Setting nuclear limits

A year ago in Prague, President Obama laid out his vision for a nuclear-free world, telling his international audience that the United States has a “moral responsibility” to lead in eliminating atomic weapons. His Nuclear Posture Review released Tuesday is a strong start down that long road, and although it is tempered by political realities, it creates momentum. On Thursday, Obama returns to Prague to sign a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia to draw down the two countries’ nuclear stockpiles by nearly a third over several years to about 1,550 warheads each. Next week, he hosts a Nuclear Security Summit in Washington with about 45 world leaders, and in May the U.S. hosts the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York.

Obama said he will limit the role of atomic weapons in national defense, relying instead on improved conventional weapons. The review says the administration will not seek to develop new warheads and that it will pursue further reduction agreements with Russia that could be “broader in scope.” Nuclear weapons will be used in the future only to deter attacks or to respond to them, and will not be used against non-nuclear states, provided they aren’t pursuing such weapons. The review does not go so far as to rule out a first strike, and it includes a gaping loophole: It allows the president to change his mind in extreme circumstances, such as the threat of a devastating biological attack. Nonetheless, it is probably as far as the administration can go now if it wants to maintain the support of the military and any hope of winning Senate ratification of the new START treaty at a time when Republicans are bent on denying the president any victories.

The review shifts U.S. nuclear policy from its Cold War-era focus on the superpower rivalry to nuclear proliferation, rogue countries and terrorism. It seeks to isolate nations that pursue weapons. Iran and North Korea are singled out in the report for violating “non-proliferation obligations” and defying the U.N. Security Council. Obama hopes it sets the stage for strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- which governs the spread of nuclear weapons, disarmament and peaceful uses of nuclear energy -- to make it more rigorous and difficult to opt out, as North Korea has done.

All told, this is a good beginning but not an end to nuclear weaponry. We are reminded that Obama’s budget released this year includes $7 billion for maintaining the nation’s nuclear arsenal -- up $600 million from what Congress approved last year -- and it proposes a $5-billion increase over the next five years. Even under Obama, the most committed opponent of atomic weapons to sit in the White House, nuclear disarmament is a marathon, not a dash.