A disappointing finale for Obama’s nuclear summits

Seven years ago, Obama set high hopes for his plan to rid the world of nuclear weapons. With his summits now over, he leaves a list of failures as his legacy on nuclear security.

By: /
April 5, 2016
Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama holds a press conference at the conclusion of Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, April 1, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Few people probably recall that the origins of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) series, the fourth and last of which was held last week in Washington, lie in a speech given by President Barack Obama seven years ago in Prague. That speech on April 5, 2009, was a soaring example of oratory in which the president stated “clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

To accomplish this goal, the president outlined a number of steps his administration would pursue: 1) reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy; 2) engage Russia in “bold” new reductions of nuclear weapons; 3) “immediately and aggressively pursue” U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); 4) seek “prompt negotiation” of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) and 5) launch an international effort “to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years.”

It is the last commitment to secure the world’s vulnerable nuclear material which ultimately took form in a series of summit level meetings. They were presided over by President Obama initially in 2010 and which after a road show to accommodating allies South Korea (2012) and the Netherlands (2014) was brought back to Washington for the grand finale last week (Mar 31-Apr 1). 

These events were heavily scripted by the U.S., which decided on the invitation list, the outputs and crucially the agenda of the gatherings. “Nuclear Security” was defined in very narrow terms, essentially the securing of weapons-usable fissile material (Highly Enriched Uranium, or HEU, and Plutonium) in the civilian sphere in order to prevent “nuclear terrorism.” 

A useful endeavour certainly, but what about the range of other threats associated with nuclear weapons?  Surely one would not want to waste the opportunity that a gathering of 50-plus of the world leaders presents to address the priority nuclear weapon-based threats to humanity.

Regrettably, the narrow agenda set for the NSS was politically expedient for President Obama, given that his administration had failed to deliver on practically all of the other aspects of the Prague action plan.  His call to” transcend Cold War thinking” and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in America’s strategy produced a year later a Nuclear Posture Review that basically replicated nuclear orthodoxy as practiced by the Pentagon. The “bold” reductions in nuclear force levels yielded the minimal cuts of New START (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), but even the ratification of this treaty had to be bought with multi-billion dollar modernization programs for U.S. nuclear forces. These nuclear weapon expansion programs belie commitments to disarmament and contribute to the on-going corrosion of the Nonproliferation Treaty’s authority. The refusal of Moscow and Washington to take even a portion of their deployed strategic nuclear forces off their high-alert status contributes to nuclear use risks and ignores repeated calls by their non-nuclear partners to do so.  Russia and the other nuclear-armed states also have contributed to this latest upward spiral of the arms race, but the U.S. seems to be setting the pace.

In retrospect, Obama’s pledge on CTBT ratification seems risible. His administration has failed to devote the necessary time and capital to help ensure the entry into force of the one treaty that bans all nuclear tests. Eight states, including the U.S. and China, whose adherence to the CTBT is essential for it officially to take effect still have not taken this step, 20 years after the treaty was concluded.

The commitment to a “prompt negotiation” of a ban on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons also appears as an abject failure, and the initiation of negotiations of this NPT priority is as far off as ever. Ironically, even the goal set out back in Prague for the NSS, to secure vulnerable nuclear material within four years has not been met. The NSS have made some useful progress, but the process was already experiencing “diminishing returns” prior to Washington. In the period between the 2012 and the 2014 summits, seven states had eliminated weapons-usable fissile material. In the two years leading up to the 2016 summit only one state managed this feat.

The entire process would have had more credibility if instead of concentrating exclusively on HEU in the civilian sphere, the summits had also extended their scrutiny to the 12 times larger quantities of HEU in the military realm. Now that on-going NSS work is to be downgraded to the senior officials from the summit level, it is unlikely that the political energy required to adopt a more ambitious agenda will be forthcoming.

The U.S. president has enormous convening power and if Obama had resolved to dedicate even a segment of the summits’ agendas to a discussion of these overarching and outstanding nuclear priorities the true nuclear security interests of humanity would have been better served.

Unfortunately, President Obama took the path of least resistance and was content to limit the exercise to second tier issues. He will point to these as achievements of his Presidency no doubt, but in light of the transformative objectives articulated in Prague they represent a very modest legacy.