tend to overshadow modest advances such as New START and the 2010 decision to release previously classified information on the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. For example, 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. Likewise, the United States remains the sole supplier of nuclear arms under NATO’s nuclear sharing agreements and has nuclear weapons permanently stationed in several European countries.
The troubling reality is that the U.S. still embraces nuclear deterrence as a valid security doctrine, despite overwhelming evidence that it is a fundamentally flawed formulation. 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, thus making their use run contrary to international humanitarian law.
Achieving complete and irreversible nuclear disarmament will no doubt be a fraught and multi-faceted process that goes beyond the abilities of any one state. But despite the inherent uncertainties of such a historic undertaking, one thing seems clear: it will certainly not happen unless the United States conscientiously assumes a leading role to move the issue forward.
During the last election campaign, 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 a second chance does not mean a second missed opportunity.
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