President Obama gave a high-profile speech in Berlin last week, approximately 300 words of which was devoted to articulating his 2nd term priorities on nuclear weapons. In particular the President proposed to:
- Reshape America’s obsolete nuclear strategy, paving the way for up to a one-third reduction in deployed strategic nuclear warheads with Russia below the New START levels;
- Work to diminish the numbers of US and Russian tactical or short range nuclear weapons;
- Build bipartisan support in favor of US ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty;
- Stop the spread of nuclear weapons to other states; and
- Secure nuclear materials, prevent nuclear terrorism, and host a 4th Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in 2016
For our press release in response to the speech see here. For my pre-speech preview (in the form of my June Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists column), see here. And for my quick reaction to the speech, see here.
While I commend the President for taking an important step to update nuclear policy guidance and stating that the United States is ready to seek a 1/3 reduction in deployed strategic warheads below New START, the speech was less ambitious than I hoped it would be and didn’t propose much in the way of a plan of action to move the agenda forward.
The directives the new guidance gives to the military will further reduce the diminishing emphasis the departments place on nuclear weapons. But given that the lower bound of our New START negotiating position in 2009/10 appears to have been 1,300 deployed warheads, last week’s announcement hardly seems like that radical of a change. As Hans Kristensen notes, “the official descriptions of the new guidance show that its retains much of the Cold War thinking that President Obama said in Prague four years ago that he wanted to put an end to.”
Perhaps the biggest head scratcher from the guidance is the administration’s new plan to sustain US nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure at an estimated cost of at least $300 billion over the next 25 years. Overall, Obama failed to address the immense costs required to maintain an excessive arsenal, and that our policy should reflect need and affordability. Something along the lines of “strategy wears a dollar sign” would have been a great place to start.
Moreover, the President conditioned additional reductions on Russian reciprocity. On the one hand, our willingness to go lower puts the ball in Russia’s court. On the other hand, Russian reciprocity might not be forthcoming anytime soon. In the months ahead the administration should direct the Pentagon to explore other initiatives pursuant to the new guidance that do not require the immediate cooperation of others.
While Obama reaffirmed his support for the CTBT, he didn’t make the national security case for the treaty nor did he outline how he plans to advance the prospects for the treaty’s ratification. Likewise, it is good news that the United States will host a 4th Nuclear Security Summit in 2016, but the President did not provide an update on the goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years nor did he describe the great deal of work that remains to be done over the next four years. Meanwhile, the growing budget for nuclear weapons sustainment and modernization continues to eat into the budget for vital nuclear and radiological material security programs.
In short, I think the President identified the right nuclear security objectives and sent the message that this agenda will remain a top priority in his second term. However, Joe Cirincione nicely captured the shortcomings of the speech in a recent tweet: “Obama devoted 280 words to nuclear policy in Berlin, about 35 more than he devoted to saying hello. I hope he has more to say soon.”
While Obama’s speech and the new policy guidance that accompanied it outlined important, albeit relatively modest changes to US nuclear strategy, the Republican reaction to these initiatives has been predictably shrill, obstructionist, and unhinged. (I chalk the ICBM caucus’ reaction up to classic pork barrel politics.) Stay tuned to this space in the coming days for responses to those who argue that the United States must continue to maintain a redundant and unaffordable nuclear arsenal.