President Obama's farsighted nuclear strategy

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, April 18, 2010


President Obama has turned the once utopian-sounding idea of global nuclear disarmament into a useful tool for U.S. foreign policy. His well-conceived, confidently executed three-part movement in statecraft this month should banish the notion that Obama's ambitious nuclear goals spring from naiveté or inexperience.

In the space of two weeks, the president put his own stamp on the Nuclear Posture Review released by the Pentagon on April 6, closed the deal on a modest but necessary strategic-arms treaty with Russia and then hosted a 47-nation summit that adopted his view that nuclear terrorism poses the biggest single threat to global stability.

That does not mean that we are on the verge of a world without nuclear weapons. Enormous hurdles -- Iran; North Korea; Russia's growing reliance on tactical nuclear weapons in its military doctrine; the volatile nuclear triangle formed by China, India and Pakistan -- remain. But Obama has laid a foundation for greater multilateral action to control nuclear weapons and materials.

He set an important example for his peers by taking control of the drafting of the Nuclear Posture Review -- a document few if any of his predecessors bothered even to read fully, experts tell me. He has accepted presidential responsibility and authority for shaping the nuclear weapons and strategies that the United States will now develop or abandon.

"President Obama was making editing changes in the Nuclear Posture Review right up to the last minutes before it was to go to press," says William J. Perry, defense secretary in the Clinton administration and a member of a quartet of elder statesmen whose advocacy of nuclear disarmament has informed and influenced Obama's thinking.

The president used the review process to force the national security fiefdoms in his administration to sign up to his vision -- and the means for achieving it. "They were not lined up that way two months ago, and it took a lot of work to get it done in a way that his predecessors have not done," according to Perry.

The declaration is normally the handiwork of military officers, scientists and theoreticians who bargain with each other to produce a technocratic summary of who does what, and gets what, to manage the U.S. nuclear arsenal. But Obama turned the review into a political document that redefines the Cold War concept of deterrence in ways that reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy.

That will give Obama new political and moral authority in arguing for international action to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons and to get North Korea to reverse its outlaw nuclear program. The emphasis in the posture statement on engaging China in multilateral arms control discussions now that the United States and Russia have formally agreed to reduce their strategic arsenals again is also a step in a new and right direction for U.S. policy.

The U.S. and Soviet intercontinental arsenals are no longer the world's greatest nightmare. Graver threats stem today from the large number of tactical -- shorter-range -- nukes that Pakistan threatens to use to counter a conventional attack by India, that Russian experts frankly say they need to counter a future military threat from China and that would be the likeliest atomic arms to fall into the hands of terrorist gangs. Obama's resetting of priorities, and the marginal cuts made by the new strategic treaty, make the tactical nuclear menace -- and the need to deal with it -- unavoidable as the next Topic A in arms control.

In important ways, Obama is putting into practical steps ideas originally brought forward in a series of articles, speeches and conversations with world leaders undertaken by Perry and three other elder statesmen -- George Shultz, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn. The president honored the four with a White House showing on April 6 of "Nuclear Tipping Point," a new film that focuses on their effort. "You can see that I take you seriously," the president remarked to the group.

I have listened with sympathy but deep skepticism to their arguments since first hearing Shultz two years ago here at Stanford describe with great conviction the need to reduce to zero weapons. For one who came of age in the Cold War, the notion seemed quixotic.

But Obama's calculated step-by-step approach makes me reconsider. He is engaging other nations in an international reassessment of the cost-benefit ratio of nuclear weapons and pressing them for action that would create a world in which the United States could feel safer without those weapons.

Congress should reinforce his leverage by ratifying the new U.S.-Russian treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It is a long way to zero, which is why we should start now.

The writer is a contributing editor to The Post.

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