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June 2, 2022
Obama's Prague Agenda Two Years On
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Arms Control NOW

President Obama in Prague in 2009President Obama in 2009 at Hradcany Square Prague, Czech Republic (Image Source Christian Science Monitor)

By Daryl G. Kimball

In a stirring speech delivered two years ago in Prague's Hradcany Square, President Barack Obama outlined his vision for strengthening the global effort to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, moving forward on long-overdue disarmament measures, and preventing nuclear terrorism. He reiterated "clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

To move forward, Obama pledged that he will pursue "concrete steps" that are necessary to reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, including a permanent ban on nuclear explosive testing, verifiably halting the production of fissile material, strengthening the barriers preventing proliferation and use, pursuing diplomacy to bring North Korea and Iran back into compliance with their nonproliferation obligations, and resolving other underlying security challenges necessary to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons.

As Obama's National Security Advisor Tom Donilon said in a March 29, 2011 speech on the subject, "I think it's fair to say that the two years since the President's Prague speech have been exceedingly productive. Despite this progress, however, we will not rest on our laurels. And I can tell you with certainty that President Obama won't. Despite the many pressing global challenges that are competing for his attention, he has directed us to keep up the momentum and lay the ground work for additional progress."

Indeed, since Obama's April 5, 2009 speech there has been significant progress, but there is much more that can and must be done to reduce global nuclear weapons dangers:

  • In April 2009, United States and Russia began negotiation on a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and signed the treaty on April 8, 2010. In December—after nearly seven months of intense review and debate—a bipartisan coalition of Senators voted to approve its ratification. New START entered into force on February 5 of this year. The treaty requires the two countries to reduce their deployed strategic arsenals by 30% below earlier limits and establishes a new and more intrusive system of monitoring and verification that will increase predictability and stability.
  • The Obama administration shelved a controversial Bush-era plan to deploy ground-based strategic missile interceptors in Europe in favor of better-proven theater interceptors (the so-called "Phased Adaptive Approach") to counter Iranian short- and medium-range missiles. However, it plans to deploy strategic interceptors by 2020 that could impede further nuclear arms reductions with Russia unless Washington and Moscow can make new arrangements for missile defense cooperation in the coming months.
  • In April 2010 the administration completed a new Nuclear Posture Review that narrows the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in the overall U.S. defense posture "by declaring that the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear forces is to deter nuclear attacks against the U.S. and our allies and partners" and rules out the need for new types of weapons.
  • In November 2010, NATO adopted a revised "Strategic Concept" that omits any mention of the need for the remaining 180 tactical nuclear weapons still deployed in Europe and launched a year-long review of deterrence policy.
  • In April in Prague, President Obama called for U.S. reconsideration and ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and put into motion technical studies—including a forthcoming National Academy of Sciences report—to update the case for the treaty. Since then he has also committed increased funding ($85 billion over 10-years) for a robust strategy for maintaining the existing nuclear arsenal without the renewal of nuclear explosive testing, which helped build support for ratification of New START and should build confidence that there is a long-term strategy to maintain the effectiveness of the arsenal without nuclear explosive testing.
  • In contrast to his predecessor, Obama has sought to engage with Iran to resolve the crisis over its nuclear program and has rallied international support for tougher international sanctions in response to Tehran's safeguards violations and ongoing uranium enrichment activities and heavy water production reactor construction work. While little headway in the off-and-on talks with Iran has yet been achieved, Iran has not yet made a decision to build the bomb and it remains years away from being able to field a deliverable nuclear arsenal;
  • Following North Korea's second nuclear test explosion in May 2009, the Obama administration led efforts at the UN Security Council to levy yet another round of international sanctions against North Korea for breaking its previous denuclearization commitments, but it has dithered and failed to find a way to resume the stalled Six-Party talks with North Korea—an imperfect but essential tool by which the further development of North Korea's nuclear program can be held in check;
  • The Obama administration organized the first-ever international Nuclear Security Summit in April 2010, which led to new commitments from dozens of key states to accelerate work to secure the most vulnerable nuclear material from terrorists within four years. The administration has sought substantial increases in National Nuclear Security Administration programs to accelerate work to secure vulnerable material and significant successes have been achieved. But the Congressional budget cuts to these programs could slow efforts to keep vulnerable nuclear material out of then hands of terrorists;
  • Obama's renewed call for a global, verifiable fissile material cut off treaty (FMCT) in 2009 prompted the 60-member Conference on Disarmament in Geneva to briefly agree on a workplan for negotiations, but Pakistan has once again blocked the start of negotiations. In response, the Obama administration has warned that if talks at the Conference on Disarmament remain stalled, "other options" will be pursued; and

