Obama's nuke-free world

Today's topic: Was President Obama right or naive to call for a world without any nuclear weapons? Andrew Grotto and Gabriel Schoenfeld debate the future of U.S. policy on nuclear proliferation.

The world is waiting on the U.S.
Point: Andrew Grotto

See if you can place this scene:

At the height of a high-stakes bilateral summit, the American president turns to his Russian counterpart and suggests they get rid of nuclear weapons. The Russian president replies, "We can do that. We can eliminate them all." The U.S. secretary of State says, "Let's do it."

Is it from the TV show "The West Wing," with its idealistic U.S. president, Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen? No, but here's a hint: This bit of reality was captured on location in Reykjavik, Iceland. Still stumped? Here's another clue, though it's a bit of a giveaway: One of the players in the scene was an actor.

The actor, of course, was Ronald Reagan, and the scene was the 1986 Reykjavik summit. President Reagan's counterpart was Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and the U.S. secretary of State was George Shultz.

Fast forward more than two decades, and a new U.S. president has echoed Reagan's call. In a speech on April 5 in Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, President Obama endorsed the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. Reagan's ambitious proposal was still-born because he refused to give up the sci-fi fantasy of space-based missile defense -- a non-starter for Gorbachev.

But Reagan's bold vision nevertheless helped generate political momentum for his successor, George H.W. Bush, to successfully implement the most dynamic nuclear arms control strategy to date: The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives were successfully negotiated during Bush's presidency. Similarly, Obama's endorsement of the nuclear-free goal will generate political momentum for updating and strengthening the global nonproliferation regime to deal with 21st century threats.

One of these threats remains the possibility of nuclear conflict between existing nuclear powers, and the robust arms control agenda that Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to pursue earlier this month, if implemented, will result in substantial reductions in the size and strategic profile of both countries' nuclear arsenal.

But Obama's speech is also a first step toward attracting new allies in America's fight against proliferation to terrorist groups and additional nation-states.

For decades, many developing countries have complained that the United States has failed to take seriously its obligation under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to "pursue negotiations in good faith" toward nuclear disarmament. These criticisms intensified during George W. Bush's administration, which had repudiated a number of arms control measures that all treaty parties, including the United States, had agreed to at the 2000 treaty review conference. As a result, when the United States has proposed improvements to the nonproliferation regime -- stronger export controls, for example -- many countries have resisted, accusing the U.S. of hypocrisy. Obama's speech will blunt this criticism and undermine a popular excuse for inaction.

This message is not targeted per se at countries such as Iran or North Korea that seek weapons capability. These countries are likely motivated by other factors, such as America's overwhelming conventional superiority.

Instead, Obama's message is aimed primarily at countries such as Brazil, Egypt and Malaysia that have no apparent interest in nuclear weapons development but have publicly linked their support for various nonproliferation initiatives to whether the United States seems committed to the goal of nuclear disarmament. The active, committed support of these countries is essential to preventing, detecting and punishing proliferation by state and non-state actors, which rely on poorly regulated exports and fragmented leadership in regions of proliferation concern.

Talk is cheap, so Obama will have to back up his words with deeds. Most of these countries are realistic and do not expect results overnight. They also understand that a world free of nuclear weapons is a distant prospect, at best.

But they at least want to see the United States take the lead in putting the world on a nuclear-free trajectory. Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which Obama also endorsed in his Prague speech, would send a particularly strong signal (and, incidentally, preserve America's considerable technological advantages in nuclear weapons design over countries such as China, which is likely to ratify the treaty once the United States does).

Of course, some countries may have ulterior motives for refusing to support key nonproliferation initiatives. That's because some of these initiatives -- such as stronger export controls and more thorough inspections of civilian nuclear programs -- are also sensitive because they restrict economic sovereignty or impinge on other national interests. But Obama's speech and subsequent efforts to implement his vision will expose these ulterior motives and enable a more constructive international dialogue on how to prevent proliferation.

Andrew Grotto is a senior national security analyst at the Center for American Progress.

