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Obama’s Dream of a Nuclear-Free World Is Becoming a Nightmare

The last president wanted an end to nukes, but did nothing to achieve it. Trump won’t even talk about nonproliferation. The result is chaos.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20:  President-elect Donald Trump, left, and President Barack Obama arrive for Trump's inauguration ceremony at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. Trump, a real estate mogul and reality television star who upended American politics and energized voters angry with Washington, will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, putting Republicans in control of the White House for the first time in eight years.  (Photo by  Scott Applewhite - Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: President-elect Donald Trump, left, and President Barack Obama arrive for Trump's inauguration ceremony at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. Trump, a real estate mogul and reality television star who upended American politics and energized voters angry with Washington, will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, putting Republicans in control of the White House for the first time in eight years. (Photo by Scott Applewhite - Pool/Getty Images)

More than 100 countries are meeting at the United Nations this week to negotiate a global ban on nuclear weapons. That would normally be a big deal, but it’s not this time. That’s because more than 40 countries, including the United States and many of its closest allies, are skipping the negotiations, hoping in vain the ban will just go away.

In fact, not a single country that possesses nuclear weapons has sent a delegation to the negotiation in New York. The Russians are there in spirit, though — because in the absence of the United States and its allies, the negotiations are taking a decidedly anti-American tone, one that will bring a smile to Vladimir Putin’s face while leaving a lot of us who support the elimination of nuclear weapons shaking our heads.

To be fair, it is far too early to know whether the resulting agreement will be helpful or harmful. There will be two negotiating sessions: the current one, which will last until March 31, and another that will run from June 15 to July 7. The major question is whether the new agreement will strengthen or undermine the existing Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). If the new agreement requires its signatories to be members of the NPT in good standing, as Adam Mount and Richard Nephew have suggested, it will likely be harmless. On the other hand, some may see the new agreement as an alternative to the NPT, one that would create an alternate international legal arrangement for nuclear weapons that imposes far weaker nonproliferation terms. And there may be other problems, nominally regarding the transit of nuclear weapons, that will impede the ability of the United States to provide security guarantees to its allies. For many of us, the wisdom of a ban on nuclear weapons depends crucially on such details. The worry is that this “ban” on nuclear weapons will actually serve as a legal excuse for states to leave the NPT and start their own nuclear weapons programs.

Of course, a nuclear weapons ban would be less likely to have these problems if the United States and its allies were frickin’ participating. Having raised international expectations for progress on disarmament with his soaring rhetoric in Prague in 2009, former U.S. President Barack Obama generally took a dim view of the international efforts he inspired. (I can’t help but notice he kept the Nobel Peace Prize, though.) The Obama administration reacted with an incredible ferocity to the states that organized the so-called “humanitarian consequences” initiative, as though its suggestion that dropping a nuclear weapon on a city might have adverse humanitarian impacts posed a mortal challenge to American alliances. The United States largely skipped these meetings until it was too late and was forced to whip votes against the various General Assembly resolutions that followed, including the one that endorsed the idea of negotiating a new ban on nuclear weapons. St. Barry of Prague was not without sin.

The Obama administration opposed all these initiatives kicking and screaming, arguing that banning the bomb should be left to the nuclear weapons states, particularly the United States and Russia. Leaving it to the nuclear weapons states meant nothing happened on disarmament, particularly after U.S.-Russian relations went in the toilet and Moscow rejected Obama’s offer to follow the New START treaty with an additional round of nuclear weapons reductions. Russia simply isn’t interested in cutting the number of nuclear weapons. Rather, Moscow is in the midst of an ongoing nuclear modernization that includes a revival of Soviet-era plans for new heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles and rail-launch missiles, new cruise missiles that violate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and an underwater drone designed to drench coastal cities in radioactivity. So Moscow told Obama where to stick his offer of more cuts.

The United States might have usefully leveraged the world’s enthusiasm for nuclear disarmament to publicly push back against Putin’s enthusiasm for new nuclear weapons but chose not to. Instead, the United States has largely abandoned leadership to those states that are more interested in using disarmament issues to beat up the United States. As a result, it was pretty easy for people to look the other way with a lame reference to “both sides” opposing disarmament. If you wonder why it is difficult to persuade European governments to take seriously the new Russian nuclear weapons pointing at them, look no further than Obama’s ability to raise hopes with soaring rhetoric, then dash them with timidity and caution.

The ultimate effect of that approach is on display in New York this week and can fairly be described as the worst possible arrangement imaginable. A bunch of states are now going to negotiate a ban on nuclear weapons that may seriously undermine both America’s nonproliferation efforts and its security commitments around the world. And the United States will fecklessly oppose this effort in a way perfectly suited to excuse Russia’s ongoing nuclear arms buildup.

Pretty much the only way this situation could be worse is if the president of the United States was a pro-Putin stooge who was actively sabotaging NATO and other U.S. alliances while openly musing about expanding U.S. nuclear forces on Twitter.

Oh, hell.

There was no reason for the Obama administration to oppose either the humanitarian consequences initiative or negotiations on a nuclear weapons ban. It is nearly impossible to imagine a scenario in which it would be in the interest of the United States to initiate the use of a nuclear weapon. The debate among policy types has long been about whether to say that publicly or just keep thinking it silently to ourselves. Well, at least until now. After watching Ted Cruz and Donald Trump try to outdo each other in the Republican presidential primary debates by proposing various war crimes like torture, carpet-bombing civilians, and murdering terrorists’ families, I am not so sure. But using a nuclear weapon would likely be far worse than even all that. And yet we can’t find it in ourselves to make the same condemnation.

That’s a mistake. After all, it is much easier to imagine Russia or North Korea using nuclear weapons first. And so, by keeping this option open for ourselves, we make it far easier for others to make the same threats. Our inability to admit that simple truth leaves open the possibility for other states to threaten the United States and its allies with nuclear weapons and then neatly deflect criticism by pointing out that the United States reserves the same right.

The Trump administration isn’t going to participate in these negotiations, nor is it going to sign a ban. But that won’t make it go away. The ban is very real and so are the political currents driving it forward. Ultimately, we will have to reckon with those consequences, sooner or later, in New York or abroad. The challenge of dealing with these headaches will fall first to the same U.S. diplomats sitting out the negotiations in New York. They will be tasked with shoring up U.S. alliances and the NPT, elements every bit as important to reducing nuclear dangers as the nuclear weapons ban. If we are lucky, that’s the only fallout we will have to deal with.

Photo credit: SCOTT APPLEWHITE/Pool/Getty Images

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. @ArmsControlWonk
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