These important developments would not have come about if not for Obama's persistent commitment to these issues, which was foreshadowed in his responses to questions on the topic during the 2008 presidential election campaign.

Next Steps

Clearly there is more to be done. The American people expect their leaders to take action to reduce the nuclear weapons threat. Doing nothing or delaying action on pragmatic nuclear risk-reduction steps is not an option. The next steps on the "Prague Agenda" will not be easy, but they must be pursued.

In addition to the formidable task of curbing further horizontal proliferation—including the ongoing efforts to use effective diplomacy and sanctions to constrain Iranian and North Korean nuclear capabilities; continuing to implement programs that can secure nuclear materials so they cannot be used by terrorists to make nuclear bombs; and strengthening export controls on dual use technologies that can be used to produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles—there is much more the United States can do to reduce nuclear competition among the existing, major nuclear weapon states.

U.S.-Russian Nuclear Reductions

Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, it is in the best interests of Russia and the United States to reduce their huge strategic nuclear stockpiles further, phase out their Cold War-style targeting plans, restrict the role of nuclear weapons solely to deterring nuclear attack by others, account for and reduce tactical nuclear bombs, and, as Obama has promised, engage the other nuclear-armed states in a dialogue on nuclear disarmament.

As the Obama administration has proposed, further U.S.-Russian reductions should cover all types of nuclear weapons (strategic deployed, non-deployed, and non-strategic) and associated delivery systems, and, ideally, be secured through a follow-on treaty. Such talks, however, will be more complex and time consuming than New START. In the interim, the two governments should consider unilateral reciprocal actions that accelerate the reductions mandated by New START before the treaty's 2018 implementation deadline.

If formal negotiations do not begin before the end of 2011, President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev should explore unilateral reciprocal reductions that would reduce the number each country's deployed strategic stockpiles to as low as 1,000 warheads. Given that no other nation deploys more than 300 strategic warheads (France) and given that China's only possesses 40-50 warheads on intercontinental-range missiles, the U.S. and Russia can both substantially reduce their strategic nuclear stockpiles and still maintain more than enough nuclear weapons to deter nuclear attack by others.

Another compelling reason to achieve deeper reductions in still bloated U.S. and Russian nuclear forces is the fact that maintaining and modernizing U.S. and Russian strategic forces at current levels is very costly. The United States currently projects that it will need to spend in excess of $100 billion over the coming decade to upgrade and replace existing land- and sea-based strategic nuclear delivery systems. And as Alexei Arbatov explains in his new report, Gambit or Endgame? The New State of Arms Control, Russia will be hard pressed to sustain a strategic nuclear force capable of deploying 1,550 strategic warheads unless it undertakes an expensive missile modernization effort. It is in the interest of both countries to pursue further, parallel reductions in their strategic nuclear forces and to cut the size of their non-deployed reserve stockpiles.

Eliminating Cold War Nuclear Postures

President Obama should also take steps to reduce the risk of accidental or inadvertent nuclear attack involving the United States and Russia—a low-probability, high-consequence threat that still hangs over us all. As a presidential candidate, Obama drew attention to this problem and pledged to address it. In the fall of 2008, he said:

"Keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment's notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation. I believe that we must address this dangerous situation—something that President Bush promised to do when he campaigned for president back in 2000, but did not do once in office. I will work with Russia to end such outdated Cold War policies in a mutual and verifiable way."

