Prague One Year Later: From Words to Deeds?

Paul Meyer

In his April 2009 speech in Prague, President Barack Obama used soaring rhetoric to express a vision of a transformed international security context. The speech personally engaged Obama in the effort to realize the goal of total nuclear disarmament: “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”[1]

This clear vision was accompanied by a series of steps that Obama committed his administration to undertake to advance the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free world. A year after his clarion call, it is appropriate to review the agenda laid out so eloquently in Obama’s address and determine how successful he has been in delivering on its great promise. Such an accountability session is particularly apt this spring as the 189 states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) gather in New York this month for their quinquennial review conference to consider the health of this core international security agreement. Perceptions of the U.S. role in supporting the fundamental purposes of the NPT and assessments of the Obama administration’s performance in realizing the Prague agenda will be major factors in shaping the political environment for the review conference.

There can be little debate over the positive impression Obama left on his Prague audience and on the wide global readership for this landmark foreign policy address. It represented a sharp break from policies of the previous administration, which had banished the term “disarmament” from its official vocabulary. The speech also broke with past nuclear policy pronouncements that suggested an expanded role for nuclear weapons in the nation’s defenses.

The Prague address, in its opening sections rendering homage to the heroes of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, subtly associated Obama’s championing of the elimination of nuclear weapons with the actions of the great Czech revolutionaries of the Cold War. In the speech, Obama remarked that the Velvet Revolution “proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon.” Applying the context of the Cold War political upheavals and by extension the Cold War thinking that still characterizes some nuclear establishments, Obama criticized those “who told them that the world could not change.” He was suggesting that this moral leadership, which once liberated people from authoritarian rule, now needs to be directed at eliminating the nuclear weapons that represent “the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War.”

In this struggle for nuclear disarmament, Obama claimed a leadership role for the United States. This role was not asserted simply as a function of power or the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but as a matter of “moral responsibility,” given that the United States is the only country to have used a nuclear weapon. Having set up the moral imperative for action, which itself is a remarkable change in the presidential lexicon for international security policy, Obama enumerated a series of steps his administration would implement to put the vision into practice. This article assesses the Obama administration’s performance in implementing the key steps articulated in the Prague speech.

Reliance on Nuclear Weapons

In Prague, Obama vowed to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same.” The long-awaited Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released on April 6, set out a changed nuclear strategy, but the document regrettably was far less “transformative” than the Prague speech would have led one to believe. To a large extent, it reads like the type of document one would expect to be the product of four thematic working groups and 102 interagency meetings.[2] It represents a refinement of existing strategic policy with some troubling reformulations and a few vague commitments to consider more far-reaching measures in an eventual further round of review. The fundamental rethinking promised in the Prague speech was not in evidence.

On the core question of the function of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the NPR puts off to the indefinite future the acceptance of a policy that would unequivocally limit the role of U.S. nuclear weapons to deterring the use of such weapons by others. For now, this is the “fundamental” rather than the “sole” role for U.S. nuclear forces.[3] A residual deterrent role is still claimed for potential future biological weapons threats and against nuclear-weapon states and noncompliant states to deal with an unspecified “narrow range of contingencies”[4] in which U.S. nuclear weapons could deter attack by conventional, chemical, or biological weapons. In brief, U.S. declaratory policy still seems to want to cover all the bases with its nuclear forces.

On the issue of security assurances to non-nuclear-weapon states, the NPR manages to muddy the waters on a matter of prime importance for these states. The NPR usefully removes the caveat that security assurances would not apply to non-nuclear-weapon states in cases when they were involved in an attack against the United States in association with a nuclear-weapon state. That caveat, directed at the Warsaw Pact, was a relic of the Cold War.

