In his first address to the UN General Assembly, President Obama called for “a new era of engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” Greater international cooperation is necessary, he argued, to achieve four key pillars: non-proliferation and disarmament; the promotion of peace and security; the preservation of our planet; and a global economy that advances opportunity for all people.
That the first pillar was nonproliferation and disarmament demonstrates the President’s belief that nuclear proliferation poses the greatest threat to U.S. and global security and his commitment to reestablishing U.S leadership on reducing nuclear dangers. He noted that the threat of the spread of nuclear weapons to additional states demands that we act, lest we “invite nuclear arms races in every region, and the prospect of wars and acts of terror on a scale that we can hardly imagine.”
To reduce nuclear dangers the President pledged that America
will pursue a new agreement with Russia to substantially reduce our strategic warheads and launchers. We will move forward with ratification of the Test Ban Treaty, and work with others to bring the treaty into force so that nuclear testing is permanently prohibited. We will complete a Nuclear Posture Review that opens the door to deeper cuts and reduces the role of nuclear weapons. And we will call upon countries to begin negotiations in January on a treaty to end the production of fissile material for weapons.
My key takeaways from the speech were:
1. While reducing nuclear dangers will require U.S. leadership, it is not something the U.S. can achieve on its own. Though oft-repeated, this is not a trivial insight: Preventing the further spread of nuclear weapons demands that the U.S. cooperate with others.
2. Obama explicitly mentioned the Nuclear Posture Review, noting that it will “open [sic] the door to deeper cuts and reduce [sic] the role of nuclear weapons.” As Joe Cirincione notes, the Defense Department will almost certainly take note of this pledge. But does this mean that the NPR will state that the U.S. can maintain its security with 1,000 total nuclear weapons? Assert clearly and unequivocally that the only purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter and perhaps respond to the use of nuclear weapons? Affirm that the U.S. does not need to design and build new nuclear weapons to maintain its deterrent? There’s no reason why it shouldn’t, but all that, including how Obama will react if it doesn’t, remains to be seen.
3. Like the Prague speech, Obama’s UN General Assembly address failed to mention that the growing threat posed by the spread of nuclear weapons has caused some very hawkish Republicans to endorse the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. Why the omission? I realize that both speeches have been delivered in front of an international audience, but by invoking the famous Wall Street Journal Op-Ed(s) by George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, Obama could reinforce his right flank against charges that his ambitious nuclear agenda is naive, dangerous, etc.
4. Obama rightly notes that “We know the future will be forged by deeds and not simply words. Speeches alone will not solve our problems — it will take persistent action.” Such actions have already been set in motion (see the START follow-on talks) and it’s doubly encouraging that the President plans to take further action over the course of the next two days.