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Obama and Nukes: Talking the Talk, Awaiting the Walk

Analysis: Two longtime opponents of nuclear weapons reflect on heady times as the Obama administration puts disarmament back on the map.

The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council possess over 98 percent of the more than 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Today, President Barack Obama led a session of the council focusing on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. We take that opportunity to present a dialogue between David Krieger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation — an organization strident in its opposition to nuclear weapons — and Richard Falk, professor emeritus of International Law and Practice at Princeton University and the chair of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Falk and Krieger have written widely on nuclear dangers and are co-editors of the 2008 book At the Nuclear Precipice: Catastrophe or Transformation?

David Krieger: How seriously should we take the changes that are being proposed by the Obama administration? Do you see these proposals as a serious turning away from catastrophe toward transformation?

Richard Falk: I think that this is a much more hopeful time to consider these various issues bearing on nuclear weapons and, at the same time, it's a rather confusing and complicated time. Of course it's appropriate and accurate, I think, to welcome the kind of rhetorical leadership that President Obama has so far exhibited, particularly in his Prague speech of April 5. One has to hope that this is more than a rhetorical posture, but represents, as he said in the speech it did, a serious commitment to take concrete steps toward the objective of a world free from nuclear weapons. But one has to look at two other factors here that make me, at any rate, somewhat less optimistic about the real tangible results.

The first is the continuing confrontation with Iran as a potential nuclear weapon state on the unspoken assumption that we still will be living in a world where some countries are allowed to have those weapons and others are forbidden. It would be a very different confrontation, from my perspective, if it was coupled with a call for a Middle East free from nuclear weapons altogether or a dual call to Israel and Iran that would take account of the existence of a nuclear weapon state in the region already. But as far as I can tell there is no disposition to do that.

A second concern, it seems to me, is the degree to which the bureaucratic roots of the nuclear weapons establishment are still very deep in the governmental structure and very dedicated, as near as I can tell, to pursuing a path that has some of President Obama's rhetoric, but really aims at managing and stabilizing the nuclear weapons arsenals of the world and, particularly, the U.S. arsenal. This would, in that sense, maintain this geopolitical structure of a world where some have the weapons and supposedly the great danger comes from the countries that don't have the weapons. I find that an untenable and basically unacceptable conception of world order in relation to this challenge posed by the continued existence of nuclear weaponry.

DK: Should we be pushing for President Obama to call for a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone in the Middle East and for Israel to be a party to that zone? Is that where our efforts should be focused, or should they be focused on taking some large steps, such as negotiating a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Moscow? The United States and Russia have most of the nuclear weapons in the world, so that is where a good deal of progress could be made at this moment. Other issues have been stalled for the eight years of the Bush administration, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, gaining control of loose nuclear materials, and dealing with the potential threat posed by nuclear weapons falling into the hands of non-state extremists. There is space at this time for considerable progress on those issues before moving to some of the tougher issues. I would put a Middle East Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone into that tougher issue category, and a Northeast Asian Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone as well, dealing with concerns in North Korea, South Korea, Japan and China. There are many practical questions, such as which issues should we be focusing on now, which ones can come later, as we actually move towards zero? There seems to be some momentum now, at least in comparison to what we've had for the Bush years and largely for the Clinton years as well.

RF: Yes, I think certainly there is a case to be made in favor of moving forward on these avenues of arms reduction and stabilization that have been blocked over a period when the conservatives controlled security policy for the U.S. But I'm convinced that unless the difficult issues are raised alongside these other issues, they will never be raised, and there is, I think, a quite serious urgency in the Middle East, to some extent in the Indo-Pakistan region, central and south Asia, as well as in the Korean peninsula that you referred to. And maybe one perspective to bring into the debate about next steps is to talk about these kinds of regional conflict zones, because they pose immediate problems that could lead to serious deterioration. There is the possibility that Pakistan could come under the control of very extremist leadership and that India would be very nervous by such a development, and one could have the first war between nuclear weapon states easily taking place. So I'm not convinced myself that these general denuclearizing steps should be privileged at this early stage of the Obama presidency. I think they should certainly be supported, but to allow them to dominate the political agenda at this stage is, in my view, a tactical as well as a strategic mistake.

DK: In the Prague speech, President Obama talked about the importance of moving toward a world free of nuclear weapons, but he didn't really indicate that it was something that needed to be done with a sense of urgency. He said something to this effect: "I'm not naïve; this may take a long time. It may not happen within my lifetime." Surely there is cause for concern in that lack of urgency because it's a deferral of the end state until some time in a future that can't yet be foreseen. And that's a similar point of view to what former officials like Kissinger, Shultz, Perry, Nunn and others are also articulating. They think that a world free of nuclear weapons would be a good thing, but they can't see "the top of the mountain," as they put it.

