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Obama's Nuclear Gambit: Complex Calculus Governs Doomsday Weapons

By James Kitfield

National Journal

(Apr. 16) -U.S. President Barack Obama, shown speaking Tuesday at this week's Global Nuclear Security Summit in Washington (Jewel Samad/Getty Images). (Apr. 16) -U.S. President Barack Obama, shown speaking Tuesday at this week's Global Nuclear Security Summit in Washington (Jewel Samad/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- For two days, the capital was gridlocked by VIP convoys and the whooping wail of police escorts marking the largest gathering of world leaders in more than half a century. Amid the main event and all of the side conversations, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's postsummit klatch at the venerable Brookings Institution was one of the most unlikely. Diminutive and dapper in a style perhaps meant to defy Russian stereotypes, Medvedev joked about forming a social network of two with President Barack Obama so they could bypass tiresome aides. He pledged to join the United States in sanctioning Iran if it continues to stiff-arm international nuclear inspectors, and he characterized an Iranian nuclear weapon that could spark a Middle East arms race a "gigantic catastrophe" (see GSN, April 14).

Having just announced that Russia was shutting down its last plutonium factory in a gesture to his host's summit on the arcane issue of nuclear materials security, Medvedev also lauded the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, dubbed New START, that he signed with Obama in Prague on April 8 (see GSN, April 8). The treaty pledges both countries to reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals to levels not seen since the Eisenhower administration. In other words, Medvedev was the walking, talking embodiment of the "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations that the Obama administration launched with much fanfare, and at considerable risk, one year ago.

Summits are typically anticlimatic affairs rendered in ceremonial photo-ops and scripted announcements, and the Obama administration's April 12-13 nuclear security summit of 47 nations and 36 heads of state was no exception. Predictably, by the end of the sessions that focused primarily on the threat of nuclear terrorism, every participating nation signed on to the president's goal of voluntarily securing global stockpiles of nuclear materials within four years.

Despite Obama's and Medvedev's display of bonhomie, insiders say that the behind-the-scenes maneuvering and brinksmanship that led up to a string of nonproliferation milestones during the past two weeks held plenty of drama. Less than two years ago, Moscow's intervention in Georgia led to a nadir in bilateral relations. The action nearly bought Russian troops into direct conflict with U.S. military trainers -- a potential tripwire to escalation that the Soviet Union and the United States managed to avoid during nearly a half-century of Cold War.

Even after reconfiguring a proposed U.S. missile defense system in Europe in part to assuage Moscow's vitriolic objections, the Obama administration ran into a barrage of Russian objections and suspicions concerning New START. The treaty replaces the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that expired in December. The Russians also remained deeply suspicious of U.S. plans for the modified missile defense system, and they tried repeatedly to pressure Obama's negotiators into bargaining it away.

Perhaps most important, the Americans became convinced that Moscow had bought into the critique of Obama as naive and feckless in national security matters. The Russians employed serial brinksmanship late last year to see if the untested American president would cave on missile defense so that he could clinch a deal before collecting his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. The failed tactic stretched the negotiations out much longer than anticipated.

"The Far Right in America had painted Obama as vainglorious and an appeaser, and the Russians bought into that critique and tried to pressure him into concessions," a knowledgeable observer of the talks said. "Obama turned out to be a tougher negotiator than they thought, but that brinksmanship added months to the talks."

One person who viewed the Russian negotiating tactics firsthand was Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, who logged 17 days in Geneva in February to clinch the New START deal.

"In every negotiation, each side tries to calibrate the desire of the other guy to reach a deal, and you never want to appear to want it more than they do," Tauscher told National Journal. "In our case, we had a brand-new president who in his Prague speech last year had staked a lot of political capital on the issue of nonproliferation; there was the inconvenient fact that the previous treaty was expiring in December; and we had a Russian side that was very hostile to our predecessor's ideas on missile defense. So, no, that was not the best of conditions, and, yes, there was a lot of probing and testing going on. The good news is that whenever the issues became too hard and negotiators came to a standstill, both Presidents Obama and Medvedev pushed us to redouble our efforts and reach a deal that was verifiable and transparent and good for both our countries. So I think both leaders passed the test."

Reclaiming The Initiative

When Obama traveled to Europe last year and articulated his vision of a world without nuclear weapons, experts knew that his administration would have to pass a series of difficult milestones just to avert a collapse of the aging nuclear nonproliferation regime. Over the past two weeks, the administration finally took its first substantive steps in that direction. Running the gamut of obstacles and criticism from both left and right took months longer than anticipated, and no one even pretends to see the journey's ultimate destination. If the progress thus far reflects the lofty goals and rocky trajectory of the early Obama presidency, it also speaks to the determination and strategic calculation that are also becoming traits of Obama's foreign policy.

