Prague, Revisited

Written by: Kingston Reif

Published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Online on September 17, 2012

Article summary below; read the full text online.

Few national security issues are as important to President Barack Obama as reducing the threat posed by nuclear weapons. Obama devoted his first major foreign policy speech as president to the subject in April 2009 in Prague, where he pledged America’s commitment to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons. In particular, the president laid out a series of interim steps that the United States must take to reduce the risk of a nuclear catastrophe. In articulating this vision, Obama was acting on a growing bipartisan consensus most closely associated with Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn, who argued in a now famous 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed that the nuclear status quo — defined by the potential spread of nuclear weapons to additional states, the threat of nuclear terrorism, and the continued existence of bloated nuclear weapons and materials stockpiles — is no longer tenable.

With the November presidential election rapidly approaching and Obama’s first term drawing to a close, the time is ripe to assess the president’s follow-through on the ambitious nuclear security agenda he laid out in Prague. Overall, his record has been strong; the steps taken over the past three years have increased US national security and set the stage for further action. However, resistance from Russia, domestic political obstruction by Republicans, and the exigencies of an election year have combined to stymie next steps. In addition, Iran’s nuclear aspirations and North Korea’s intransigence continue to put significant pressure on the nonproliferation regime. Compared with what has been accomplished thus far, any further progress must await the result of the election.