In April 2009, President Obama declared America's commitment to a world without nuclear weapons. His statement, made during a speech in Prague, elicited strong reactions around the world. The states whose cooperation would be necessary to implement this vision, such as China and Russia, have shown varying levels of support for Obama’s agenda. George Perkovich, the director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, discussed Obama’s nuclear agenda and explained both the domestic and international obstacles to its implementation at a talk at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. The event was moderated by Carnegie’s Lora Saalman and introduced by Carnegie’s Paul Haenle.

Obama’s Agenda

Obama’s policy has supporters and critics in both U.S. political parties, Perkovich said. He outlined some of the foundations for Obama’s policy:

  • Nuclear Weapon-Free World (NWFW): Obama’s agenda is based on the premise is that a NWFW would be more secure and peaceful than a world with nuclear weapons. The magnitude and scale of nuclear weapons is a unique threat to the existence of large nation-states and, if these weapons could be eliminated, this threat would be eradicated.
  • Proliferation Risk: Obama sees the acquisition of nuclear materials and weapons by other parties as a significant concern. Without the commitment of the United States and other Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) to eliminate nuclear stockpiles, it will be harder for the majority of states to ascribe to and enforce stronger nonproliferation rules. Preventing new states from acquiring nuclear weapons—while tolerating existing nuclear stockpiles in other countries—creates an unsustainable double standard.
  • Conventional Capabilities: Obama believes that, in a NWFW, the U.S. conventional arsenal could deter or defeat non-nuclear military threats. This factor represents a major consideration for U.S. security.
  • Realistic Timelines: A NWFW represents a long-term goal that may not be achieved in Obama’s lifetime. Perkovich argued that a number of proponents and detractors of NWFW misinterpreted Obama’s statements as a sign that nuclear disarmament should bea foregone conclusion.
  • Arsenal Maintenance: Obama believes that, so long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal. Perkovich stated that, while experts in China and elsewhere grasp this caveat, some Americans mistakenly interpret Obama’s goal to be unilateral disarmament.

Implementing the Agenda

By the spring of 2010, the United States and other countries embarked on several disarmament initiatives. Perkovich described some of the obstacles quickly encountered by the administration in attempting to realize Obama’s arms control goals.

  • New START: Both critics and supporters have claimed the New START treaty is not overly ambitious and does not offer significant arsenal reductions. However, even with its limited scope, it has proved difficult to ratify. Perkovich explained this is in part due to the U.S. Constitution, which requires support from two-thirds of senators for treaty ratification. Senators’ ability to demand certain conditions before voting for ratification has made passage difficult, he said.
  • Nuclear Posture Review (NPR): Perkovich praised the reduced role of nuclear weapons and enhanced reassurance for Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) in the recent U.S.  NPR. He also noted language in the document suggests the United States accepts mutual deterrence with China and seeks bilateral strategic dialogues to prevent arms escalation and increase stability. Still, Perkovich emphasized that the NPR did not establish a no-first-use policy, a result of the domestic politics surrounding the ratification of New START.
  • Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference: The NPT Review Conference reflected the many challenges facing Obama’s agenda. For example, France opposed any significant mention of nuclear disarmament at the conference, instead seeking a greater focus on Iran. Perkovich acknowledged that this focus was in part justified, due to Iran’s violations of the NPT and its refusal to heed UN Security Council resolutions. However, the conference illustrated the difficulty any NWS would face in agreeing to eliminate nuclear weapons as long as questions remain about whether other countries are trying to obtain them.
  • Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT): Passage of the CTBT during Obama’s current term is unlikely, given the failed prior attempts to ratify it and difficulties in ratifying New START, Perkovich said. Asked by a Chinese attendee about the main U.S. obstacles to ratification of the CTBT, Perkovich responded that Republicans are concerned the treaty would be unverifiable, because Russia would still be able to conduct very low-yield nuclear tests. But without a CTBT, he argued, Russia could conduct any test it desires.

Future of the Agenda

Perkovich predicted Obama’s next two years in office are unlikely to yield much progress on the nuclear agenda, given increased Republican power in Congress and a lack of progress on Iran.

  • Bilateral Sets of Relations: After 2013,  the trajectory of nuclear nonproliferation will be based primarily on the bilateral relations and interactions between three P-5 members of the UN Security Council: the United States, China, and Russia, Perkovich asserted. Without an understanding that China will not engage in a race to parity, both Russia and the United States are unlikely to engage in disarmament, he said. Similarly, China is unlikely to engage in disarmament without a better understanding of U.S. intent and capabilities, in particular on missile defense and conventional systems like Prompt Global Strike.
  • Beyond U.S.-China-Russia: India is not likely to agree to a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) without knowing China’s nuclear intentions, Perkovich added. In turn, Pakistan will not limit itself militarily if India does not act first. China’s decisions about its nuclear arsenal and military will also affect Japan’s own calculations about possible threats, Perkovich said. Meanwhile, the U.S.-India nuclear deal upset the larger nonproliferation regime, affecting the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and discussions between Pakistan and China on nuclear cooperation.

Without mutual understanding and involvement on nonproliferation by the United States, China, and other countries, significant challenges will remain for the nonproliferation regime as a whole. As a result, Perkovich encouraged the Chinese government to express its views on nonproliferation and disarmament as a way to help advance the goals Obama set forth in Prague.