Those policies remain unchanged. The NPR called for studies to evaluate measures to maximize the time the commander-in-chief would have to make a decision to use nuclear weapons. In the coming months, the administration will review and revise earlier presidential guidance documents that require U.S. nuclear weapons to be maintained so they can be launched within the flight time of a Russian ballistic missile. Such a posture is unnecessary and unwise. A reliable and credible U.S. nuclear deterrent does not require the ability to retaliate immediately but only the assurance that U.S. nuclear forces and command-and-control systems would survive an attack.

Obama can and should make it clear that the United States will no longer develop or exercise plans for rapid launches and will replace such plans with new ones that would allow the President to delay a nuclear response to a nuclear attack for days. He should invite (but not wait for) Russia to take make reciprocal changes to its nuclear posture.

Fissile Material Cut Off and the Test Ban Treaty

Not only must the United States and Russia further reduce their arsenals and purge their military strategies of obsolete Cold War thinking, they must work harder to prevent other states from building up and improving their nuclear arsenals. To succeed, the United States needs to revive efforts for a global fissile material production cut off treaty (FMCT) for weapons and solidify the global moratorium on nuclear test explosions by ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Given that France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have all declared a halt to fissile material production for weapons, and China is believed to have halted production, a global fissile production halt would have its greatest impact on India, Pakistan, and possibly China.

Despite increasing pressure on Pakistan to move forward with negotiations on an FMCT at the Conference on Disarmament, Islamabad is showing no sign it is willing to compromise. Pakistan, which is locked in an arms race with India, complains that the 2008 U.S.-supported exemption allowing civil nuclear trade with India will allow New Delhi to accelerate its fissile material production rate.

To help break the deadlock, the Obama administration should encourage India to declare that it will not increase its rate of fissile production and will put additional nonmilitary reactors under safeguards. Such a move could increase Indian security by pressuring Pakistan and China to make similar pledges and to support FMCT talks in Geneva.

Even if FMCT talks begin soon, it will be many years before a treaty is completed and it enters into force. By that time, India and Pakistan will have accumulated still more bomb material.

Donilon and other senior administration officials have hinted that they may pursue "other options" if the CD remains deadlocked and can't begin FMCT talks soon. One such option would be for the United States to pursue parallel, open-ended talks involving the eight states with fissile material production facilities that are not legally required to be under international safeguards. To hasten progress, all states with facilities not subject to safeguards should agree voluntarily to suspend fissile material production.

Encouraging China and Israel to participate would be key. For Israel, which does not need more fissile material and has an aging reactor at Dimona, the moratorium would make a virtue out of necessity and improve its nonproliferation record. China should support the initiative because it could lead India to slow the growth of its military fissile material stockpile.

In his March 29 speech, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon recommitted the Obama Administration "to working with Senators of both parties to ratify the CTBT."

This is welcome and necessary. Indeed, it is time for the Senate to reconsider and come together around the Test Ban Treaty, which cannot enter into force without U.S. ratification. Nearly two decades after the last U.S. nuclear test explosion, it is clear that the United States no longer needs or wants nuclear testing and that further nuclear explosive testing by other states could help improve their nuclear weapons capabilities in ways that would threaten U.S. and global security.

Not only is the technical case for the CTBT stronger, but the New START vote shows that Republicans and Democrats can sometimes come together around important national security matters, especially when the White House, backed by the military and the national laboratory directors, pursues a sustained, high-profile campaign.

But in order to make progress in the coming months, President Barack Obama must step up his efforts and engage the Senate in an in-depth dialogue on the treaty. For their part, all senators must take their national security responsibility seriously and thoroughly review the new evidence that has accumulated in favor of approving the CTBT.

Doing Nothing Is Not An Option

The cynics and supporters of the nuclear status quo believe action toward a nuclear weapons-free world is an exercise in wishful thinking. They're wrong. The real fantasy is to expect nuclear restraint and greater commitment to nonproliferation from other states and in the absence of bold U.S. action on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation in the months and years to come.