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June 1, 2018
Obama Calls for Deeper Nuclear Cuts
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Jefferson Morley and Daryl G. Kimball

President Barack Obama last month outlined a nuclear arms control agenda for his second term, calling for negotiated arms reductions with Russia, a fourth nuclear security summit, and a renewed push for treaties banning nuclear testing and the production of fissile materials.

In a June 19 address at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Obama said, “We may no longer live in fear of global annihilation, but so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe.” Obama’s initiatives build on the goals he announced in his April 2009 speech in Prague and on the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which mandates reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsensals by 2018.

While noting that New START would reduce deployed nuclear warheads “to their lowest levels since the 1950s,” Obama said, “[W]e have more work to do.”

“To move beyond Cold War nuclear postures,” Obama said he would seek to reduce the numbers of U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third. If implemented, the reductions would trim the two countries’ strategic nuclear arsenals from the limit of 1,550 deployed warheads mandated by New START to about 1,000 to 1,100.

Obama announced that the United States would host a nuclear security summit in 2016, aimed at protecting nuclear material around the world from theft or diversion by terrorist organizations or rogue states. It would be the fourth such gathering of Obama’s presidency. The third summit is scheduled to be held in the Netherlands next year. Until Obama’s announcement, it was unclear if the summits would continue beyond 2014.

The president pledged “to build support in the United States to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” echoing a promise he made in Prague four years ago. Obama also renewed his call for negotiations on a treaty that would end the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

Obama did not provide any details about how he would promote the test ban treaty, which was rejected by the Senate in 1999. He also provided no specifics on advancing a fissile material treaty in the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament, which has been thwarted by objections from Pakistan.

Obama promised to work with NATO allies “to seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe,” where the United States now maintains an estimated 180 nuclear warheads. The alliance’s 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review document links changes in the alliance’s nuclear posture to Russia’s nuclear policy by stating that “NATO is prepared to consider further reducing its requirement for non-strategic nuclear weapons assigned to the Alliance in the context of reciprocal steps by Russia.” (See ACT, June 2012.)

The president announced that, after a “comprehensive review,” he approved new nuclear weapons employment guidance for the Defense Department that will lay the groundwork for the additional reductions, according to a June 19 White House summary.

The guidance directs the Pentagon to align U.S. military plans with the policies of Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which resulted in a report stating that the U.S. government will consider the use of nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners. Sources familiar with the review say that it was completed approximately 18 months ago.

The resulting strategy, says the summary, “will strengthen regional deterrence, and reassure U.S. allies and partners, while laying the groundwork for negotiations with Russia on how we can mutually and verifiably reduce our strategic and nonstrategic nuclear stockpiles.”

Administration sources say that senior U.S. and Russian officials soon will begin discussions on the options for further strategic nuclear reductions. “We are in close contact with our Russian counterparts and will be in the days and weeks and months ahead,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters June 20.

In their public comments, senior Russian officials have responded coolly to Obama’s proposal. On June 23, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that reductions beyond the levels in New START will make nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia comparable to those of other countries with nuclear weapons.

“This means that further moves possibly proposed for reduction of actual strategic offensive arms will have to be reviewed in a multilateral format. And I’m talking not just official nuclear powers, but all countries that possess nuclear weapons,” Lavrov said on Rossiya 1 television. Russia has insisted that further offensive nuclear reductions also depend on a resolution of its concerns about U.S. strategic missile defense plans.

Obama’s speech was met with praise and criticism in the U.S. Senate. In a June 19 statement, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the intelligence committee, said that “the world will be better off without an unnecessarily high number of these powerful weapons. The Cold War is long gone and the United States and Russia must do more to adjust their deterrents to practicable standards.” Feinstein, along with 22 other Democratic senators, wrote to Obama earlier this year to encourage further action on nuclear reductions, the test ban treaty, and securing nuclear materials.

In a separate June 19 statement, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, warned that additional limitations of the U.S. nuclear arsenal without modernization of existing forces could amount to “unilateral disarmament.” The same day, Corker and 23 other Republican senators wrote a letter to Obama insisting that “any further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal should only be conducted through a treaty subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.”

Arms control advocates have said reciprocal, parallel reductions in strategic deployed nuclear forces can be implemented without a treaty and verified under the inspection procedures established by New START. A November 2012 report from the secretary of state’s International Security Advisory Board recommends a similar approach if the United States and Russia cannot agree on a new treaty. The report suggests the United States could accelerate its reductions under New START, allowing both sides to avoid “costly or destabilizing” programs to modernize strategic forces. (See ACT, November 2012.)

In his statement, Corker said Secretary of State John Kerry had assured him that any further reductions would occur in bilateral treaty negotiations subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. But a State Department spokesman denied that, saying Kerry had only agreed that the Senate would be “consulted.”

“At this point, it’s premature to speculate on precisely what such agreement…might encompass or how it would be established,” the spokesman said.