Obama’s nuclear agenda, front and center

President Obama devotes much of his schedule this month to arms control. He signs a new treaty with Russia in Prague, the Czech capital, on Thursday, releases a major policy statement on U.S. use of nuclear arms, and hosts a summit on arms safeguards April 12 and 13.

The events, which one advocacy group is calling “Washington’s nuclear April,” represent the rollout of Obama’s agenda for controlling nuclear arms worldwide, an issue that was a major element of his presidential campaign.

How important is the new U.S.-Russian arms treaty?


The White House has portrayed the treaty, called New START, after the Strategic Arms Reduction treaties of the early 1990s, as the most important in decades between the two countries that hold 90% of the world’s nuclear arms.

Some nongovernmental experts have challenged the White House assertion of a 30% reduction in deployed long-range warheads, saying the actual shrinkage may be closer to 13%. Even so, there’s wide agreement that the treaty is a positive step in strained U.S.-Russian relations and, with luck, could lead to bigger cuts. Agreement on this deal was crucial for Obama’s effort to keep other countries from building bombs: He needs to be able to say the U.S. is moving -- if slowly -- toward eliminating its nuclear arsenal.

What are the prospects for the treaty to be ratified by the Senate?

Murky. Treaties require a two-thirds majority approval, and the White House says it can get the 67 votes. But some Republicans fear the treaty could curb U.S. missile defense plans and intend to closely study the pact’s yet-unreleased text provisions on how each country’s arms claims will be verified.

How much would Obama change the way America uses such weapons with his proposed nuclear manifesto?

Arms control advocates hope that the new U.S. statement, called the Nuclear Posture Review, calls for fewer nuclear weapons and more limited uses for them. But officials in the Pentagon have dug in their heels on some issues, so the document probably will preserve the status quo to a greater extent than fervent arms-control advocates would like.

Some had hoped the document would say the United States would use nuclear weapons solely in response to a nuclear attack. But that apparently isn’t going to happen, say people familiar with the discussions, because the administration wants to preserve its options to use nuclear weapons in response to certain nonnuclear attacks.

What can Obama accomplish with the nuclear security summit?

He’s hoping that by gathering important world leaders in Washington, he can pressure countries to do more to physically safeguard their weapons and nuclear materials.

The White House would like this gathering to be a first step in a continuing effort to develop new international standards for the security of nuclear weapons.

Looking ahead to May, what’s the importance of the international meeting in New York to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty?

This treaty is the cornerstone of the world’s effort to keep nuclear weapons from spreading. There’s wide agreement that the treaty needs to be strengthened because of the way that signatories such as North Korea, and perhaps Iran, have been able to secretly work toward producing nuclear bombs.

But it’s unclear whether the member nations will go along with tough new rules. Any member can veto proposals. And one of the members is Iran.