Obama's utopia versus Iran, North Korea and Pakistan
Counterpoint: Gabriel Schoenfeld


I am afraid your opening point has left me wondering if we are living on the same planet. If that sounds to you like I am injecting some heat into this debate, you're right. I am doing so because of the gravity of what is at stake and because of the dire consequences that will follow from your misconceived analysis.

Ever since Harry Truman put forward the Baruch Plan, every American president has called for the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons, so Obama's proposal is not exactly a novelty. What is a novelty, however, is that Obama seems to be making it into a major pillar of his foreign policy at a moment when it might have fatal consequences.

You praise Obama's proposal for generating "political momentum for updating and strengthening the global nonproliferation regime to deal with 21st century threats." That sounds like a United Nations pronouncement, not an analysis of the world as it is.

Right now, we are standing on the edge of a chasm. The outlaw regime in North Korea exploded a nuclear device in 2006. Pakistan, possessor of an arsenal of approximately 100 nuclear weapons, is descending into chaos, with Islamic fanatics banging on the gates of power. The feverishly anti-American theocracy in Iran is pressing ahead with a uranium enrichment program that the entire world, except for a small island in Langley, Va., understands will be used to fuel a nuclear bomb. These are the urgent challenges before us, any one of which could lead to a regional nuclear war or the transfer of a nuclear device into the hands of terrorists.

What does the global abolition of nuclear weapons have to do with these very specific problems? Practically nothing. Andy, you say that "Obama's message is aimed primarily at countries such as Brazil, Egypt and Malaysia that have no apparent interest in nuclear weapons development." That led me to drop my jaw. And if true, you've proved my point.

The fact is that we can court favor with Brazil, Egypt and Malaysia -- and Fiji, Micronesia and Luxembourg too -- and also sign new agreements to reduce arsenals with nuclear powers such as Russia or France, and it will have little bearing on the dangers before us. If Russia agrees to decrease the size of its nuclear arsenal from, say, 1,000 warheads to 500, or if France retires one of its nuclear submarines, it matters barely a whit to our security. On the other hand, if Iran increases the size of its arsenal from zero to even one such weapon, it matters enormously.

Obama has said precious little to suggest he has a workable strategy for disarming Iran or North Korea, save to give speeches declaring that he wants to engage in dialogue with the offending nations. He seems to believe that if only we demonstrate a sincere commitment to total nuclear disarmament, then the world, including all of its miscreants, will follow along. You seem to consider that approach statesmanship. I consider it the height of naivete.

Indeed, the president has already given his approach a first try with instructive results. After Pyongyang fired a missile last month in violation of United Nations proscriptions, Obama appealed to the U.N. for tougher action against North Korea. Having just demonstrated his bona fides as an earnest advocate of arms control in a speech in Prague, what did the world body give him in return that will actually constrain North Korea? Nothing but more speeches. His memorable phrase that "words must mean something" proved to be self-canceling.

Andy, your opening essay calls to mind the harsh words that George Kennan directed at American diplomats in the 1930s who engaged in what he called the "utopian endeavor" of attempting to arrive at multilateral disarmament treaties. As Kennan noted, "Prodigious efforts were expended on these fruitless discussions." At the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva alone, "the record of the deliberations seems to run something like 30,000 pages. Some 500 official documents, each the result of laborious deliberation and editing and re-editing, entered merely into the report presented to the Preparatory Commission to the Disarmament Conference itself; and this was only the beginning."

These negotiations continued into the late 1930s, when the fuse burning in Europe was already nearly all consumed. The diplomats in attendance were every bit as well-intentioned as our new president. History does not judge them kindly. "The evil of [their] utopian enthusiasms," wrote Kennan, "was not only, or even primarily, the wasted time, the misplaced emphasis, the encouragement of false hopes. The evil lay primarily in the fact that these enthusiasms distracted our gaze from the real things that were happening."

Real things are happening today, frightening things. Obama's enthusiasms are distracting our gaze from them with consequences that are every bit as foreseeable as the shipwreck of Europe. I hope you will change your mind about these things, Andy, before the pitiless crowbar of events pries open your eyes.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a resident scholar at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J., is writing a book about secrecy and national security that W.W. Norton will publish next year.