Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Obama’s Disarming Speech

A couple of notable items stood out from President Obama’s speech in Berlin on Wednesday calling for further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. First, Obama reaffirmed his desire to eliminate nuclear weapons across the globe based upon the belief that, "so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe." That is a ...

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

A couple of notable items stood out from President Obama's speech in Berlin on Wednesday calling for further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

First, Obama reaffirmed his desire to eliminate nuclear weapons across the globe based upon the belief that, "so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe." That is a lovely sentiment, but also more than a bit ironic coming from an American president speaking in Berlin. After all, it was American nuclear weapons that helped keep West Germany safe throughout the Cold War, and it was American nuclear weapons that helped protect West Berlin from repeated Soviet and East German coercion. And it is American nuclear weapons, and the threat of their use, that today help reassure U.S. allies across the globe and deter those who wish them ill. Moreover, the advent of nuclear weapons has decreased markedly the prospect of large-scale war among great powers. In fact, a world without nuclear weapons could be a lot less safe than the one we live in.

Second, Obama's call upon Moscow to enter into negotiations to reduce by one-third U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons seems a strange use of his limited political capital. Given the fact that the Russian nuclear arsenal is Moscow's only major claim to great power status, it is unclear whether Putin and company will be eager to reduce their nuclear forces.  Similarly, Obama's call for "bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe" is likely to be a tough sell in Moscow, both because Russia has increasingly turned to nuclear weapons to compensate for its conventional weakness, but also because the United States has such little to offer in return. Washington already reduced its stockpile of non-strategic nuclear warheads by 90 percent between 1991 and 2009. According to press reports, the United States keeps 180 air-delivered nuclear weapons in Europe, whereas the Russian arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons totals some 2,000 weapons. Moreover, the Obama administration has already appeased Moscow over U.S. plans to defend our allies in Europe against missiles from Iran and elsewhere, so it is unclear what more can be done on that front.

A couple of notable items stood out from President Obama’s speech in Berlin on Wednesday calling for further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

First, Obama reaffirmed his desire to eliminate nuclear weapons across the globe based upon the belief that, "so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe." That is a lovely sentiment, but also more than a bit ironic coming from an American president speaking in Berlin. After all, it was American nuclear weapons that helped keep West Germany safe throughout the Cold War, and it was American nuclear weapons that helped protect West Berlin from repeated Soviet and East German coercion. And it is American nuclear weapons, and the threat of their use, that today help reassure U.S. allies across the globe and deter those who wish them ill. Moreover, the advent of nuclear weapons has decreased markedly the prospect of large-scale war among great powers. In fact, a world without nuclear weapons could be a lot less safe than the one we live in.

Second, Obama’s call upon Moscow to enter into negotiations to reduce by one-third U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons seems a strange use of his limited political capital. Given the fact that the Russian nuclear arsenal is Moscow’s only major claim to great power status, it is unclear whether Putin and company will be eager to reduce their nuclear forces.  Similarly, Obama’s call for "bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe" is likely to be a tough sell in Moscow, both because Russia has increasingly turned to nuclear weapons to compensate for its conventional weakness, but also because the United States has such little to offer in return. Washington already reduced its stockpile of non-strategic nuclear warheads by 90 percent between 1991 and 2009. According to press reports, the United States keeps 180 air-delivered nuclear weapons in Europe, whereas the Russian arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons totals some 2,000 weapons. Moreover, the Obama administration has already appeased Moscow over U.S. plans to defend our allies in Europe against missiles from Iran and elsewhere, so it is unclear what more can be done on that front.

So what if Putin’s Russia doesn’t reciprocate Obama’s overtures? Previous administrations, Democratic and Republican, supported the reduction of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, coupled with modernization to make a smaller arsenal more reliable and effective. Obama’s approach, by contrast, has been reduction without modernization. Although the administration has pledged additional funding for U.S. nuclear infrastructure, there is skepticism as to whether it will ever materialize. And opponents of the U.S. nuclear enterprise increasingly frame their arguments in budgetary terms, stressing the "savings" that could be achieved if the United States slashes its nuclear stockpile. In a period of declining defense budgets, nuclear programs represent juicy targets.

Largely lost in such discussions is the real reason the United States maintains a nuclear arsenal: to protect the United States and its allies against aggression and coercion. It is a purpose that John F. Kennedy and the Germans who greeted him in Berlin half a century ago understood all too well, but one that seems to make the current president uncomfortable.

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