Obama Calls for Nuclear Weapons-Free World

Cole Harvey

President Barack Obama delivered his first major address on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation April 5 in Prague, declaring he would "seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

As a first step, Obama repeated his pledge to negotiate a successor agreement to the 1991 START with Russia. The conclusion of a new agreement with Russia would set the stage for a second round of reductions, involving all nuclear-weapon states, Obama said. The administration's lead U.S. negotiator on START, Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation Rose Gottemoeller was confirmed by the Senate on April 3 (see page 33).

In a reversal of Bush administration policy, Obama said his administration "will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty," which was rejected by the Senate in 1999. Nine specific countries, including the United States, must ratify the treaty before it can come into force. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told the Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference April 6 that Vice President Joe Biden is to lead a comprehensive review of the technical and political issues surrounding the treaty and to develop a strategy for winning Senate advice and consent for its ratification.

Obama also stated that, "to cut off the building blocks needed for a bomb, the United States will seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons." Efforts to begin talks on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) have been stalled in the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD) for more than a decade because the CD, which operates by consensus, has not been able to agree on a work program. The Bush administration opposed including verification measures in an FMCT and did not include such provisions in a draft treaty submitted to the CD on May 18, 2006. The Bush administration's position broke a consensus reached in the CD in 1995, known as the Shannon mandate, which directed delegates to negotiate an "effectively verifiable" end to the production of weapons-grade fissile material.

Obama also called for "a new framework for civil nuclear cooperation, including an international fuel bank, so that countries can access peaceful power without increasing the risks of proliferation." Under that concept, which has been supported by a number of world leaders, including President George W. Bush, an international fuel bank would give countries access to assured supplies of fuel for civilian nuclear reactors so that they would not have an economic or energy-security justification for pursuing domestic uranium-enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing programs.

Obama reiterated that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States would maintain "a safe, secure, and effective arsenal" to deter potential adversaries and guarantee the defense of allies. But he emphasized that he was planning a new approach.  "To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same," he said. The administration is currently conducting a congressionally mandated nuclear posture review, which is to be completed by December 2009.

Calling the possibility of a nuclear-armed terrorist group "the most immediate and extreme threat to global security," Obama announced an international effort "to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years." As part of this effort, Obama advocated turning the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism into "durable international institutions." Both initiatives are voluntary international affiliations established during the Bush administration and do not impose any legal obligations on their members. To begin shoring up international defenses against nuclear terrorism, the United States will host a global summit on nuclear security within a year, Obama said.

The presidential address came just hours after North Korea launched a rocket that could be used as a long-range missile. Obama used the North Korean launch to emphasize that rules "must be binding" in the international disarmament and nonproliferation regime. "Violations must be punished. Words must mean something," he said. Obama urged North Korea and Iran to choose legal and peaceful integration within the international community rather than the pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Representatives of major U.S. allies welcomed Obama's speech and his nuclear policy goals. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs called Obama's address "a very positive announcement" and said it stands "wholeheartedly alongside the United States in this effort." British Prime Minister Gordon Brown backed Obama's call for nuclear disarmament and said the possibility exists to make "huge advances quickly" in the reduction of nuclear weapons worldwide. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier also applauded the speech "and the clear line it took on nuclear disarmament." Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone said in a statement that Japan "strongly supports" Obama's call for a world without nuclear weapons and welcomed the concrete steps the president outlined.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), speaking to reporters in Tokyo April 10, said he "certainly supports" Obama's vision of a world without nuclear weapons but emphasized the need to focus on Iran and North Korea, countries he called "destabilizing."

Obama acknowledged that the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons will not be accomplished quickly but stressed that "as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it."