‘They are saluting his commitment to disarmament’

Originally published here.

President Barack Obama meets with, from left: former Defense Secretary William Perry; former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn; former Secretary of State George P. Shultz; and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office.

President Barack Obama meets with, from left: former Defense Secretary William Perry; former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn; former Secretary of State George P. Shultz; and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office. (May 2009. Photo by Peter Souza.)

At the beginning of January 2007, four well-respected US statesmen got together and published an extraordinary editorial in the Wall Street Journal. It was based on their 40-plus years of experience in national and international affairs, working with both Democratic and Republican presidents.

George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn had this to say:

Nuclear weapons today present tremendous dangers, but also an historic opportunity. U.S. leadership will be required to take the world to the next stage — to a solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally as a vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world.

Nuclear weapons were essential to maintaining international security during the Cold War because they were a means of deterrence. The end of the Cold War made the doctrine of mutual Soviet-American deterrence obsolete. Deterrence continues to be a relevant consideration for many states with regard to threats from other states. But reliance on nuclear weapons for this purpose is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.

The piece goes on to mention President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev’s historic summit in Reykjavik nearly twenty years ago, during which the two leaders discussed ending the nuclear arms race once and for all. The authors list very specific answers to their ultimate question:

What should be done? Can the promise of the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and the possibilities envisioned at Reykjavik be brought to fruition? We believe that a major effort should be launched by the United States to produce a positive answer through concrete stages.

Several weeks later, Mikhail Gorbachev voiced his support, saying:

We must put the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons back on the agenda, not in a distant future but as soon as possible. It links the moral imperative — the rejection of such weapons from an ethical standpoint — with the imperative of assuring security. It is becoming clearer that nuclear weapons are no longer a means of achieving security; in fact, with every passing year they make our security more precarious.

Meanwhile, that very same year, a new, rather ambitious Democratic Senator was working with a long-time Republican Senator on a nuclear non-proliferation bill. S.1977 essentially followed the principles laid out in the January 2007 Wall Street Journal editorial, specifically:

The provisions of S. 1977 include the following: support for an international nuclear fuel reserve to discourage countries from building their own uranium enrichment capability; additional funding to strengthen the inspection capabilities of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); talks with Russia to further reduce global nuclear arsenals; progress on a verifiable global ban on the production of fissile material for weapons; reconsideration of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; expansion of export controls and interdiction capabilities; and the establishment of a commission to develop recommendations about U.S. nonproliferation policy.

The bill became known as the Obama-Hagel Nuclear Weapons Threat Reduction Act. The entire bill never became law, but essential parts of it were adopted as amendments to other bills.

Fast-forward to November 2008. The young, ambitious Democratic Senator who sponsored that bill handily wins the US presidential election. For the first time since the Reagan years, we finally have someone in the White House who is very vocal about his interest in eliminating nuclear weapons. Indeed, he even gave a pivotal speech early one April morning Prague which many seem to have forgotten, a speech in which he expressed his desire to negotiate a new START treaty, ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, pursue a treaty to end the production of weapons-usable fissile material, strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and a number of other goals.

Not unsurprisingly, the “four statesmen” who penned that January 2007 Wall Street Journal editorial strongly support President Barack Obama’s nuclear arms control agenda. Most recently, they spoke up about his chairing of a September 24, 2009 meeting of the UN Security Council, in which the Council unanimously adopted a US-drafted resolution “to seek a safer world for all and to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons…”, lauding the resolution as but one of many critical steps the president intends to take toward moving away from the Cold War state of mind that has characterized the US “nuclear state of mind” for so long.

So when Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last week, the only people who weren’t surprised were those of us who follow nuclear weapons issues, and actually read the Nobel Peace Prize committee’s press release. Among other things, it said:

The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.

I spoke to Daryl Kimball, the Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, about his thoughts on Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I think he clears up a lot of the uncertainty that many have expressed.

Clearly what the Nobel Committee is doing is they are recognizing the fact that Obama has embraced and championed an action plan for reducing the threat that nuclear weapons will be used, that they will spread, and for the steps he’s actively pursuing, to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons so that we can achieve a world without nuclear weapons.

I think… it underscores the value and the importance of US leadership — not necessarily Obama in particular, but US leadership — on this issue. Only the United States can shape the debates in the ways that it needs to be shaped in order to deal with the multiple problems and challenges we face with nuclear weapons.

He’s meeting with some early successes here that could lead to more dramatic gains in the near future. Like many Nobel Prizes… they’re providing positive reinforcement for an American administration that is moving in a direction that the international community supports, and for which there is growing bipartisan consensus here in the United States.


If you notice in the speech he gave to the General Assembly, on the 23rd of September… there was a section on nuclear issues. He said that our nuclear posture review will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US strategy, and open the way for deeper reductions in nuclear arsenals.

That can only mean a couple of things: that he intends to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, and achieve deeper reductions, meaning deeper than 1,500, which is the target number for this next round of US-Russian reduction in this interim START follow-on agreement.

So I think it [the Nobel Peace Prize] puts an exclamation point, or a double underline on that statement, because it seems as though the man says what he means and he means what he says, and it is going to be more difficult for some elements in the bureaucracy who support the nuclear status quo to dig in their heels against a president who seems very committed to effecting transformational change. I think this Nobel Peace Prize is going to make that all the more difficult for them to resist change.

Finally, the historical context of the Nobel Peace Prize is important to note. Specifically, it has been awarded for ongoing nuclear non-proliferation efforts before. I’ll use the example of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to Mohammed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency:

“for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes and to ensure that nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is used in the safest possible way”

ElBaradei gave a brief interview regarding Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize. You can watch it here; I’d like to emphasize his answer to the third question put to him:

Q: As a Nobel laureate yourself, how do you think this will impact on President Obama’s future work?

Well, there has been already, in the last couple of hours, a lot of skepticism, what has Barack Obama achieved, why the rush to give Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize?

I think these people misunderstand the motive of the Nobel Prize Committee. The Committee sometimes crown[s] achievement, but in many cases encourage, you know, people who are on the right track, and I heard the Committee’s chairman today, basically he is echoing what he said in our case, in the Agency case, and myself, that not necessarily rewarding a complete work, but encouraging a person or an organization to continue on the track that they have chosen to follow, and in that case, in the case of Barack Obama, they are saluting his commitment to disarmament, they are saluting his commitment to an inclusive system of security, they are saluting his commitment to a code of moral values, that it’s about time we restore in our relationship as individuals, as a nation, his effort to move across a divide, to focus on what unites us as human family and not what divides us, irrespective of ethnicity, color, or religion. I think it’s an inspiration to every one of us.

So this a prize that will give him the moral authority, that will give him additional visibility to continue doing what he is doing, and we all should share with him in his commitment to have a world that is at peace with itself, a world that we can — a better world that we can leave to our children and grandchildren.

Winning the Nobel Peace Prize is indeed an honor, but it is also a responsibility. Those who realize the dangers posed by nuclear proliferation understand and applaud Barack Obama’s intention, and ongoing efforts, to make sure our national security goals set an example for other nuclear powers in the world.

It’s time to move beyond Cold War “old-think”, as Daryl Kimball told me.

Obama knows this. Let’s hope he keeps on that path.

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