RF: I disagree with you a little bit there. I think there is a difference between the visionary approach embodied in Obama's Prague speech and the very realist assessment of the status of nuclear weapons in the Kissinger, Shultz, Perry and Nunn statements. In their case, ironically, they see getting rid of nuclear weapons as a strategic benefit to the United States at this stage. They're worried about the spread of nuclear weapons, which they don't think can be contained by the present nonproliferation regime, and they further believe that any further proliferation will neutralize whatever benefits nuclear weapons have had up to this point in serving American security interests since the end of World War II. Kissinger initially made his career as a policy advisor on the basis of advocating the reliance on U.S. military superiority when it comes to nuclear weapons in confronting the Soviet Union, even endorsing the Cold War idea of "limited nuclear war." I believe Kissinger hasn't changed his worldview; he just sees, and I think probably correctly from a realist point of view, that the U.S. military dominance would be less inhibited in a world without nuclear weapons.

DK: And the United States would be less threatened in a world without nuclear weapons because of the power imbalance that nuclear weapons make possible?

RF: Yes.

DK: Without U.S. leadership, the project is going to be stalled. If the U.S. doesn't lead, Russia won't be particularly inclined to change its reliance on nuclear weapons more than it is being forced to do by economics, and other states won't be pressed to move in that direction. So, I see the real starting point is the United States now moving from the rhetoric that Obama has put on the table to the actual steps that will move us closer to a nuclear weapons-free world, not only in numbers of weapons but in how we treat the weapons, how we view them in our strategic outlook, and how much we rely upon them militarily.

RF: Yes, I think those are certainly good ways of assessing the motivations associated with whatever steps are advocated by the United States in its natural position of leadership. I am a little bit less convinced that the U.S. has this special vocation of providing the leadership. The most successful setting for real momentum toward the goal of elimination would be for mutually reinforcing developments to occur in the other nuclear weapon states, because that would both create a kind of encouragement here as well as not make others suspicious that this was a kind of U.S. tactical, Kissinger-like move to shift the pieces on the global chess board so as to give the U.S. a tighter grip on world politics. So I would put a lot of emphasis on engaging the other nuclear weapon states in a more global process of denuclearization. I think it would be very good, for instance, to have speeches by other leaders that responded in some way to the Obama Prague speech, and to have civil society alerted and mobilized to a much greater extent than it is at present in these other countries to see this as a moment of opportunity — stark opportunity. I think as long as the climate in civil society is as passive as I believe it still remains, even here, there will not be much significant progress toward zero. There will be some progress toward stabilization and management and reducing the risks of unintended use of nuclear weapons or perhaps making them more secure in relation to non-state actors and other essentially managerial initiatives.

I believe quite strongly that without a movement from below there will be no challenge to the nuclear weapons establishment that is well situated in the governmental structure that operates from above. I think President Obama's political style is very much one of responding to pressure and not being willing to take big political risks to get out ahead of what he regards as the relation of forces within society. I think he's shown that in everything he's done so far, including his appointments to important positions, the way he has handled the economic crisis, the way he has handled the Palestine-Israel conflict. In all these areas he's taken a very low-risk, low-profile strategy except rhetorically.

DK: Most of what you refer to — for the United States to supply nuclear materials and technology to a known proliferator of nuclear weapons — occurred primarily under the Bush administration. So it's too soon to tell whether that's a policy that President Obama intends to follow.

I think we agree that a No First Use policy would be a strong signal to the world that the United States is serious about moving toward a nuclear weapons-free world. I think that we also agree that another signal would be for the United States to end its silence about Israel's nuclear arsenal, and to be more proactive about a Middle East Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone.

RF: A third point that I think is important is the serious commitment, either in collaboration with other governments or on our own, to develop a roadmap that sketched in a process that leads toward a world without nuclear weapons.

DK: I was just moving to that. One of the actions that President Obama called for in his Prague speech was a Global Summit on Nuclear Security. When he called for that global summit, what he was saying was in essence that we want to prevent nuclear terrorism. If this Global Summit on Nuclear Security could be broadened, it could be a really valuable project. The United States has the convening power to bring together the nations of the world that would be needed, including the nine nuclear weapons states, for such a global summit. These states could actually look at the security issues related to nuclear weapons in all their dimensions, including the dimension of the existing nuclear weapons in the hands of the nine nuclear weapons states, and the potential for accidents, proliferation, and all of the other security issues that nuclear weapons pose. It could include nuclear policy issues, such as No First Use. It seems to me that if the Global Summit on Nuclear Security were broadened, that could actually be the place to initiate a joint effort at developing a roadmap on the way to a new treaty that would lead, with the appropriate confidence-building measures and assurances against cheating, to the phased, verifiable, irreversible, and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons.

RF: I suspect that there will be a lot of pressure to keep the global summit narrowly focused on the terrorist issue, making the argument that if the focus is diluted nothing will come out of the summit.

I think it's important to bring into the discussion the role of the U.N. system and possibly regional groupings of states, as well as to look at what groups in civil society can do in relation to their own governments. One of the important achievements in the latter stages of the Cold War was the transnational peace movement in Europe, which had a very strong, positive effect on opposition politics in Eastern Europe and created a kind of collaboration that was often described as détente from below. A public climate of opposition was built through the mobilization of civil society that created a context able to take advantage of other opportunities for fundamental change. ....

