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Commentary & Opinion

Herbert London: President Obama’s Nuclear Weapons Vision

When President Obama was a student at Columbia College he wrote a paper calling for the “end of nuclear weapons.” It was a time when there were similar calls for the elimination of these weapons of mass destruction; this was ostensibly an idealistic cri de coeur. Unilateral disarmament of the kind this movement demanded was seen as playing directly into the hands of a Soviet rival expanding its nuclear weapons capability.

The emergence of a multi-polar nuclear world has made the once idealistic claim seem polyannish. A unilateral reduction in U.S. nuclear forces without a reciprocal response from other nuclear powers only weakens the deterrent effect of our arsenal.

Yet remarkably, in comments made before the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York City, Secretary of State John Kerry stated U.S. “willingness” and “readiness” to engage and negotiate further reductions of deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third below the level set by New Start.

While there has been suspicion of Russian cheating on the Start accord and threatening gestures about the use of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine, President Obama is raising the specter of further dramatic retrenchment. Senator McCain, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee said “further strategic nuclear reductions with Russia would be a dangerously naïve non-starter with the U.S. Senate.” In fact, nuclear weapons have grown increasingly prominent in Russian military doctrine as the growth in its arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons would suggest.

At the Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, the five announced nuclear weapon states recognized by the treaty – U.S. Russia, Britain, France and China – will discuss current approaches to nuclear arms control. It is instructive that North Korea, Pakistan, Israel, India and arguably Iran – all nuclear powers, possible nuclear powers or about to be nuclear powers – are omitted from the discussion.

In President Obama’s Nobel Prize speech, he reiterated his long standing belief in a world free of nuclear weapons. But despite these heartfelt sentiments the world is moving ever closer to proliferation, even among those nations that signed the non-proliferation treaty. While the president asserts a “broad international consensus on the need to secure nuclear materials,” it is obvious that within the framework on Iran’s nuclear materials there isn’t any requirement that this state sponsor of terrorism accept international protocols.

Visionaries relying on their own illusions assume that cooperation is possible. But reality intrudes. For Russia, its bristling nuclear arsenal affords comfort in any escalation scenario in Eastern Europe. Should NATO forces confront Russia, the threat of tactical nuclear weapons looms.

Rather than begin the upcoming nuclear security summit by stating our position, Secretary Kerry would be wise to put an emphasis on reinforcing the national deterrent. No sensible person wants nuclear exchanges. Unfortunately not everyone is sensible. A world without nuclear weapons is and should be a goal, but suppose you disarm and your enemies do not? Russia, for example, has already said it will not participate in the preparatory process for the 2016 security summit.

An agreement of the willing is meaningless if the unwilling do not participate. In the nuclear age it is far better to be safe – behind the wall of defensive weapons – than sorry after a failed effort at a freeze. The utopian vision, in this case, can easily emerge as a dystopian saga. President Obama leaves the impression that he is still a naïve Columbia student captivated by illusions. However, there isn’t anyone like him in Russia, China or Iran.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries atwww.londoncenter.org

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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