Recap: President Obama’s Nuclear Week

Also published here.

President Barack Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, left, and Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus, share a toast during a luncheon at Prague Castle in Prague Prague, Czech Republic, April 8, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, left, and Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus, share a toast during a luncheon at Prague Castle in Prague Prague, Czech Republic, April 8, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Back on March 31, Marc Ambinder over at The Atlantic posted something that made me smile:

Next week kicks off nuclear madness month at the White House — or, as one senior administration official resignedly describes it, “all nukes, all the time.”

If you’re a nuke/national security blogger or journalist, last week was like trying to drink from a fire hose. I’d like to recap the main events, and try to give you the best “big picture” snapshot that I can. There are, of course, many very specific sub-issues and problems that are important, and I promise that I’ll address them in subsequent posts. Today, however, I’ll treat you to some samples of some of the most interesting (and best) expert commentary out there.

Three big things happened this week: the Obama administration released its Nuclear Posture Review, which is a “roadmap” for our nuclear arsenal for the next five to ten years. Also, Presidents Obama and Medvedev signed a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in Prague. Finally, President Obama kicked off his Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC today.

April 6, 2010: The Nuclear Posture Review Is Released

After a number of delays and a few leaks about what would be in it, the Obama administration finally announced the release of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which you can download from the DoD’s NPR website. I also wrote a post summing up what’s new and significant in this NPR.

Since April 6, there has been a flurry of decent analysis as well as uninformed pontificating about the NPR. You can always find good stuff over at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) Strategic Security blog, which is where Ivan Oelrich published a long, very thorough take-down of the ridiculous right-wing commentary on the NPR. To a certain extent, I think we should ignore the Sarah Palins and Sean Hannitys of this world; however, once their talking points start getting repeated, I agree with Oelrich: it’s time to talk about what they’re saying, because they represent the public debate, to a certain extent.

I’d like to focus on one example of informed commentary, from one of my favorite nuke wonks, Josh Pollack, whose column in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is always great reading.

On the NPR, he writes:

The posture review report lays out the U.S. vision for strengthening the nonproliferation regime: reversing the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran; strengthening international nuclear safeguards; creating consequences for noncompliance; impeding sensitive nuclear trade; and promoting the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

The connection between nuclear posture and nonproliferation is made in two crucial areas, telegraphed in excerpts released before the full report. These decisions send a credible signal to the rest of the world that Washington regards its nuclear arsenal as a defensive asset, not as a tool of coercion and domination. There is therefore no call for other countries to offset it with their own nuclear arsenals or “nuclear options,” or to water down nonproliferation rules in the name of a misplaced sense of fairness.

He summarizes what’s new, and what’s not:

What’s been achieved is an investment in goodwill. The posture review demonstrates that the nonproliferation agenda is advanced in good faith, not out of some desire to derive benefit from the nuclear weapons oligopoly. While this move won’t sway North Korea or Iran, it will help to isolate Iran at the upcoming Review Conference. (North Korea, having withdrawn from the NPT, won’t be present.) Still, much heavy lifting remains to be done.

What hasn’t been achieved is any radical departure from Cold War nuclear legacies. Alert postures won’t change, and the “nuclear Triad” of land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles, and bombers will be maintained for the time being. The scale of the Russian strategic nuclear force remains the basis for that of the United States. Nor does the posture review call for the removal of tactical nuclear weapons from Europe. Major shifts in any of these departments would have been hard to imagine while negotiating START follow-on with Moscow and preparing for a new NATO Strategic Concept.

Please click the link and read the whole thing. Also be sure to check out Hans Kristensen’s take at the FAS blog. The general view is that there aren’t that many significant changes from previous Nuclear Posture Reviews, but that what has been changed indicates that we are slowly, finally moving away from Cold War thinking.

April 8, 2010: The New START Treaty Is Signed

Speaking of Cold War nuclear weapons, two days after the Nuclear Posture Review was released, and after a year of difficult negotiations, Presidents Obama and Medvedev signed a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in Prague.

The START Treaties have their origin in 1991, when Presidents H.W. Bush and Gorbachev signed the first START treaty, calling for verified reductions in their respective nuclear arsenals. Since then, we have indeed reduced the number of nuclear weapons that we have, but Russia and the United States still have tens of thousands of nuclear weapons between them.

Hence, the big discussion this week has been: does New START call for bold enough reductions? Jeffrey Lewis goes into considerable detail about it; if you’re up for a somewhat more technical discussion of the numbers, click here, read his post, and geek out.

For more general public interest, there’s an op-ed piece by David Hoffman in the Washington Post that I’d like to highlight. Hoffman is one hell of a Cold War historian; you can read my interview with him here, where we discuss his book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy.

In his op-ed piece today, he takes on New START:

Today, [the Cold War] arms race has ended, and the number of nuclear weapons in the world has fallen from more than 60,000 at the peak to about 23,000 today, of which 95 percent are still in the United States and Russia. Yet we have not shed the mind-set of overkill. Even with the signing of the new strategic arms accord last week, we are still left with excess — thousands and thousands of nuclear weapons that do not make us any safer.

The agreement signed in Prague on Thursday by President Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia sets a ceiling of 1,550 nuclear warheads for each country by 2017. Obama’s nuclear posture review, released last week, all but acknowledged that this number of warheads remains high only to keep the U.S. arsenal approximately the same size as Russia’s. The document declared that “the need for strict numerical parity between the two countries is no longer as compelling as it was during the Cold War,” but it warned that “large disparities in nuclear capabilities could raise concerns on both sides and among U.S. allies and partners, and may not be conducive to maintaining a stable, long-term strategic relationship, especially as nuclear forces are significantly reduced.”

In other words, we can’t go lower without Russia going lower, too. So we remain higher than we need to.

He makes the convincing case that:

… today’s nuclear threats are far more diffuse than in the past, and far less likely to be deterred by nuclear weapons. Without the burdens of the Cold War to hold us back, we are terribly tardy in cleaning up its legacy of nuclear overkill.

I’ve had a lot of online discussions with conservative friends about various aspects of New START and deterrence. We don’t completely agree on everything (for example, I think that we need far less nukes than we have now, and my friends disagree), but they’re generally happy with the numbers in New START; in fact, they don’t think it’s that different from the past. On that, I think we can agree. It’s a modest treaty.

I’ve hinted before that the approval of New START by the US Senate will be a hard battle. More and more, it looks like that will be the case, and I’ll be covering it as it develops.

April 11, 2010: President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit Begins

I won’t go into much detail about the summit, since I’ve posted something on it earlier today. I am hoping that the outcome of the summit will be a stronger push toward cooperation between countries, as well as concrete goals within countries, to secure fissile (bomb-grade) nuclear material.

“All nukes, all the time” is actually pretty exciting. Arms control issues have been under the radar for a number of years, at least when it comes to the general public knowing about them.

I’m glad that has changed. It’s something we all need to think about, on some level. These weapons, and all that nuclear material, didn’t just disappear when the Cold War ended.

This entry was posted in New START, Nuclear Terrorism, Nuclear Weapons, Proliferation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>