Obama’s Disappointing Nuclear Security Legacy
When it comes to nuclear security, President Obama should have adopted the principle of the Hippocratic oath that requires physicians to “abstain from doing harm.”
Conducting foreign policy is not the same as practicing medicine. But it would have been good if President Obama had adopted the principle of the Hippocratic oath that requires physicians to “abstain from doing harm.”
Even when the president has sought commendable goals, he has often couched them in rhetoric about joining him on the “right side” of history. This only invited powerful competitors to lock in strategic gains, while leaving erstwhile friends and allies to go it alone. The most recent example of the president setting out an idealistic concept, and then expecting the rest of the world to follow along, is the recently concluded nuclear summit. There is a lot to like about the idea of ensuring the safety and security of nuclear materials around the world. In the end, however, what he claimed as successes did not match the goals he initially enunciated.
The Stimson Center’s Barry Blechman immediately critiqued the summit for doing too little, even arguing that the president should return the Nobel Peace Prize he received in 2009. A bipartisan editorial by the Belfer Center’s Graham Allison and William Tobey echoed the complaint on the pages of the New York Times, where they called for a greater commitment to the currently operating treaties and policies.
The main goal envisioned in the four nuclear summits — broadly speaking, securing nuclear materials worldwide — is a laudable one. The states where nuclear safety and security are the most problematic, however, have either ignored the summits or treated them with diplomatic grace. The states where nuclear safety and security are not a problem have been understandably willing to sign on to whatever statements or “improved” measures the president has endorsed. The main problem is that in states where security is lacking — especially in states that possess nuclear weapons — multilateral diplomacy is the least effective way to bring about change. Such issues are better addressed privately in an environment that will not lead to public shaming and blaming.
Obama claimed at the conclusion of the summit that the world has made “important progress toward the broader vision” he described in Prague in 2009. First, he said, the summit took “concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons.” Second, the summit strengthened “the global regime…that prevents the spread of nuclear weapons.” And third, the summit contributed to a new framework for global “civil nuclear cooperation so countries that meet their responsibilities can have access to peaceful nuclear energy.”
But these purported achievements are at some variance with those anticipated when the summits began. At that point, in 2010, Obama said the summits sought to ensure effective security of nuclear materials, reduce the use of weapons-usable materials in civilian applications, and work cooperatively to advance nuclear security. Participants have made some progress on these initial goals: some facilities are now more secure; some states have reduced or pledged to eliminate weapons-usable material; and the very fact that four summits were held at all supports a conclusion that states cooperated to advance nuclear security.
With the summits now concluded, however, Obama’s claims about their achievements smack of goalpost shifting. Did the summits get us further along the road of eliminating nuclear weapons, as Obama claimed? Not by much, as noted in Blechman’s critique. Did they strengthen the nonproliferation regime, again as he claimed? That was not an intended outcome in the first place, but in any case, the Non-Proliferation Treaty — the cornerstone of the international nonproliferation regime — is not primarily focused on the security of nuclear materials. Did the summits increase the likelihood that more states will have access to civil nuclear energy? Perhaps they did, but that arguably increases the number of states with access to the technology to make nuclear weapons. The case of Iran, where the government secretly tried to acquire the ability to produce highly enriched uranium and design nuclear weapons, is not one we wish to repeat, even in the case of a state that claims to meet its “responsibilities.”
On balance, therefore, it is hard to conclude that the output of the summits was commensurate with the enormous effort that went into staging them. A final and more important question, however, is whether the summits did more harm than good. In the end, the answer may be yes, in that they raised expectations of American leadership at an international forum, which went unfulfilled, while raising hopes for improvements on nuclear security, but falling short.
In conclusion, the biggest headline and worst outcome may have emerged from Obama’s predilection for moralizing rather than working out details. As the fourth summit concluded, Obama targeted one of the few relationships that has been a modest success during his time in office. In a post-summit press conference, he opined that the biggest challenge remaining was to ensure that as Pakistan and India “develop military doctrines…they are not continually moving in the wrong direction.” With that simple comment, he turned what he claimed as a multilateral victory into a bilateral setback. His conviction that others were not on the right (read: his) side of history led him to stumble into topics irrelevant to the success he touted.
First, India’s conventional military doctrine is not relevant to the nuclear security summits; it was developed to deal with on-the-ground contingencies posed by its ongoing disagreements with Pakistan. Furthermore, India’s no-first-use nuclear doctrine is what President Obama would presumably endorse. Second, Pakistan’s continued development of tactical nuclear weapons may make strategic sense from its perspective, but has little to do with civilian nuclear power or security. Since the security of nuclear weapons was not on the agenda, it is at best unhelpful to throw it up at Pakistan in the closing minutes of the final summit. It is also only fair to note that Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine has self consciously copied NATO’s. Third, preventing nuclear war in South Asia is better left to private discussions, rather than public grandstanding. President Obama neatly managed to re-hyphenate U.S. policy toward these two states rather than maintain constructive, independent dialogue on critically important issues. Once again, the president violated the Hippocratic oath. With only 10 months left in office, the least he can do before he returns to private life is to stop doing harm.
Photo Credit: Pool
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