After two years of making steady progress in reducing the nuclear risks to the United States, President Barack Obama stalled in those efforts in the second half of his first term. Recent speeches and press reports indicate, however, that he is trying to revive the endeavor. With a new national security team in place, an emerging consensus forming around the need to reshape the nuclear arsenal, and budget realities forcing a reassessment of the size of the U.S. stockpile, Obama may well be positioned for success.
When Obama came into office in 2009, he was ready to move beyond the United States’ Cold War nuclear posture, which calls for stockpiles that “are much larger than required for deterrence today and that have scant efficacy in dealing with the main contemporary threats to U.S. and global security,” as a 2012 report from Global Zero put it. His first nuclear policy review, finalized in April 2010, thus focused on preventing nuclear proliferation, securing all existing stockpiles (to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists and other nonstate actors), and reducing global arsenals. Each element of the policy was designed to reinforce the others: drawing down obsolete arsenals would help foster international cooperation, which the current nuclear powers needed to stand united against new nuclear states and to secure existing bomb materials. These developments, in turn, would promote a security environment comfortable enough for the current nuclear states to continue reducing their stockpiles.
At first, the new policy seemed to work. In his first two years, Obama negotiated an arms reduction treaty with Russia (New START), spearheaded several UN Security Council resolutions on nuclear weapons, and gathered 50 world leaders in Washington for a Nuclear Security Summit that forged an action plan for securing nuclear stockpiles. In doing this, he rebuilt U.S. credibility and leadership on nuclear issues. In April 2010, Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland wrote that “President Obama has turned the once utopian-sounding idea of global nuclear disarmament into a useful tool
But then, toward the end of 2010, Obama’s plans stalled as Republicans waged a fierce battle against ratifying New START. The pact was eventually approved, but not until the last day of the Senate’s session that December. His staff, complaining about arms control fatigue, urged the president to devote his energies in the next year to other issues, including his own re-election.
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