Just another president

The WMD Blog

Can the NSS save Obama’s nuclear legacy?

By Torbjørn Graff Hugo & Kjølv Egeland
31 March 2016

As world leaders descend on Washington DC for the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit this week (March 31­–April 1), the contours of President Obama’s nuclear weapons legacy are becoming clearer. For those who heard him speak in Prague in 2009, it is a story of great expectations and subsequent disappointment. For everyone else, it’s the story of just another US President.

On the initiative of the Obama Administration, the last few years have seen a series of high-level summits on nuclear security, the Nuclear Security Summits (NSS). After intervals in Soul (2012) and The Hague (2014), the NSS has now returned to Washington DC for its fourth and final conference. While Russia has announced (with some aplomb) that neither Vladimir Putin nor anyone else from Moscow will attend the meeting, high-level representatives from a number of other countries are set to congregate in the US capital. David Cameron, Narendra Modi, Francois Hollande, Justin Trudeau, Xi Jinping, and Shinzo Abe are among those scheduled to participate. The first NSS meeting, convened in the same city in 2010, has been reported as the largest gathering of heads of state in a half-century. But beyond opportunities for impressive photo-ops, what are the Nuclear Security Summits good for?

The main purpose of the Nuclear Security Summits has been to prevent nuclear terrorism. The rise of the Islamic State in Mesopotamia, the recrudescence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the continued atrocities of Boko Haram in Western Africa testify to the importance of this work. The Islamic State in particular is an organization founded on the idea that the almighty needs a helping hand in bringing about the end of the world. Thus while there are ‘no right hands for wrong weapons’, some hands might indeed be worse than others, and a nuclear-armed IS would be particularly nasty. Just a few months ago, in the wake of the attacks in Paris, Belgian police unravelled an ISIS plot to steal nuclear material from a nuclear plant in Belgium. While it would be difficult for a terror cell like the one in Brussels to manufacture a nuclear weapon from raw nuclear materials, putting together a so-called dirty bomb (a radiological weapon), which could cause considerable mayhem, would not require especially sophisticated intellectual capacities or equipment.

In part as a result of the NSS process, the number of countries in the world with stockpiles of highly enriched uranium —a substance that can be used to manufacture nuclear weapons—has been brought down from 35 to 23. Radiation detection equipment has been installed at more than 300 transportation hubs (airports, seaports, and boarder crossings), and physical security upgrades have been undertaken at 32 facilities storing weapons useable fissile materials.

This, of course, is all good news. But inevitably, the NSS process has also received its fair amount of criticism, not least because the initiative has been aimed exclusively at securing and destroying civilian fissile material. The fissile material stored by the world’s nuclear-armed states for military purposes—and, of course, the pile of more than 15 000 nuclear weapons they possess —has not been on the agenda. More than 80 per cent of the world’s fissile material is not even discussed.

A second problem with the NSS relates to the issue of inclusiveness. Participation in all six summits has been by invitation only, and merely a quarter of the UN member states have in fact been on the list. Granted, most of these do indeed have some role or capacity that makes their presence particularly relevant, but there is not really a discernable pattern here, and it is by no means clear to all those other states why they have been left out. If Obama truly wants to promote nuclear security, it seems odd to be doing this while excluding three quarters of the international community.

Where the NSS process goes from here is still a bit up in the air. The agenda will most likely be taken forward in one form or another, but the present cycle of summits has reached the end of its line. And as the scores are being counted, it is hard not to also see this as marking the closure of the chapter on nuclear weapons in President Obama’s political legacy.

It all started in Prague back in April 2009. Obama proclaimed to the world his and the US’ ‘commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.’ In sharp contrast to his predecessor’s unilateralism, Obama seemed intent on restoring the US’ reputation as a responsible and multilaterally minded leader on the world stage. It would not necessarily happen in his lifetime, but he would make sure to do his part in ensuring that we move us the right direction.

Seven years on, the spirit of Prague seems to have gradually faded away, replaced on the one hand by disappointment with the man himself and on the other hand by a mix of frustration and fatigue that can only be created through a long-time exposure to the inherent deadlocks of the US political system. With checks-and-balances on steroids, the President’s own aspirations matter only a little. Ratification of the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which was high up on Obama’s list of priorities, is a case in point. As far as the US Senate is concerned, the matter of CTBT ratification is a non-starter.

On the positive side, Obama did manage to squeeze the New START treaty through the Senate by the end of 2010, leading to a considerable trimming down of inventory in quantitative terms—on both sides of the Bering Strait. The deal concluded with Iran in July 2015 also stands out as an impressive diplomatic achievement that could prove to be important for the future of the non-proliferation regime.

Add this to the NSS spectacle, and the sum of Obama’s efforts on nuclear weapons policy is by no means zero. It’s just very far away from what many had started hoping for back in Prague in 2009, and from what the Nobel Committee must have been betting on when they decided to award Obama the Peace Prize in 2009, attaching ‘special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons’.

Most glaring for many, is that the US throughout Obama’s tenure has continued to undertake qualitative improvements of its nuclear arsenal. Even the symbolic nuclear warheads still stationed in five European NATO countries—residue of the ‘missile gap scare’ of the 1950s—are to be replaced by the ‘more useable’ B61-12 nuclear bomb. The life-extension programme for the B61 system alone is worth 10 billion US dollar.

And as the president of the Ploughshares Fund, Joseph Cirincione, recently told the Washington Post, ‘there wasn’t a single nuclear weapons program inherited from the Bush administration that Obama has stopped. In fact, he’s added to them.’ On the multilateral front, the United States has— along with the four other states defined by the NPT as ‘nuclear-weapon states’—boycotted and sought to derail a series of conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and two UN open-ended working groups on multilateral nuclear disarmament supported by the overwhelming majority of the world’s states. At the 2015 NPT Review Conference, the United States blocked consensus on a final declaration, supposedly because the draft document mentioned Israel, a non-party to the Treaty.

On top of this, the role of nuclear weapons in NATO’s strategy remains largely the same as when Obama took office, having seemingly allowed France to take the lead on developing the language for the 2010 Strategic Concept. A change in the US posture on first-use of nuclear weapons may have had some symbolic effect, but the fact that this comes across as one of Obamas boldest moves on nuclear weapons policy speaks volumes.

From the point of view of the ‘Prague nostalgic’ (or just a regular old Realist), President Obama can be said to have spent his two terms in office focusing on the following key elements:

  1. Invest in smarter and better nuclear weapons, while ensuring that Russia undertakes reductions
  2. Consolidate the nuclear-armed club by preventing further proliferation of nuclear weapons—be it to states or to non-state actors
  3. Protect the right of the US to retain its nuclear arsenal indefinitely, i.e. by undermining any policy efforts that could implicitly challenge this right
  4. Keep the international community below boiling point by paying sufficient lip service to the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Obama has done nothing to disprove this ‘Realist’ reading. But nor can the alternative reading that Obama really did want to do something radical on nuclear weapons be dismissed out of hand. He may well have meant what he said in Prague way back when.

The problem is: It doesn’t really matter. Obama’s legacy on nuclear weapons will most likely be relatively stripped of personal prints. It will be a legacy driven primarily by circumstances, secondly by national interest, and thirdly by domestic political tugs-of-war in Washington.

Whatever the leaders gathering in Washington this week come up with, therefore, it is unlikely to reignite the spirit of Prague (though rhetorically, Obama may well the opportunity to take a trip down memory lane). What seems more probable is that the NSS will conclude with a middle of the road message, based on a relatively unambitious agenda, presented by just another US President.

The views set out in this post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Law and Policy Institute (ILPI).