At the same time, however, the NPR introduces a new condition that these non-nuclear- weapon states must be parties to the NPT and “in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” Exactly what nonproliferation obligations would this entail? The NPT? International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards? UN Security Council Resolution 1540?[5] Perhaps more importantly, who would decide what constitutes noncompliance? Unilateral U.S. judgment? Security Council or IAEA Board of Governors’ decisions? Furthermore, despite the frequently asserted desire to strengthen the NPT, the NPR is silent on responding to the 2000 NPT Review Conference decision that negotiation of legally binding negative security assurances would help strengthen the nonproliferation regime. Instead of any opening to a process of making such security assurances legally binding, the NPR appears to want to keep them at the level of declaratory policy, subject to change at any time. This is hardly a reassuring outcome for non-nuclear-weapon states looking to the United States for some accommodation of their long-standing concerns regarding security assurances.

With respect to reducing the operational status of deployed nuclear forces (a commitment under the 2000 NPT Review Conference Final Document and, for many, a litmus test of the willingness of the nuclear-weapon states to abandon Cold War postures), the NPR concludes that the existing alert levels are just fine as they are. There is a reference to the Department of Defense initiating studies regarding “survivability” of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in the future although this is not linked to reducing alert levels, but rather to “reducing incentives for prompt launch.”[6]

Regarding NATO, the NPR, far from heralding any new thinking on the remaining U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe, is stuck on the status quo. The Cold War-era bromides of “the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons” contributing to “Alliance cohesion” are reproduced as if the integrity of an alliance that is currently engaged in major military operations in Afghanistan is somehow ensured by the existence of several hundred U.S. nuclear bombs on European soil.[7] Those NATO allies who were counting on the Obama administration to take the lead on reform of alliance nuclear policy as part of this year’s revision of the Strategic Concept will find little comfort in the dusty text of the NPR.

Those observers who were hoping for more significant reductions of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals in the current Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) process, will have to be satisfied with the NPR’s pledge to “conduct follow-on analysis to set goals for future nuclear reductions”[8] and to address nonstrategic and nondeployed nuclear weapons in some future round of negotiations. One might question why this very analysis was not undertaken by the NPR and why “conservative assumptions to determine acceptable reductions in deployed strategic nuclear weapons”[9] were used.

Get rid of one of the legs of the triad as a signal of nuclear transformation? No thanks, says the NPR, we like things as they have always been. Retention of the bomber leg of the triad is justified in the NPR as a hedge against technical challenges with another leg (an implausible eventuality) and because they can be “visibly forward deployed, thereby signaling U.S. resolve and commitment in crisis.”[10] This desire to maintain a capacity for nuclear saber-rattling may be understandable on the part of some in the military establishment, but it seems misaligned with Obama’s direction to put an end to Cold War thinking. As with the failure to insist on greater reductions in this round of strategic arms control, Obama seems to have acquiesced in the status quo preferences of the armed services.

The NPR devotes considerable attention to investments for maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal and contains several specific commitments. This presumably is aimed at reassuring members and supporters of the nuclear weapons complex that this administration will ensure that even more funding will be coming their way, thereby gaining their support for treaty ratification and other elements of the Obama plan. Refreshingly, there is also a pledge to expand “work on verification technologies and the development of transparency measures”[11] although no details or budget allocations are provided. This promise is helpful in the NPT context. It responds to a commitment made in the 2000 NPT Review Conference Final Document and suggests that some research and development effort will be devoted to developing the capacities required for eventually eliminating, as opposed to sustaining, the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

With respect to Obama’s Prague commitment to urge other nuclear powers to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in their strategies, presumably this advocacy will now get underway. In the absence of major changes in U.S. posture, however, it will be difficult to lobby others to reduce the profile of nuclear weapons in their declaratory policy. At New START levels of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and with nuclear doctrines that still project roles for nuclear forces beyond deterring nuclear attack, neither the United States nor Russia is likely to have much influence on the nuclear ambitions of China, India, and others. Although the NPR is clearly the prime expression of Obama’s intention to reduce the role of nuclear weapons, he also deserves credit for raising the global profile of nuclear issues by convening a summit-level session of the UN Security Council to consider this subject. Resolution 1887, which was adopted on this occasion, refers to many aspects of the NPT-centered nonproliferation regime.[12] Yet, the resolution is silent on the specific issue of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in national security policies.

