Is That All There Is? Obama’s Disappointing Nuclear Legacy

President Barack Obama uses binoculars to view the DMZ from Observation Post Ouellette at Camp Bonifas, Republic of Korea, March 25, 2012.

White House / Chuck Kennedy

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President Barack Obama uses binoculars to view the DMZ from Observation Post Ouellette at Camp Bonifas, Republic of Korea, March 25, 2012.

The biggest roadblock to making the world safer from nuclear weapons turned out to be the president's own team.

American showman P.T. Barnum said, “Always leave them wanting more.” If the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit this week is President Barack Obama’s closing nuclear act, he will certainly be following Barnum’s dictum.

Seven years ago this April, in his first foreign policy speech as president, Obama pledged “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” He detailed an ambitious program in his Prague address, including an initiative to unite world leaders to secure all nuclear bomb material from terrorists.

Obama achieved only a fraction of what he had hoped.

His vision was correct. Every reduction in the global stockpile of 15,000 nuclear weapons makes us safer. Every move away from the immorality of nuclear use makes us more human. There was little debate on this score in the 2008 campaign. “The Cold War ended almost 20 years ago,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the GOP nominee, “and the time has come to take further measures to reduce dramatically the number of nuclear weapons in the world’s arsenals.”

McCain and Obama were backed by scores of former military and national security leaders, including 17 former cabinet members, as well as former generals, senior officials, nuclear scholars, and Democrat and Republican politicians. Eighty-eight percent of all the living former secretaries of state supported the project, as did 70 percent of all former national security advisors and 62 percent of all former secretaries of defense.

By April 2010, Obama had hit a nuclear trifecta: a new Nuclear Posture Review promised to reduce the role and number of US nuclear weapons; a treaty with Russia kept critical verification measures intact and trimmed both nations’ long-range nuclear arsenals; and the first Nuclear Security Summit, the largest convening ever of heads of state focused on nuclear policy.  

Obama successfully linked idealistic goals to practical, near-term security objectives. He impressed global audiences and domestic skeptics. “President Obama has turned the once utopian-sounding idea of global nuclear disarmament into a useful tool for U.S. foreign policy, “ wrote Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland. “His well-conceived, confidently executed three-part movement in statecraft this month should banish the notion that Obama’s ambitious nuclear goals spring from naiveté or inexperience.”

Since the summits began, 12 countries eliminated weapons-usable nuclear material, including 200 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from Ukraine — enough for four bombs — just months before that nation convulsed in conflict. Many other nations increased the security around their supplies and joined conventions against nuclear terrorism.

Obama’s most important achievement was the seven-nation accord that rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and put it under lock and camera. He offered Iran a choice at Prague between “increased isolation, international pressure and a potential nuclear arms race in the region” or “engagement…based on mutual interests and mutual respect.” The resulting dialogue produced a diplomatic triumph that prevented a war with Iran many thought inevitable. If it works, “it will be the major foreign policy achievement not only of this presidency but of this generation,” said Rachel Maddow. The New York Times called it “potentially one of the most consequential accords in recent diplomatic history.” Nuclear experts overwhelmingly agree the agreement stops the weapons threat from Iran and makes the world safer.

Impressive, but these accomplishments fall short of the policy transformation Obama sought.  

Obama hoped that by now he would have secured Senate approval of the nuclear test ban treaty, which he promised to “immediately and aggressively pursue.” Didn’t happen.

He wanted “a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons.” Not even close.  

He pledged to secure all nuclear materials within four years. The final summit will end with tons of material in 25 nations still unsecured, with a patchwork of policies rather than legally binding requirements and universal standards.

He intended to negotiate with Russia truly deep cuts in both arsenals and then “include all nuclear weapon states in this endeavor.” Russia refused.

These setbacks can be blamed on Russian intransigence and Republican politicization of national security, as Brookings Institution scholar Steven Pifer details. But the worst of the failures were self-inflicted. While he turned to other pressing issues, his Prague pledge to maintain a “safe, secure and effective arsenal” morphed into a $1 trillion plan to replace the entire Cold War nuclear arsenal. As his policy faltered, programs proceeded without his guidance. A maintenance program became a replacement program for every weapon, all with new capabilities, even new missions.

“Has the administration conducted a detailed analysis of eliminating one or more legs of the triad,” Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., asked at a House Armed Services Committee hearing in March, “or significantly altering the US nuclear posture?” The witnesses looked at each other and shrugged. “I’m not aware of any detailed look at that,” said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James agreed. Both asked for more money for new weapons, but not for any new examination of our ability to destroy human civilization.

This is precisely the problem. Yes, the Russians refused and the Republicans blocked, but Obama’s biggest foe was his own bureaucracy, including many of those he appointed to implement his nuclear policies.

He knew the danger. “Some argue that the spread of these weapons cannot be stopped, cannot be checked — that we are destined to live in a world where more nations and more people possess the ultimate tool of destruction,” he said in Prague, “Such fatalism is a deadly adversary.”

He didn’t expect that this adversary would be the cynicism and careerism of his own appointees. When Obama stopped pushing his nuclear policies in 2011 (save for Iran), the nuclear-industrial complex took over. Those supporting his views, particularly in the State Department, were outnumbered by those, particularly in the Defense Department, who opposed, even mocked, his goals. Policy stalled; contracts raced on.

It may not be too late. Before a new arms race begins in earnest, Obama could move to delay or cancel some of the new weapons, notably the new nuclear cruise missile and the new ICBM, as former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry urges. There is no shortage of other recommendations. But he will have to be bold, as bold has he was at the beginning of his presidency.


If he follows another Barnum adage, the president may yet secure his legacy: Fortune always favors the brave, and never helps a man who does not help himself. 

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