Originally Published 2016-09-07 10:53:44 Published on Sep 07, 2016
His 2009 speech electrified the world when he announced "as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the US has a moral responsibility to act."
Obama's last sally for a safer world

This year, the 71st session of the UN General Assembly will formally open in New York on September 13 and over a fortnight, presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers will take the podium. There is widespread speculation that this being US President Barack Obama’s last plenary, he is considering an address that could have significant implications for US nuclear policy and for the global nuclear disarmament agenda which has now remained frozen for decades.

Since Ben Rhodes, US Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications, announced on June 6, "I can promise you today that President Obama is continuing to review a number of ways he can advance the Prague agenda over the course of the next seven months. Put simply, our work is not finished on these issues," the White House has maintained a studied silence on the subject despite the debate under way in the arms control community and among US allies, especially those that enjoy the security of its nuclear umbrella.

Mr. Obama’s speech in April 2009 at the Hradcany Square in Prague electrified the world when he announced that "as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act" and pledged "America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." He promised that "to put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same." The citation for his Nobel Peace Prize later in 2009 praised his "vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons."

Obama’s nuclear record

Barack Obama, Obama, Nuclear Security Summit

Seven years later, President Obama’s nuclear record is a mixed one. The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) issued the following year (the US undertakes an NPR roughly once a decade) referred to the objectives of "reducing the role of US nuclear weapons" in national security strategy while maintaining strategic deterrence and "stability at reduced nuclear force levels." The Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy that followed in 2013 stated that the US would only consider the use of nuclear of nuclear weapons "in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners." The Defence Department was directed to "strengthen non-nuclear capabilities and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks."

Negotiations with Russia led to the New START Treaty coming into force in February 2011 which limits US and Russian nuclear arsenals to 700 deployed ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles), SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles) and heavy bombers and 1550 deployed nuclear warheads. Follow-on negotiations stalled thereafter and the New START will lapse in 2021, unless extended by a five-year period.

Mr. Obama also launched the cycle of Nuclear Security Summits in 2010 to highlight the threats posed by terrorists seeking nuclear materials. This concluded earlier this year with the Washington summit. The nuclear deal with Iran has been praised generally though it has faced criticism from the US' regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Described as an "executive agreement", it has not been submitted for approval to the Congress where it would have faced Republican opposition.

The nuclear deal with Iran has been praised generally though it has faced criticism from the US' regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

One of Mr. Obama’s boldest decisions was to visit Hiroshima earlier this year, becoming the first serving US President to do so, 71 years after the city was destroyed by the first nuclear bomb. Bypassing the debate about whether his speech would be seen as an 'apology', he called upon countries that possess nuclear weapons to "have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them."

Running into resistance

Barack Obama, Obama, CTBT, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation Obama addresses the crowd in Prague, 2009 | Courtesy: Flickr user adrigu

Yet these achievements fall far short of the promises of the Prague speech. The CTBT (Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty) ratification, which Mr. Obama had promised to push through vigorously, continues to languish. The Nuclear Security Summits created the buzz normally associated with summitry but remained content with shared best practices and voluntarily announced measures.

Meaningful negotiations on nuclear issues remain deadlocked. But most important, notwithstanding the careful wording in the 2010 NPR and 2013 Employment Strategy, there has been no significant shift in US nuclear weapons policy. Further, to push through the ratification of the New START treaty, Mr. Obama also authorised a $1 trillion budget over the next three decades for maintaining and improving the US nuclear arsenal under the Stockpile Stewardship Program.

Realising his failure with the CTBT ratification, Mr. Obama is planning to submit a resolution on this issue to the UN Security Council, 20 years after the CTBT was opened for signature. The US, under President Bill Clinton, had pushed the CTBT negotiations but in 1999, the treaty was rejected by the Senate on account of concerns about its impact on the US nuclear arsenal. Given the current mood in the Senate, it is unlikely to budge.

Realising his failure with the CTBT ratification, Mr. Obama is planning to submit a resolution on this issue to the UN Security Council, 20 years after the CTBT was opened for signature.

Even though a resolution by the UN Security Council calling on states to uphold the CTBT would be non-binding, such a move has already been criticised by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker "as an affront to the Congress and the American people." And it is unlikely to persuade China, Iran or Israel to ratify, or for that matter, India, Pakistan and North Korea to sign up!

The idea arousing the maximum interest is therefore a shift away from the current US policy that countenances a ‘first-use’ of nuclear weapons (though under "extreme circumstances") in response to even a conventional attack, to a 'no-first-use' (NFU) of nuclear weapons, implying nuclear retaliation only in response to a nuclear attack. Of the nine countries known to possess nuclear weapons, only China and India maintain an NFU, though in 2003, India qualified its NFU by expanding its right of nuclear retaliation to cover not just nuclear, but also a chemical or biological weapon attack. All others maintain a 'first-use' policy. In recent years, there have been suggestions that China’s growing concerns about US conventional superiority might push it to review its NFU policy.

Considering that the US accounts for more than 45 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal, enjoys overwhelming superiority in conventional capabilities and a significant technological advantage in cyber and space capabilities, less dependence on nuclear weapons is not going to diminish its security. Further, a US lead in this regard will create a push for other nuclear weapon states to follow, generating momentum for a global nuclear restraint regime.

There are two groups of naysayers arguing against a shift. The first is the realist-sceptic who maintains that declarations are mere words and will not be trusted by potential adversaries. In doing so, they overlook the fact that first-use policies are inherently destabilising because of high alert postures and tactical deployments, tempting the adversary into a pre-emptive strike. The second group of naysayers consists of US allies and partners. North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies such as the UK and France are unenthusiastic because it would generate questions in their own societies about the wisdom of their 'first-use' policies. Others like Japan and South Korea feel that an NFU implies a weakening of US commitment to their security. It is instructive to recall that a similar debate had raged in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s. Questioning US commitment to use nuclear weapons from its homeland against a Soviet advance into west Europe thereby risking retaliation, European allies demanded forward-basing, leading to the deployment of intermediate-range Pershing and Cruise missiles in west Europe. A decade later, the same argument was turned on its head to claim that forward-basing diminished US commitment and the Europeans became strong supporters of the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty (1987) which eliminated intermediate-range nuclear weapons from Europe!

A moral revolution

The nuclear taboo has held since 1945 and no country wants to see it violated. Since it is not possible to wish away the existing nuclear arsenals, the only way forward is greater nuclear restraint, which is what the NFU does. In a vibrant democracy like the US, a public articulation of an NFU will provide a changed backdrop to its nuclear strategy, posture, deployment and employment guidance. Further, it can permit the US to question the need for tactical nuclear weapons or even vulnerable ICBMs that are maintained on high alert.

Moreover, other nuclear weapon states will find it impossible not to respond. Voluntary declarations, followed by a collective NFU, would become a realisable objective. In 1945, the US shaped the first nuclear age with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, President Obama has the opportunity to shape the 21st century second nuclear age by launching the 'moral revolution' that he promised in Hiroshima. It could become his defining legacy.

This commentary originally appeared in The Hindu.

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Rakesh Sood

Rakesh Sood

Ambassador Rakesh Sood was a Distinguished Fellow at ORF. He has over 38 years of experience in the field of foreign affairs economic diplomacy and ...

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