Terms of Engagement

Nuclear Options

Obama's atomic agenda is finally looking like more than just fantasy. Now for the hard part.


News that the United States and Russia have reached agreement on an arms-control treaty is being hailed in some quarters as the greatest foreign-policy triumph of U.S. President Barack Obama’s 14 months in office. It was certainly a lot harder than expected, because the new START treaty was supposed to have been completed last December, when the previous treaty lapsed. Politically, then, START has almost become the foreign policy equivalent of health-care reform, an unexpected nail-biter whose long-delayed attainment produces a massive sigh of relief.

But do arms-control deals still matter? During the heart of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union matched move and countermove all over the global chessboard, nuclear weapons represented a terrifying checkmate that each side feared the other might choose, given sufficient provocation. Both the substance and the mere fact of arms agreements offered reassurance. But that era is over, thank God. The Russian military establishment still harbors some paranoia about American intentions, but U.S. officials no longer lie awake at night worrying about how to parry a Soviet thrust through the Fulda Gap. So what difference does it make if the United States reduces its stock of deployed strategic warheads from 2,200 to 1,550?

The answer is that disarmament has largely become a means rather than an end. It is, as Obama began saying during his presidential campaign, the means by which the United States induces other states to help confront the threat that really matters: the proliferation of nuclear weapons, above all to rogue states and terrorists. "By keeping our commitment [to disarm] under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty," as Obama said in a July 2008 speech, "we’ll be in a better position to rally international support to bring pressure to bear on nations like North Korea and Iran that violate it."

The quid pro quo to which Obama referred is enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), signed in 1968. The NPT prohibits non-nuclear states from developing nuclear weapons and pledges them to adopt safeguards to prevent the proliferation of weapons or weapons-grade material; and it binds the states that have nukes to "pursue negotiations in good faith" toward "general and complete disarmament." The NPT also grants all states the "inalienable right" to use nuclear energy "for peaceful purposes." The NPT is a bargain that gives something to everyone.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush, though never repudiating the bargain, treated it with the same dim regard he accorded most documents that constrained American behavior. Although agreeing to reduce the U.S. arsenal, his administration also sought to develop whole new classes of nuclear weapons. Bush’s underlying view seemed to be that good countries should be allowed to have nukes and bad ones shouldn’t — a claim many non-nuclear U.S. allies found unconvincing. At the 2005 NPT review conference, the diplomacy-averse Bush team, lead by John Bolton, refused to acknowledge agreements reached at past conferences, leading to a deadlock over the agenda that consumed virtually all available time. The fiasco was widely seen as vivid proof of the administration’s unilateralist bent.

But Obama believes in the NPT bargain and its promise of mutuality. The NPT is Obama-style "engagement" writ large. Ben Rhodes, deputy advisor at the National Security Council, described the treaty to me as "a quintessential example of the international system that he believes needs to be created: You acknowledge the rights of all nations, but by acknowledging that right, you place yourself in a stronger position to demand that they meet their responsibilities." It seems to be in Obama’s nature to err on the side of trust, but even such classically realist statesmen as Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn, who have become passionate public advocates of eliminating nuclear weapons, argue that the United States must take disarmament seriously if it is to make progress on nonproliferation. "We were being perceived as chain-smoking and telling everyone else to stop smoking," Nunn said to me.

Plainly, Washington is no longer chain-smoking. In addition to the new START agreement, administration officials have vowed to pursue Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), as well as the eventual passage of a treaty placing controls on the production of fissile material, both of which will be extremely difficult.

What, then, can it expect to get in exchange? Number one, of course, is cooperation on Iran. Administration officials point to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) recent condemnation of Iran and Russia’s newfound willingness to consider tough sanctions as signs that engagement, including with the NPT’s core bargain, has already worked. China has begun to at least discuss the issue. On the other hand, many key states, including Brazil, have refused to criticize Iran, and several of the U.N. Security Council’s nonpermanent members appear disinclined to vote for tough sanctions. It’s still not clear if the coin of engagement will purchase real collaboration.

It’s about to become much clearer. The heart of the nuclear quid pro quo is the upcoming NPT conference in early May (the treaty is reviewed and extended every five years), at which Washington will be looking for strong, widespread commitments on nonproliferation. In his speech before the U.N. General Assembly last September, Obama said that only by strengthening the "fragile consensus" of the NPT can the world prevent "the prospect of wars and acts of terror on a scale that we can hardly imagine." White House officials and the advocate community largely agree about what "strengthening" would mean: gaining the widest possible endorsement of the "additional protocols" that permit the IAEA’s nuclear inspectors to carry out unannounced spot checks on a signatory’s nuclear facilities, thus making it extremely difficult for states to pursue a clandestine program, as Iran has; agreement that states that violate the NPT’s terms will be punished and that states that withdraw will face some sort of automatic response; and a commitment to the CTBT and a fissile-material cutoff treaty.

The White House can argue that it has already made progress: In a striking contrast to 2005, the agenda was established with little ado last May, soon after the U.S. president outlined his expansive vision of doing away with nuclear weapons in a speech in Prague. Here, as elsewhere, the mood music is vastly different from what it was in the Bush era. The best-case scenario for an outcome, according to Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, would be a formal statement in which the nuclear-weapons states pledge to make deeper and broader cuts in their arsenals, while all states commit to strengthening the treaty’s nonproliferation provisions.

But is that likely? Alas, no. Egypt, which is the head of the Non-Aligned Movement this year and is single-mindedly focused on making the Middle East a nuclear weapons-free zone, may well play a spoiler’s role at the May conference, as it has in the past. Iran will pull out all diplomatic stops to block stronger enforcement measures. And developing countries genuinely concerned about proliferation might keep a prudent silence, as often happens at U.N. forums. George Perkovich, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that the attitude of many such states about their end of the NPT bargain is, "We already gave it to you" — by eschewing a weapons program — "and we keep giving it to you." Perkovich’s own bottom line is: "If it’s not a disaster," like 2005, "it will be a success."

A measly outcome might be seen as vindicating conservatives who think that the assumption of mutuality at the heart of Obama’s engagement policy is naive: We do our side, but they don’t do theirs. Of course, Bush tried nonproliferation without mutuality, and it didn’t work very well either. One Obama administration official involved with nuclear policy conceded to me that the disarmament-for-nonproliferation bargain is still "an article of faith." But he added an important proviso: If making deep cuts in the U.S. arsenal and signing treaties constituted a sacrifice of national interest, "then the article of faith would be dangerous." In fact, he said, "they are good in themselves."

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