By Ian Hansen, MPIA ’13


While remaining cognizant that he may not see the abolition of nuclear weapons in his lifetime, President Obama and his administration must act more decisively to reduce the amount of nuclear weapons.

On the matter of nuclear weapons, the president recognizes the growing trend among foreign policy and international security experts: It is no longer in a state’s interests to possess such a high number of nukes.

A variety of authorities from different backgrounds have increasingly argued this point. In a January 2013 New York Times op-ed, Ward Wilson pointedly dispelled several myths about nuclear weapons: that they significantly affected the ending of World War II; that decisive destruction wins wars; that reliable nuclear deterrence exists; that peace since 1945 has been kept because of nuclear weapons; and, most critically, that irreversibility is a logical argument against disarming when the “question isn’t whether nuclear weapons can be disinvented, but whether they are useful.”

Retired General James Cartwright similarly called for the gradual abolition of nuclear weapons in a May 2012 Global Zero report. Cartwright, the commander of American nuclear forces from 2004-2007, found that in today’s world the United States would be wise to eliminate intercontinental ballistic missiles and cut 80% of our nuclear warheads.

The fight against nuclear weapons is also supported by George Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn. In March 2011, the esteemed statesmen and “four horsemen of the nuclear apocalypse” wrote their third op-ed arguing for the abolishment of nuclear weapons. In it, they stated that nuclear deterrence was as obsolete as the Cold War itself. Specifically, they argued that states must face “the realization that continued reliance on nuclear weapons as the principal element for deterrence is encouraging, or at least excusing, the spread of these weapons, and will inevitably erode the essential cooperation necessary to avoid proliferation, protect nuclear materials and deal effectively with new threats.”

In a bipolar world, the great peril associated with nuclear war seemed to ensure stability between the two major powers. Such a bipolar world no longer exists, however, and the nuclear deterrence doctrine is out of place in today’s world.

Even Iran’s apparent desire to attain a nuclear weapon is unlikely to usher in bipolarity in the Middle East. In fact, it could conceivably produce an arms race if Saudi Arabia felt compelled to respond by purchasing nuclear materials or technology. The result would be a situation with multiple nuclear states, in close proximity, in a historically volatile region. This possibility highlights the greatest threats of nuclear weapons today: the chance of accident, terrorism, or rapid escalation leading to nuclear war.

The measure of success for the future of nuclear weapons will not be judged on intent but instead on achievements. In the first term, the Obama administration’s chief accomplishment, the New START Treaty, was indeed an auspicious beginning for significant reform. Both Russia and the United States set limits on strategic launchers and reestablished an inspection regime that had lapsed.

Due to the gravity of the situation, however, at least three more things must happen in President Obama’s second term. First, the United States and Russia must improve relations and agree to enact further cuts. As noted by Micah Zenko in Toward Deeper Reductions in U.S. and Russian Nuclear Weapons, a future agreement between the U.S. and Russia would need to address tactical nuclear weapons deployment, missile defense, and the use of nuclear vehicles for conventional weapons. These topics may seem like intractable challenges with the relentless appearance of peripheral issues, but the greater matter at hand cannot be forgotten. History offers numerous examples (e.g., the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty) showing that real progress can be made with willing leadership. President Obama and President Putin must find a way to work with one another. Second, other states must exhibit a willingness to reduce their nuclear stockpiles. Take France, which possesses around 300 operational weapons, as an example. Some have argued that France would be unwilling to cut its nuclear arsenal as a matter of prestige. The French government’s 2010 agreement to share aircraft carriers and nuclear testing facilities with the British, however, demonstrates that fiscal sensibility can trump prestige in French decision-making.

Third, and most critically, the U.S. government must overcome domestic opposition. This opposition stems from a combination of bureaucratic inertia and apprehension that is compounded by threat inflation. Though the former seems ingrained in Washington, it can be overcome by reasserting the value and importance of the mission.

As for the latter, the best solution is to reiterate that reducing America’s nuclear arsenal both benefits the government financially and makes us safer. Admittedly, making this case will be difficult. The Cold War created a fear that America and its citizens were at risk from nuclear weapons, and the prevailing wisdom for nearly fifty years was that more American weapons meant greater American safety. Moving away from this approach will require a sustained effort that demonstrates that safety is no longer associated with loving the bomb. People must come to realize that it is antiquated to believe America could become easily ensnared in an interstate war that would necessitate nuclear weapons.

In his second inaugural address, President Obama mentioned neither nuclear weapons nor nuclear disarmament. Yet, in his second term one solid truth remains: What he will do about nuclear weapons will say infinitely more about him than what he says.