Assessment: FAIR

Cutting Nuclear Arsenals

In Prague, Obama promised to negotiate a new arms pact with Russia “by the end of this year that is legally binding and sufficiently bold.” Although the negotiators missed the end-of-2009 deadline, New START was finally concluded and signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, symbolically back in Prague, on April 8. The “sufficiently bold” test is necessarily subjective, but the final results do not constitute major progress over those already agreed in the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) concluded by the Bush administration. The White House claims a 30 percent reduction compared to the 2,200 warhead figure of SORT, but if the lower level of the SORT range for warheads (1,700) is referenced, the 1,550 deployed warheads of New START represent a reduction of less than 10 percent.[13] Theoretically, if the “one bomber equals one warhead” counting rule were exploited, one might have no reduction at all in the actual numbers of deployed warheads. Ironically, the timeline for achieving these reductions has also lengthened as those under SORT would have to have been implemented by 2012, whereas those under New START will only be required to be achieved seven years after entry into force of the treaty (2017 at the earliest). The modest results of New START in turn raise doubts about the timing and feasibility of Obama’s promise to follow START with “further cuts” involving all nuclear-weapon states. If the United States and Russia had agreed in New START to reduce their strategic warheads to less than 1,000 each, there would have been real political momentum to engage the other nuclear-weapon states in further collective cuts. The modest reduction levels and extended implementation timelines of New START enable other nuclear powers to excuse themselves from participating in any common nuclear weapons reduction negotiation. The fact that New START punts the tricky if crucial issue of missile defenses to the future is understandable in light of the need to secure Senate consent for ratification. It would have bolstered Obama’s stance in favor of new thinking, however, if some express commitment had been made to address this Russian as well as Chinese concern. If the security accords negotiated between Russia and the United States are truly to be “bold” and reinforce the downward direction in arsenals, then the important interrelationship between offensive and defensive arms is going to have to receive more than recognition in a preamble.

Assessment: FAIR

Ratifying the CTBT

In Prague, Obama pledged to “immediately and aggressively pursue” U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Although Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was subsequently dispatched to participate in the September conference on CTBT entry into force after years of the Bush administration boycotting such events, the lack of follow-through on the president’s promise is striking. This is especially worrisome as CTBT entry into force was identified as the top priority of the NPT members at the 1995 and 2000 review conferences. It is widely known that other prominent holdouts, such as China and Indonesia, are unlikely to ratify the treaty before the United States does. Perhaps Vice President Joe Biden’s February 18 speech promising a 10 percent increase to $7 billion for the budget of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s stockpile management programs is a harbinger of a more dedicated effort to win over opponents in the Senate.[14] The administration has not yet shown signs of mounting the sort of energetic and coordinated effort that has been required in the past to obtain Senate consent for ratification of major international treaties, such as the Chemical Weapons Convention or China’s accession to the World Trade Organization. As always, domestic issues have consumed much of the administration’s time and political capital. In light of those demands and the priority that will be afforded to the ratification of New START, it would appear that the aggressive pursuit of CTBT ratification that the president promised in Prague is not going to occur anytime soon.

Assessment: POOR

Negotiating an FMCT

A year ago, Obama reaffirmed that the United States would seek a verifiable ban on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. This is a decades-old U.S. arms control goal. The only notable contribution to date by the Obama administration on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) was to reinstate the requirement for verification that had been rejected by the Bush administration. The Obama administration has shown little energy and less creativity in its pursuit of an FMCT since Prague. For most of the past year, the United States has continued to look to the moribund Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva to negotiate such an accord. In the face of diplomatic sabotage of the CD by Pakistan and other spoilers, the United States until now has done little more than suggest that parallel, informal seminars be held on the chief topics of an FMCT. A potentially significant development is the omission of a reference to the CD in the relevant NPR passage affirming U.S. interest in “prompt negotiation of an FMCT.”[15] This may herald a decision to consider other negotiating forums for this treaty. For some time, this author has advocated the necessity of creative diplomatic solutions to the prolonged impasse on an FMCT in the CD.[16] The U.S. president enjoys enormous convening authority to initiate action on any international file. The Bush administration employed this power to good effect on the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. Given the attention Obama has just devoted at the April summit to programs for securing nuclear material, it is strange that the Obama administration has not yet initiated a serious diplomatic effort to start negotiations to prohibit fissile material production, the source of the problem. If the tap is left running, mopping up the overflow is ultimately going to be futile.