Besides dealing with the Russian delegation's bare-knuckled negotiating on New START, the White House had to overcome Defense Department worries about keeping the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure modern before the Pentagon would sign on to the Nuclear Posture Review released on April 6 (see GSN, April 15). The next test will come in May, when Obama will ask signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to strengthen verification and toughen sanctions on cheaters (read Iran).

Meanwhile, New START, and the administration's promised attempt to win Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, could still fall prey to the unified Republican opposition that nearly defeated health care reform. For treaty ratification, the bar is even higher, requiring 67 votes in the divided Senate, where conservatives remain deeply skeptical of arms control as an infringement on U.S. sovereignty and freedom of action.

"I don't know that any one piece of the Obama nonproliferation agenda is particularly objectionable, but the pattern is alarming to conservatives who really don't trust the president on issues like missile defense, nuclear weapons modernization, and maintaining a strong and flexible nuclear deterrent," said Thomas Donnelly, a defense policy analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "To many conservatives, it just looks like old arms control wine in new bottles, and I wouldn't give the New START more than a 50-50 chance of ratification, much less the test-ban treaty."

Perhaps the greatest threat to Obama's nonproliferation agenda, however, remains a nuclear weapons breakout by Iran. Such a shock to the international system could collapse the restraining principles of nonproliferation and set off a scramble for nuclear arms in some of the world's most volatile and conflict-plagued regions.

On the other side of the equation, the threat of nuclear terrorism continues to grow. The nonproliferation regime constructed over the past half-century to collectively contain the nuclear menace -- multilateral and bilateral arms control treaties, threat-reduction and interdiction programs, and punitive sanctions -- has been growing more rickety by the day.

"We are here today because, despite our best efforts, the global risks from nuclear weapons and nuclear terror, in particular, continue to loom large," said former U.S. Ambassador Robert Gallucci, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, speaking at this summit. A nuclear weapon in the hands of an Iran or North Korea would be threat enough, he said, but the greater danger is that those governments could transfer nuclear fissile material or even a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group.

"The detonation of a nuclear explosive device would be the quintessential terrorist act of the 21st century. It poses a real and present danger to the security of nations around the world," Gallucci said. "To summarize, I am persuaded it is possible, plausible, and over time, probable, for a determined and well-financed terrorist group to manufacture and detonate a nuclear weapon, causing enormous civilian casualties."

Three-Dimensional Chess

The challenge for policy-makers has been to build a new regime that could prevent a nuclear-armed terrorist while not destabilizing the deterrence edifice that has long governed doomsday weapons. The new game plan must include resetting major power relations, especially between Washington and Moscow; securing the globe's massive civilian nuclear power industry that is poised for rapid expansion because of rising energy demands and climate change worries; checking the spread of nuclear technology in an era of instant communication; bolstering an uneasy and eroding agreement between nuclear haves and have-nots in a world of dominant U.S. military power; rethinking the venerable military doctrines of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction; and countering nihilistic terrorist groups that worship at the alter of martyrdom.

Joseph Cirincione, a longtime arms control expert, is president of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation that focuses on security issues. "Nuclear policy is the equivalent of three-dimensional chess, where you are moving pieces on several different levels at the same time and each move has an impact on all the others and on the overall strategy of the game," he said in an interview. "So with this well-coordinated package of nuclear policy initiatives of the past week, we've learned that Obama sees the connections between these various initiatives, and that he is serious about making nonproliferation a top priority and legacy item on his foreign-policy agenda. He's put the full prestige of his office behind it."

The nonproliferation initiatives that the administration is touting as a "nuclear spring" are moves in that complex gambit. The Pentagon's release of the Nuclear Posture Review on April 6 was significant, for instance, because it elevates nuclear proliferation and terrorism to the primary threat to the United States (as opposed to a potential attack by another nuclear power), and narrows the military's target scenarios and overall reliance on nuclear weapons.

The New START agreement between Washington and Moscow recommitted the two powers that possess 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons to verifiable reductions to no more than 1,550 strategic warheads (down from 6,000 under START 1, and 1,700-to-2,200 under the 2002 Moscow Treaty, which lacked verification protocols). Equally important, reductions in the arsenals of the "nuclear haves" are part of the quid pro quo at the heart of the nonproliferation treaty, which bound the nuclear powers to make progress toward complete disarmament in exchange for the non-nuclear powers' renunciation of their weapons ambitions. The reset in U.S.-Russian relations was also a prerequisite for international agreement to toughen sanctions on Iran over its suspected nuclear weapons program.