We have to acknowledge that the place where democracy seems to be least effective is in relation to the national security agenda, and that ineffectiveness has been reinforced now for decades of an essentially militarist state having emerged out of first, World War II, and then the long decades of the Cold War and intensified after 9/11. In all these situations, what one has observed is a continuity of a governmental structure that is organized around the primacy of using military power in the world. Eisenhower, of course warned long ago, about the military-industrial complex in his farewell address, but that's almost 50 years ago and we now spend as much as the whole world put together on our military budget. It's an extraordinary thing. I mean Defense Secretary Gates was quoted recently as saying that the American navy is stronger than the navies of the next 13 powers in the world, but despite this disparity we must still make it even stronger. One needs to understand that a leader like Obama is faced with that enormous antidemocratic, militarized, bureaucratic structure and that he would probably receive a vicious backlash from this military establishment if he makes clear that his advocacy in favor of eliminating nuclear weapons is intended to become a real political project. At the same time, such a move would be very, very reinforcing for his leadership and for U.S. leadership, but it would almost certainly involve a fierce struggle with the national security bureaucracy and its links to the media and to certain think tanks and so on. I think this entrenched militarism is a formidable obstacle astride the path to a nuclear free world. It's not so much just that the public is ill-informed; it is a matter of a hidden, unaccountable power structure that does not want to make basic changes. Incremental changes are acceptable, but seeking basic changes invariably arouses formidable bureaucratic resistance.

DK: Another signal may be what comes out of the U.S.-Russia negotiations that have begun. The last agreement that Bush made in 2002, which is still being implemented, is to reduce the deployed strategic arsenals on both the U.S. and Russian sides to between 1,700 and 2,200 nuclear weapons each. Under the Bush agreement with Putin, the strategic weapons that are taken off deployed status can either be put in storage — the core can be placed in storage — or they can be dismantled and destroyed. There's no limit to the number of weapons that can be kept in reserve. The Bush-Putin treaty only dealt with deployed strategic weapons, so there's no limit to the number that can be kept in reserve. Right now the US does have, as does Russia, a number of weapons awaiting dismantlement, but they also have a number of other weapons that are considered strategic reserve weapons. How to count remains an issue. Should there be one overall number — strategic, tactical and reserve — or should there be several numbers? Under the Bush plan, there was one upper limit specified (2,200), but only for deployed strategic weapons. Other numbers, for the overall arsenal, for instance, were unspecified and unknown. They were not subject to accounting. I think there should be one number of nuclear weapons, and it should be the same formula for each country. It should include reserves and deployed weapons.

RF: That seems to me essential to the credibility of any kind of disarming process in relation to other nuclear weapon states.

DK: We don't yet know how the new negotiations will handle the number, and we also don't know if they'll actually make any significant reduction below the current level that has been agreed to. There have been a number of people who have suggested that going down to 1,000 or less would be a good next step, but the numbers that I've heard referred to in relation to the Obama administration are around 1,500, which would be a rather minimal incremental step downward. I'm not sure how much emphasis to put on that kind of incrementalism, or even on the number itself, when in the bigger picture it is not the number that is critical as much as it is the demonstration of political will to achieve zero. At the same time, if it turns out that it's not a very significant reduction, I think that may be a warning sign that the bureaucrats working on stabilization and wanting to continue American nuclear dominance are in more control than perhaps Obama is.

RF: That's always a question as to how much leadership is possible in the national security domain of policy because of the strength of the permanent bureaucracy — its nonaccountability and its links to influential media. That's why I feel it is so important to have this counter pressure mounted by a mobilized civil society to the extent possible. The question is whether it is possible to mobilize civil society around this kind of issue in the absence of existential fear of the sort that existed from time to time in the Cold War. When the American or European public became very scared about the prospect of a nuclear war, then the climate of opinion changed in favor of denuclearizing initiatives and visions.

DK: I think the greater problem in relation to nuclear energy is the intense desire of many countries around the world to proceed with development of nuclear energy, in part because they believe it shows a high level of technological achievement. They have bought-in to the promotional arguments that nuclear power will provide a country with its energy needs at a relatively low cost. I don't think that's a correct understanding, but it's widespread. When I was at the 2009 Non-Proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee meeting, I didn't hear one country denounce the idea of the spread of nuclear energy technology, and most of them were continuing to enthusiastically embrace it.

RF: I think the oil squeeze with rising prices and the prospect of supply scarcities, as well as skepticism about the contribution of solar and wind energy, is making opposition to nuclear energy a losing battle. I don't think you can stop the spread of nuclear energy capabilities. What can be done is to insist on a safeguarding and monitoring superstructure that makes diversion for military development much more difficult. Even this will be difficult to accomplish without reciprocating denuclearizing moves by the nuclear weapons states.

DK: You absolutely have to stop the production and use of highly enriched uranium; convert existing stockpiles of highly enriched uranium to low-enriched uranium only for power plants; have safeguards that involve international challenge inspections; and control all fissionable materials, including any reprocessing of plutonium. It will be a major undertaking. It will make the job of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons harder by many degrees.

RF: Incredibly difficult, and it will be very difficult to get countries, like the U.S., to accept the same kind of regulatory standards that it would want to impose on others and without mutuality nothing very significant can be achieved.

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