Coauthored with Martin Willner, research associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program.
President Obama deserves praise for spearheading global efforts to address the threat of nuclear terrorism. As countries gathered for this week’s Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, it was clear that countries had made real progress in securing the world’s most dangerous weapons.
But nuclear security is only one of seven nuclear weapons priorities the president outlined in his famous Prague speech of April 2009, and most of the others have stalled, despite some surprising successes with Russia and Iran.
- Continue U.S.-Russian bilateral disarmament: Given the unfolding clashes between the United States and Russia, it’s surprising that one of the greatest success stories has been the bilateral reduction of U.S.-Russian nuclear stockpiles. In 2010, the two countries signed the New START treaty, limiting the United States and Russia to the deployment of 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads (a 30 percent reduction from the limits in the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty). According to an October 2013 report, Russia had actually reduced its arsenal beyond what the treaty stipulated. Though Russia had refused to participate in negotiations on a legally-binding agreement to supersede New START, cooperation is unlikely to halt. For, “even in the darkest days of the Cold War the United States and Russia” continued “to work together on reducing the nuclear threat” as Undersecretary for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller recently remarked. Pragmatically, both countries understand that, with aging fleets and expensive modernization costs, it is in their best interest to continue on a path of disarmament.
- Reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy: In Prague, Obama called for an “end to Cold War thinking” whereby states relied heavily on nuclear weapons in their defense policies. Therefore, his administration outlined a new U.S. strategy in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review and the 2013 Nuclear Employment Strategy, which narrowed the scenarios that would trigger the United States to employ nuclear weapons ultimately enabling the United States to eventually reduce its arsenal by one-third. To be sure, some critics were disappointed that the administration retained a potential role for nuclear weapons in confronting non-nuclear adversaries. But, the president’s own Prague speech suggested a certain realism about reaching a “world without nuclear weapons.” He added, “I’m not naïve. This goal will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime.” On balance, the president has done a good job leading the world toward this goal at a reasonable pace.
- Ratify a global ban on nuclear testing: A third Prague speech priority was finally ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which President Clinton signed in 1996 since the United States had already ceased nuclear tests and given the public health and environmental dangers that they pose. For the past eighteen years, the treaty has languished in the Senate, due to objections from a core of Republican Senators worried about its implications for U.S. freedom of action and the reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Consequently, despite ratification by 160 states, the treaty cannot come into force because the United States (an Annex II state) has not joined. Although the Obama administration has actively engaged legislators to alleviate their concerns, GOP opponents have dug in their heels. In 2013, the Republican-controlled House Armed Service Committee approved amendments to a bill barring the use of U.S. contributions to the CTBT Organization for lobbying or advocacy activities related to the treaty within the United States.
- End production of fissile material: Despite Obama’s hopes, the world has failed to move toward a treaty to end the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. While many states have renounced such activities, Pakistan, India, and potentially China continue to increase their nuclear stockpiles. For over a decade, international efforts to create a so-called Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) have remained deadlocked and, in 2011, Pakistan strengthened its opposition to such a treaty. Though the United States continues to push the treaty on the sidelines of diplomatic meetings like the Conference on Disarmament, its prospects are dim.
- Strengthen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty(NPT): As President Obama stated in Prague, “the basic bargain [of the NPT] is sound”: nuclear weapon states move toward disarmament, non-nuclear weapon states do not acquire nuclear weapons, and all states are guaranteed access to peaceful nuclear energy. The NPT, opened for signature in 1968, has 189 state parties and serves as the foundational legal text for nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. But as the president pointed out, the treaty must be strengthened. The IAEA, which serves as the treaty’s guardian, needs more resources and stronger authority to conduct inspections. The NPT should be updated to spell out consequences for violating its terms or withdrawing from the treaty. While the NPT review conference in 2010 reaffirmed countries’ previous commitments, no concrete efforts were taken to update the treaty. The United States should make a major push to do so at the 2015 review conference.
- Create a new framework for civilian nuclear cooperation: Among the trickiest nonproliferation dilemmas is facilitating state access to “peaceful” nuclear energy (as guaranteed by Article 6 of the NPT), while reducing the risk that civilian programs conceal nefarious enrichment activities. One way out, Obama noted in Prague, was to create an international fuel bank, supplied by countries with existing enrichment capabilities, from which other countries could draw fuel for their civilian nuclear reactors. In 2006, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, with the backing of the billionaire Warren Buffet, committed $50 million to the IAEA in 2006 to jumpstart such a bank. By 2009, total pledges had risen to $150 million. Two years later, Kazakhstan agreed to host such a site, and in 2013 the IAEA board of governors approved the plan for a low-enriched uranium fuel bank, which is expected to be established in 2014. Still, it remains to be seen whether its existence will persuade non-nuclear states to make use of the new multilateral body—and forego the pursuit of enrichment technologies.
- Check Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions. In Prague, President Obama stressed the need for international solidarity to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and reverse North Korea’s nuclear buildup. Five years later, the progress is decidedly mixed. After years of failed negotiations, and tightened Western sanctions, Iran finally agreed on November 24, 2013 to a Joint Action Plan (JPA) with the P5+1 countries—the United States, Russia, France, Great Britain, China, and Germany. The JPA offers Iran limited sanctions relief in exchange for halting and rolling back parts of Tehran’s nuclear program. Although President Obama puts the JPA’s chances of securing a lasting solution at no more than 50-50, these are the best odds the world has seen in a decade. In contrast, crushing multilateral sanctions and increased isolation have done little to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, which has defied the world by restarting its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and launching long-range missiles.
The White House can take pride in its success, over three nuclear summits, in helping lock down the world’s nuclear weapons and fissile material. But as for the rest of the Prague agenda, it clearly remains a work in progress.