President Obama's Hope of Arms Reductions

Commentary | February 11, 2013

President Barack Obama is expected to breathe new life into his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons during his State of the Union address on Tuesday. As The New York Times reports, although it's unlikely that specific levels will be discussed, officials speculate the White House will seek a reduction to approximately 1,000 deployed nuclear weapons, down from around 1,700 under New START. This will set the stage for discussions on New START implementation and further arms control negotiations during upcoming visits to Moscow by Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.

Early in his first term, Mr. Obama outlined his vision for a world free of nuclear weapons. As part of the “concrete steps” necessary to achieve this goal, he pledged that America would reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy, negotiate a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia, push for Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), pursue negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), ratchet up international pressure on North Korea and Iran, and take steps to strengthen nuclear materials security and prevent nuclear terrorism.

By April 2011, the Obama administration had negotiated the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia and secured Senate approval, issued a Nuclear Posture Review that revaluated U.S. defense posture and limited the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy, and convened a Nuclear Security Summit with 47 world leaders that elicited national commitments to strengthen nuclear security and reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Although significant, these achievements fall far short of the broad agenda Mr. Obama dramatically proclaimed four years ago. Deeper cuts beyond New START failed to materialize as relations with Russia soured, Senate ratification of the CTBT was never pursued, FMCT negotiations remain stymied by deadlock in the Conference on Disarmament, and engagement with and pressure on Iran and North Korea yielded few tangible results. Despite considerable initial progress, nuclear disarmament stagnated as a policy priority for the Obama administration.

These new reduction targets will undoubtedly encounter Republican opposition, but members of the U.S. defense, national security, and foreign policy communities have all pledged their support for further reductions in deployed weapons. White House officials point out that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have acknowledged that deeper cuts will not jeopardize U.S. national security. Similarly, the State Department believes that Russia is already below the limits outlined by New START and encourages the U.S. to “follow Russia downward below New START ceilings.”

Secure in his second term, Mr. Obama has every reason to continue reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, with or without matching commitments from Russia. Further cuts would save billions of dollars, improve international stability, contribute to the fulfillment of America’s commitment under Article VI of the NPT, and support the global disarmament norm. A reduction to 1,000 deployed nuclear weapons, if matched by similar cuts in nondeployed and tactical weapons, should also induce other nuclear weapons states to join in the disarmament process. Nuclear disarmament can be a tortuously slow process. But bold action by Mr. Obama could provide the necessary force to overcome this inertia.

Kevin Ching is the EastWest Institute's Davis WMD Fellow in the U.S. Global Engagement Program.