Meanwhile, the nuclear security summit of 46 nations, the largest such gathering since the conference that established the United Nations in 1945, won pledges on safeguards to protect nuclear materials used in civilian nuclear research reactors, power plants, and bombs. That represents a down payment on, and acceptance of, Obama's pledge to secure global stockpiles of nuclear materials within four years.

All of those steps are meant to build momentum and goodwill going into next month's nonproliferation treaty review conference. At that meeting of some 200 nations in New York City, Obama will press for greater verification powers for the International Atomic Energy Agency to detect clandestine weapons programs among treaty signatories. He will also seek tougher penalties for nations such as Iran and North Korea who cheat or withdraw from the treaty.

"President Obama understands that the Nuclear Posture Review and the New START were the gates he had to pass through in order to re-establish U.S. and Russian credibility on arms reductions and reclaim U.S. leadership with his ambitious nonproliferation agenda, with an eye ultimately on keeping the likes of Al Qaeda from acquiring nuclear weapons," Cirincione said. "That strikes me as much more sophisticated strategy than the Bush administration trying to reduce the problem simply to 'rogue states' and an 'axis of evil' that they could threaten with regime change. As it turned out, Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction, and both Iran and North Korea accelerated their nuclear programs in an effort to deter the Bush administration," he added. "So how did that work out for you?"

Nuclear Tipping Point

Largely lost in the media glare of two weeks of summitry and signing ceremonies was an exclusive screening at the White House of the documentary film Nuclear Tipping Point on April 6. Narrated by actor Michael Douglas, with a prologue by Colin Powell, former secretary of State and chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the film traces the intellectual journeys of four esteemed American Cold Warriors from both sides of the political aisle.

Though they came at the threat of nuclear terrorism from different places and at different paces, former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn all reached a common conclusion. As they wrote in a series of Wall Street Journal op-eds beginning in 2007, they came to believe that absent urgent action by the United States to reclaim the moral high ground on the issue and reassert a "vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, and practical measures toward achieving that goal," the world would soon enter a new nuclear era that "will be more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically more costly than the Cold War."

These men no longer hold official position, but the "four horsemen of the anti-apocalypse," as arms control proponents have taken to calling them, are the intellectual fathers of the nonproliferation milestones achieved in the past few weeks.

"When we first started raising the alarm a few years ago, I would never have predicted you would see so much substantive action taken so quickly, in such a dramatic way as we've witnessed in the past few weeks. It's been absolutely remarkable," Perry said in an interview. After a decade-long drift toward a nuclear tipping point and the real probability that a terrorist group would acquire a nuclear weapon, he said, Obama has changed the momentum and reversed the slide by engaging the world on this issue.

"In talking to him, you realize that President Obama truly understands the problem at the deepest level. He's not working from talking points, and he's passionately committed to making a difference on nuclear proliferation," Perry said. "I still worry that if the Senate fails to ratify New Start or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, however, American leadership will falter and we'll begin drifting backward again."

The uncomfortable truth is that no one can guarantee whether any combination of incentives, punishments, or voluntary restraints can effectively contain a nuclear genie that has been roiling since India and Pakistan exploded bombs in 1998, let alone put it back into a pre-1945 bottle. Nuclear technology and information that was closely held a half-century ago has steadily seeped into the global information pool. The Internet has given terrorist groups international reach. The post-Cold War era of dominant U.S. conventional military power has nursed nuclear ambitions within nations seeking greater regional influence or an ability to deter the superpower.

Such outliers as India, Pakistan, and Israel, along with outright cheaters Iran and North Korea continue to challenge the nonproliferation regime. The nuclear smuggling ring of Pakistan's A.Q. Khan and other criminal enterprises constantly seek to bypass it altogether by exploiting inadequate verification and inspection practices.

In response to those trends and after the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11, the Bush administration tried to free the United States from many of the nonproliferation regime's restraints to more forcefully coerce or deter rogue states seeking weapons of mass destruction. In Iraq, and then in dealing with Iran and North Korea, the United States ran up against the limits of that strategy.

Now it's the Obama administration's turn to test the equally bold premise that the world can wean itself from the well-worn if apocalyptic scenarios of the nuclear weapons age. "I think the past few weeks have delivered a significant down payment on the vision and narrative that President Obama articulated last year in Prague, because we are substantively reducing the roles of nuclear weapons and engaging the world on the issue of nonproliferation," Tauscher told National Journal.

"By making these issues more public and less opaque, we are also accomplishing something else important," she said. "In the end, the kind of transformational change we're contemplating will require the will not only of the American public, but of people around the world. So President Obama has taken us pretty far in a short period of time, but he clearly has ambitions to take us much further."

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