Assessment: POOR

Strengthening the NPT

The section regarding the NPT was probably the weakest part of the otherwise impressive rhetoric of the Prague speech. Besides reaffirming that “[t]he basic bargain is sound,” there is little clarity and coherence in Obama’s remarks as to what the chief challenges to the NPT are and what remedial action is necessary. There is an emphasis on monitoring (“more resources and authority to strengthen international inspections”) and enforcement (“we need real and immediate consequences for countries caught breaking the rules”), but there is no overriding commitment to balanced compliance with all three pillars of the treaty—nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The problems besetting the NPT go well beyond the defiance of North Korea or the machinations of Iran. To limit the prescription to finding better ways to hold these two states accountable is to overlook the deeper sources of malaise within the NPT.

The Prague speech contains rather vague references to a new framework for civil nuclear cooperation, including an international fuel bank, and little in the way of concrete proposals for strengthening this core security treaty. In the context of North Korea and Iran, Obama spoke of the need for “a structure” that will ensure that violators of the rules face consequences, but he provided no elaboration of what this structure would entail. Obama’s positive remarks on international inspections suggest that he supports more funds for the IAEA, but there is no recognition of the NPT’s institutional deficit or the means to overcome it. With no annual meetings of states-parties, no governing council, and no dedicated secretariat, the NPT is oddly the poor cousin of international agreements, despite its acknowledged importance. The inability to acknowledge the governance deficiencies of the NPT, while calling for the institutionalization of auxiliary processes such as the PSI, reveals an administration blind spot that will make it difficult to reinforce the NPT’s authority. The NPR’s treatment of this theme, unfortunately, showed little evolution of thinking since the Prague speech. The recently concluded Group of Eight meeting of foreign ministers issued a statement regarding the upcoming NPT review conference that contains a tantalizing pledge to “work collectively to strengthen the institutional framework of the Treaty, which will contribute to its effective and efficient implementation.”[17] It is not yet clear what the United States intends to propose on this or any other theme at the May conference, but it will be important to show that the administration is taking the president’s aim of strengthening the NPT as much more than a declaratory exercise.

Assessment: POOR

Preventing Nuclear Terrorism

In Prague, Obama characterized the potential acquisition of a nuclear weapon by terrorists as “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.” He announced a new international effort “to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years.” The president called for the existing “processes” of the PSI and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism to be transformed into “durable international institutions.” He further committed to convening a global summit on nuclear security within the year. This aspect of the Prague agenda seems to have received the greatest attention by the Obama administration with a series of international preparatory meetings leading up to the summit. Obama hosted 46 nations as well as the heads of the United Nations, IAEA, and European Union at a global nuclear security summit April 12-13 in Washington. The communiqué issued at the conclusion of the summit calls for international cooperation on a range of practical measures to bolster nuclear security.[18] Although participants joined Obama’s call to secure all vulnerable nuclear material in four years, there is no detailed plan for accomplishing this. The United States is setting a good example as it commits to continue the substantial funding flow required to sustain programs to secure vulnerable fissile material and to destroy old stocks of weapons of mass destruction, but it remains to be seen whether other states have the same financial stamina or set of priorities. Given that military holdings of highly enriched uranium (HEU) dwarf civilian stocks, it would have been desirable to see some initiatives on this front at the nuclear security summit. A commitment, for example, to research options for converting U.S. naval nuclear reactors from HEU to low-enriched uranium would have sent a positive signal for change and would have contributed to facilitating the eventual verification of an FMCT as well.

