President Obama honors Nunn and Lugar at the National Defense University

Today (December 3) President Obama spoke at the National Defense University (NDU) as part of a day-long symposium to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program and honor the two men most responsible for its extraordinary achievements: former Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA) and outgoing Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN). Your humble blogger was lucky enough to attend both the symposium and the President’s speech.

You can read the text of the President’s remarks here.

In general, there wasn’t anything earth-shatteringly new in the address (save for some good jokes from the President about traveling with Senator Lugar back when they were both Senators). The part of his comments that appears to have grabbed the most press attention was the President’s clear message that the use of chemical weapons “would be totally unacceptable” that “there would be consequences.” As I recall President Obama sent a similar message last August.

In his remarks the President commended the phenomenal success of CTR, reiterated that nuclear terrorism is one of the greatest threats to US national security, warned that far too much nuclear material lacks adequate protection, pledged to continue investments in nuclear material security programs, expressed a willingness to work with Russia as an equal partner to update CTR to comport with current realities, and book-ended the speech with his commitment to seek a world without nuclear weapons. Obama was lean on specifics about what he hopes to accomplish in his second term on the nuclear threat reduction front – though he said at the outset of his comments that his intent was not to give a major speech, but to honor Senators Nunn and Lugar.

Still, I think the President’s appearance today was significant for several reasons.

First, as Joe Cirincione noted on the Rachel Maddow show tonight, it was significant that the President gave one of his first (if not the first?) public speeches since his re-election on the nuclear threat. The President gave the first major national security address of his first term on the nuclear threat in Prague in April 2009.  

In addition, Obama delivered his remarks in front of many of the most important stakeholders in the interagency responsible for nuclear policy and security, including the Secretary of Defense, the head of US Strategic Command, and other key officials at the National Security Council and the Departments of Defense and State. This heightened the President’s message that nuclear threat reduction will continue to be one of his top national security priorities in his second term.

As it should be. As we’ve discussed previously, despite some important successes in his first term, there is still much to be done and many boxes on the President’s nuclear risk reduction agenda that remain unchecked.

P.S. The President stated in his remarks that “over the past four years, we’ve continued to make critical investments in our threat reduction programs — not just at DOD, but at Energy and at State. In fact, we’ve been increasing funding, and sustaining it. And even as we make some very tough fiscal choices, we’re going to keep investing in these programs — because our national security depends on it.” Earlier this year I devoted a Bulletin column to evaluating this claim and found that the White House has actually begun to scale back these budgets.