Restoring the American economy and leading a global revival. A responsible withdrawal from Iraq. A new and revised strategy for Afghanistan. A way to prevent Pakistan from falling apart. Generating new momentum in Middle East peace efforts, just as elections and events on the ground harden attitudes. Climate change; terrorism; piracy.
President Obama’s foreign policy agenda is so full of major challenges that it is not easy to establish priorities. But his maiden trip abroad and major speeches made clear that he is intensely focused on the most strategic issue of all: the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation and the need to move boldly to eliminate them.
If the dimensions of that central global challenge weren’t clear enough, North Korea’s test of a long-range missile over Japan dramatized the stakes just as Obama outlined his goal to tackle the nuclear threat in a speech in Prague on April 5.
Noting that as the only country to have used a nuclear weapon the United States has a “moral responsibility” to lead, he pledged to seek ratification of the test ban treaty, cut back strategic arms, convene a summit to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and push for a nuclear fuel bank to meet legitimate demands for nuclear energy.
But he signaled that reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons will be the centerpiece of his foreign policy with a cordial one-on-one at the initial G-20 meeting the week before with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
The Obama administration understands that they cannot make great progress on this issue unless they can forge a more cooperative relationship with Russia — one that recovers from the hostility that developed during the George W. Bush terms.
There are approximately 25,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and the United States and Russia possess about 24,000 of them. While serious reductions in the numbers of warheads and short-range missiles have been made, the failure of the two countries to go further has contributed to the desire of other countries to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. Regional powers have decided that the most effective way to deal with tensions in their respective regions is to build the bomb. With programs for nuclear energy and the path to nuclear weapons expanding, the proliferation of nuclear material is increasing the likelihood that terrorist groups could gain access to such weapons.
President Obama told French and German students that while he recognized his most immediate task is to restore America’s economic vitality, he would most like to look back on his tenure and say he had reduced the threat of nuclear terrorism.
“And we can’t reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism,” he added, “unless those who possess the most nuclear weapons — the United States and Russia — take serious steps to reduce our stockpiles. So we want to pursue that vigorously in the years ahead.”
President Obama is drawing upon a wide range of expertise in his efforts to accomplish what neither Bill Clinton nor George W. Bush could do during two successive eight-year terms: deal resolutely with this costly and dangerous legacy of the Cold War. Lacking political clout (Clinton) and any strategic focus (Bush), both presidents actually expanded the U.S. nuclear posture.
The most far-reaching case for elimination of nuclear weapons was made in 2007 by an eminent group of former U.S. leaders: George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn. Their report, “Reykjavik Revisited,” recalled the unfulfilled 1986 vision of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to eliminate nuclear arms.
Several more recent reports have fleshed out specific steps to achieve that vision. One of most thorough is an article, “The Logic of Zero,” in the November/December 2008 “Foreign Affairs” by Ivo Daalder and Jan Lodal.
Noting that U.S. nuclear policy remains stuck in a Cold War context when the actual threat has shifted dramatically to the danger of a terrorist attack, Daalder and Lodal argue that the only real purpose of nuclear weapons today is to prevent their use by another country or organization. Therefore, while retaining perhaps 1,000 warheads until “zero” is within reach, the real work must focus on strengthening various treaties and agreements to ban testing, improve monitoring and provide nuclear material for peaceful energy purposes.
To convince other countries to reduce their arsenals or drop their pursuit of nuclear weapons, the authors say the U.S. must take the lead. “A willingness to act boldly to reduce its own reliance on nuclear weapons and drastically cut its own arsenal can give Washington the credibility necessary to succeed.”
However articulate Obama may be on this issue, a sound strategy will have to be implemented. Ultimately, only concrete results matter. And each of the hardest cases, such as North Korea, Iran, Pakistan and Israel, will require a different set of approaches, ranging from confidence-building measures to direct talks to international consensus. A more detailed discussion of those approaches will be concluded next month.
Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and worked on national security issues for the State Department. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.