Obama and Nuclear Weapons: Calls for Bold Action

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Barack Obama
Barack Obama. Photo: Matt Ortega/flickr.

On 19 June, President Obama announced his intention to reduce the number of deployed nuclear weapons by up to a third. Speaking in Berlin, he said ‘So long as nuclear weapons exist we are not truly safe’, while also announcing that the US will work with NATO allies to seek ‘bold reductions’ in both US and Russian tactical weapons in Europe.

He pledged to pursue US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and to begin negotiations to end the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons – neither of which has made any headway in the last fourteen years. He also announced that the US will host a Nuclear Security Summit in 2016, following previous successful summits in Washington, DC and Seoul, and the forthcoming 2014 summit in the Netherlands.

In a more progressive move, President Obama issued new guidance for US nuclear policies to begin the process of updating and aligning directives and contingency plans to be implemented over the course of the next year. The Department of Defense guidance aims at reducing the role of nuclear weapons by strengthening non-nuclear capabilities and reducing the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks, along with focusing on more likely 21st century contingencies and reducing the role of launch under attack (launch on warning).


The Berlin speech was both welcome and overdue. It follows Obama’s inspiring 2009 Prague speech where he committed to ‘seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons’, and undertook many of the same goals just outlined in Berlin.

Four years on and President Obama can point with some pride to the success of New START, the Nuclear Security Summit process, and the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which considerably reduced US reliance on nuclear weapons. However, the rest of the Prague agenda has been trapped by inertia and resistance in the US and in other nuclear weapons possessors, as demonstrated by the repetition in substance and intent of the ‘Berlin agenda’.

Confusing motives

US nuclear policy is increasingly inconsistent in three key areas. First, in order to secure the ratification of New START, President Obama called for $80 billion to be invested over ten years as part of a nuclear modernization programme – a sum hard to justify in any financial climate and within the context of the nuclear draw-down. This decision engendered deep cynicism in allies keen to move ahead with nuclear disarmament and prevent nuclear weapons proliferation.

Second, no sooner did the 2010 Review Conference of the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) secure a much sought-after consensus than the US responded by dragging its feet in fulfilling its commitment to a conference on steps towards a WMD free zone in the Middle East. The true commitment of the US (and others such as Russia and France) to the shared and agreed commitments under the NPT has been openly questioned.

A final indication of confusion is the US refusal to participate in two international dialogues on nuclear weapons this year. The 127-strong meeting in Oslo in March on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons brought together a diverse mix of states and civil society to hold a facts-based discussion on the aftermath of a nuclear detonation. Despite the participation of India, Pakistan and Iran, the US did not attend. In addition, a UN General Assembly working group is meeting in Geneva this summer to develop proposals on multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations; the US, again, has chosen not to attend.

The reason given for abstaining was that the Oslo conference and the working group jeopardize the step-by-step approach towards disarmament, rooted in the NPT. However, given that the meetings do not challenge the NPT, and that the step-by-step process has been stalled for over 15 years, the Obama administration’s actions seem at odds with the president’s determination to pursue a world free from nuclear weapons. US absence from the Oslo conference appears contrary to the principles outlined in the Prague speech: ‘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.’ The Oslo conference clearly aligns with the president’s vision; US absence does not.


These incongruencies raise questions about what comes beyond Berlin. Steps such as CTBT ratification and further reductions may seem straight-forward, but in reality they encounter enormous challenges due to entrenched domestic and international politics. The Berlin speech contains all the aspirations of Prague 2009 and suggests that President Obama remains personally committed to a nuclear weapon free world. But it begs the question: how will he make it work this time?

This is a cross-post from Chatham House.

Patricia Lewis is Research Director, International Security at Chatham House.

Heather Williams is Research Fellow, International Security at Chatham House.

For additional reading on this topic please see:

Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty: Background and Current Developments

War-head Worries: Asia’s Expanding Nuclear Arsenals

The ‘P5’ Conferences: Past Meetings and Policy Considerations for Geneva 2013

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s featured Weekly Dossiers and Security Watch.

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