What comes next for U.S. nuclear weapons policy?

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This Wednesday, President Obama is slated to give his next big foreign policy speech at the historically significant Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. It was at this Gate – an enduring symbol of both the division and subsequent unity of East and West Berlin – that Ronald Reagan urged then-General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to “tear down this wall” in 1987, and President Clinton spoke of a free and unified Berlin in 1994, following the end of the Cold War.

So the precedent certainly exists for President Obama to use this politically-loaded historical site to make an ambitious and pivotal foreign policy speech. But the White House is giving nothing away on the likely substance, stating only that President Obama will take the opportunity to emphasize the importance of both the U.S.-German relationship, and the transatlantic alliance.

Nuclear watchers are waiting with baited breath to see whether the President will use the opportunity to frame U.S. nuclear weapons policy over the next two to three years, before American Presidential election politics kick in again in 2016. Experts are hoping for some sense of follow up to the President’s first term speech in Prague in 2009, which at the time brought a renewed sense of optimism and purpose to the arms control movement – but has since lost some of its momentum.

In 2009, Obama laid out an ambitious agenda, promising further U.S. weapons reductions through a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia (later dubbed New START); a move towards U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); international progress towards a Fissile Material (Cut off) Treaty (FM(C)T); and strengthening of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). And now, just over four years later, experts are both reflecting back on how much of this has been achieved, and looking forward to what comes next.

The stocktake of progress looks rather thin when set alongside the President’s initial 2009 Prague agenda. On the positive side, the U.S. developed, signed and ratified New START with Russia in 2010, setting both countries up for a further 75% reduction in deployed nuclear warheads from their previous START I commitments, as well as deeper reductions in delivery vehicles and a verification regime, considered to be a major accomplishment of the negotiation process. The treaty is set to remain in place until 2020, but each side is still working through delivering on its commitments.

Less positively, both U.S. ratification of the CTBT, and international progress on an FM(C)T, remain stalled. The prospects for passing the CTBT – or, indeed, any international treaty - through the Senate in the near future look bleak. In December 2012, a number of Republican Senators blocked ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – a treaty modeled on the bipartisan Americans with Disabilities Act – objecting partly that they deemed it inappropriate to raise a treaty during a lame-duck session of Congress, but also that such treaties could threaten U.S. national sovereignty - which doesn’t bode well for future international treaty bids. Nor has movement been made on FMCT, which remains stuck in international political stalemate in the U.N. Conference on Disarmament, with Pakistan calling for stocks of fissile material to be included in any treaty, while other nuclear weapon possessors are pushing for a cut-off at existing levels (in Pakistan’s eyes, solidifying an existing imbalance).

Progress on the NPT falls somewhere in the middle. While it continues to edge forward, it is facing a rocky path with divisions among NPT members over how to convene a conference to establish a weapons of mass destruction free zone in the Middle East. Divides between the nuclear weapon states (NWS) and non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) were also further accentuated in the last NPT Preparatory Committee in April this year, as 80 non-weapon states signed up to a statement pushing for consideration of the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, which many interpreted as a means of highlighting their frustration at the slow movement of the NPT’s disarmament pillar.

Broader geopolitics are also playing a role in framing the nuclear weapons debate. How Iran positions itself on its nuclear policy following the recent election of moderate candidate Rouhani as President, is likely to factor heavily in U.S. thinking on its nuclear policies going forward. Separately, developments in Syria are not only impacting regional dynamics across the Middle East, but are creating growing divides between those states entrusted with maintaining global peace and security through their position on the Security Council. Russia’s overt support for the Syrian regime is now pitched against recent revelations about chemical weapons use in Syria, and subsequent decisions by European and U.S. powers to reinforce the opposition.

So where does all of this leave our anticipation for the forthcoming Presidential speech in Berlin? Progress has arguably been rather slower than President Obama anticipated in his 2009 speech. But the Administration continues to make positive noises about its ongoing commitment to the disarmament and non-proliferation agenda.

On CTBT, it is hard to see how ratification might move with a Congress so fiercely divided over its own domestic, let alone “foreign policy”, issues. On further nuclear reductions, the policy community continues to generate fresh ideas to build on New START. But here again, domestic U.S. politics will play a role in determining how far this will be able to move in the next two to three years. On top of this, many will also be looking to broader international developments in the U.S.-Russia relationship to frame the debate - domestically, between the two countries, and in the context of the multilateral arena. On the one hand, a widening gulf between the U.S. and Russia could jeopardize any immediate prospect of discussing further mutual nuclear weapons reductions. On the other, cooperation on these issues could serve as a hook to bring them closer together.

All of this said, the Administration is continuing to play its cards close to its chest on the substance of Obama’s Berlin speech. As was the case with his inaugural address earlier this year, the anticipation could all culminate in another omission of nuclear weapons policy from his speech entirely – despite the centrality of the issue to the broader international security and stability agenda. For now, we will have to wait and see.

 

These are the personal views of the author.
 

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