Assessment: GOOD


The commitments enumerated above represent the practical content of a speech that radiated idealism and appealed to people around the world to seek security through cooperation rather than confrontation. For many listeners in that Prague audience and beyond, the president’s address was a reassuring assertion of U.S. commitment to and leadership in the effort to rid the world of its most devastating weapons. In another part of the speech, however, Obama affirmed that “[w]ords must mean something.” The warm glow of Obama’s oratorical success will soon fade if his administration does not follow up with demonstrable action and achievement.

The Obama administration’s record to date in translating words into deeds on the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament front has been modest. Despite Obama’s assertion that the NPR “will move beyond outdated Cold War thinking,” this key policy document still suffers from a surfeit of “old think” and status quo postures. There are openings for more fundamental change in the future (the commitment to pursue strategic stability dialogues with Russia and especially China is important), but these will require sustained presidential direction if the inertia of the nuclear establishment is to be overcome. Clearly, domestic political factors have affected the president’s follow-up on his Prague agenda. Gates’ April 6 cover letter for the NPR notes that its implementation “will be the work of multiple administrations and Congresses, and will require sustained bipartisan consensus.”[19] Such a bipartisan consensus on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament policy does not currently exist, and Obama will need all his intellect and powers of persuasion to obtain support for the program he has outlined. A challenging domestic context is a reality for many a democratic leader but cannot obviate Obama’s responsibility to deliver on the commitments he made to a global audience a year ago. Domestic constraints were not absent in April 2009. The real question is how successful Obama will be in sustaining his vision and his specific goals in the face of these constraints. Those inspired by the president’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons deserve to see greater evidence of actual progress being made toward that goal. There is still time for Obama to channel that “Yes, we can” spirit that he so eloquently invoked in Prague into worthy action on the nuclear weapons issue. It would be a sad day for disarmament diplomacy and global aspirations “to live free from fear” if the hopes of another “Prague Spring” were to be dashed by failures of will or the forces of reaction.

Paul Meyer is director-general of the Security and Intelligence Bureau in Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. A career Canadian Foreign Service officer, he served as Canada’s ambassador and permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament from 2003 to 2007. The views expressed in this article are solely his own.


1. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Barack Obama, Hradèany Square, Prague, Czech Republic,” April 5, 2009.

2. U.S. Department of Defense, “Background Briefing on the Nuclear Posture Review from the Pentagon,” April 6, 2010.

3. U.S. Department of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review Report,” April 2010, Nuclear Posture Review Report.pdf, p. vii (hereinafter NPR).

4. Ibid., p. 16.

5. UN Security Council, Resolution 1540, S/RES/1540, April 28, 2004. This resolution obliges states to take a series of measures to prevent nonstate actors from engaging in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

6. NPR, p. 27.

7. Ibid., p. 32.

8. Ibid., p. xi.

9. Ibid., p. 20.

10. Ibid., p. 24.

11. Ibid., p. vii.

12. UN Security Council, Resolution 1887, S/RES/1887, September 24, 2009.

13. Many analysts argue that 2,200 is the operative number because it establishes the ceiling, but 1,700 is part of the range stipulated in SORT and therefore is valid as a point of comparison between the targets for reductions under that treaty and New START.

14. Office of the Vice President, “Remarks of Vice President Biden at National Defense University,” February 18, 2010.

15. NPR, p. 46.

16. See Paul Meyer, “Is There Any Fizz Left in the Fissban? Prospects for a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty,” Arms Control Today, December 2007.

17. “G8 Foreign Ministers’ Statement on Nuclear Non-Proliferation, Disarmament and Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy: A Contribution to the 2010 NPT Review Conference,” March 30, 2010, Gatineau, Canada.

18. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Communiqué of the Washington Nuclear Security Summit,” April 13, 2010.

19. NPR, p. i.