Global Zero: Obama's Distant Goal of a Nuclear-Free World

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In 2009, the president announced hopes to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Why there's been little progress since.

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Just ten weeks after Inauguration Day in 2009, President Obama used his first overseas trip in office to announce his intention to rid the world of nuclear weapons. The U.S. "must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist: Yes we can," he told a cheering crowd of 20,000 in Prague's Hradcany Square, rhetorically linking the no-nukes push to the sky's-the-limit idealism that had electrified supporters during his recent presidential campaign.

Obama's high-profile endorsement of what arms-control advocates call "global zero" was a hugely significant step for a U.S. president to take. But since then, he's been hit with some jarring reminders of just what an uphill climb that journey to zero will be. And despite some successes -- most notably the New START treaty with Russia signed last year -- many of those following weapons policy say Obama's effort to begin reshaping the U.S.'s own massive nuclear arsenal in light of the zero goal has proceeded far more slowly than expected. In fact, despite Obama's pledge, he's spending more than President Bush did to upgrade and modernize our weapons. "He's clearly accomplished much less than had been hoped," says Barry Blechman, a veteran weapons-policy expert who has served on the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board and as a top arms-control official.

Advocates of major arms reductions say they always knew progress would be slow. But two and a half years after Prague, nuclear-weapons policy has become yet another area where the heady optimism of the administration's early days has largely evaporated. And Obama's bold push for a nuclear-free world -- and an American nuclear posture in support of that goal -- looks to be in danger of stalling.

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In endorsing zero, Obama wasn't just paying lip service to some pie-in-the-sky dream of his liberal base. Since well before Prague, the U.S. nuclear weapons program has been facing something of an existential crisis. We haven't built a new bomb since 1992, and the nuclear track no longer tends to attract the military's best and brightest. "There isn't a whole lot of career advancement in nukes these days," Stephen Schwartz of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies told me last year.

That's led to a loss of focus, experts say, which in turn lies behind a recent spate of hair-raising, Homer-Simpson-style nuclear blunders: nuclear-tipped cruise missiles unknowingly flown from an air force base in North Dakota to another in Louisiana; ballistic missile components mistakenly shipped to Taiwan, where they sat for two years; Air Force officers falling asleep while guarding launch codes for nuclear weapons; scientists at Los Alamos flat-out forgetting how to make a crucial nuclear material.

Nuclear-weapons policy has become yet another area where the heady optimism of the administration's early days has largely evaporated.

There's also been a shift in thinking about the demonstrated value of nuclear weapons in history. Until recently, the firm consensus was that Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War II, and that for the 45 years that followed, the doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" averted a U.S.-Russia nuclear conflict. Over the last decade, though, scholars have challenged both claims, arguing that fears of a Russian invasion played a greater role than the atom bomb in Japan's decision to surrender, and that the Cold War stayed cold more thanks to sheer luck than any fool-proof grand strategy -- as close calls like the Cuban Missile Crisis suggest.

The threat of terrorism has pushed in the same anti-nuclear direction. In late 2007, four national-security veterans with unimpeachable Cold Warrior bona fides -- Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, George Schultz, and William Perry -- launched a campaign to convince the world that a planet free of nuclear weapons is the only guaranteed long-term way to guard against what many see as the gravest threat to American and global security: the prospect of a terror network or rogue regime acquiring nuclear material. And if global zero is ever to become a reality, they say, the U.S. will need to lead the way.

That campaign was crucial in giving Obama the cover he needed to endorse global zero and perhaps even paved the way for New START, the biggest arms control success of Obama's tenure to date. Few deny that the treaty -- which was signed in April 2010, and among other provisions, places limits on the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads on both sides -- was a major accomplishment that helped get U.S.-Russia relations back on a positive track, as well as a key starting point on the path to zero. (Between them, the two countries own the vast majority of the world's nuclear weapons. The U.S. has around 5,000, while Russia may have as many as twice that.) That same April, Obama hosted a major nonproliferation summit in Washington, where 47 countries made voluntary commitments to work to safeguard loose nuclear material.

But that "nuclear spring," as the White House dubbed it, may come to signify the apex of arms-control advocates' hopes. Thanks to wariness on the part of the Russians, and ideological opposition to arms control from much of the Republican Party, further U.S.-Russia agreements look to be a long way off.

"There's a lot of skepticism [among U.S. lawmakers], even about further reductions, let alone zero," says James Acton, a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. "So it'll be potentially very hard to make an agreement that satisfies Russian concerns and is ratify-able in the Senate."

And since the U.S. won't disarm unilaterally, that bodes poorly for the chances of additional cuts. Adds Acton: "I'm deeply pessimistic about the prospects for further reductions."

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If Obama got out ahead of the Russians and the GOP, he appears to have done the same with a nuclear-weapons bureaucracy -- on both the civilian side of the Pentagon and the uniformed military -- that relies for its continued existence on a robust ongoing weapons program. Vested interests within the Department of Defense, many arms-control advocates say, have a strong personal incentive to oppose reductions.

In the wake of the Prague speech, Strategic Command, the Pentagon command in charge of nuclear weapons, held its first annual "Deterrence Symposium" -- a conference on nuclear strategy aimed in part at asserting the ongoing relevance of traditional nuclear-based deterrence theory in a post Cold-War world. At last year's conference, speakers ridiculed the commander-in-chief's stated goal of zero, to the chuckles of uniformed military officers. "Are we actually going to see a world without nuclear weapons?" James Schlesinger, the hawkish former Secretary of Defense from the Nixon and Ford administrations asked in the confab's keynote speech. "This is the vision of many people, and I remind you that the dividing line between vision and hallucination is never very clear."

This year, though, there wasn't much talk of global zero at all, almost as if the nuclear threats earlier worried over had passed. Instead, nuclear planners and theorists buzzed around a hangar-like auditorium at the Qwest Center in Omaha, Neb., in August, confidently anticipating a future in which nuclear weapons remain as central a part of U.S. security strategy as ever. ("The greatest tool of self-defense that the world has ever seen," as Keir Lieber, who teaches at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, put it at the Omaha conference.)

Even the administration seemed anxious to tamp down expectations. When I asked both the top military official in charge of nuclear weapons, Stratcom commander Bob Kehler, and the top civilian policy-maker on nuclear weapons, Defense Department deputy undersecretary James Miller, about the role the president's goal of zero played in driving policy and strategy, each began his response by noting that Obama had cautioned in the Prague speech that a nuclear-free world might not be achieved in his lifetime. Miller even felt compelled to add that "the goal [of zero] remains," though no one had suggested otherwise.

That Team Obama might have seen a need to reassure was understandable. After the inspiring rhetoric of Prague, many arms-control advocates expected that the administration's Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a broad statement of nuclear strategy that the last few administrations have produced, would be similarly bold. Instead, when it came out in April of last year, it re-stated the goal of zero but then went on endorse the status quo in several key areas.

Among other issues, the NPR declined to state, as arms-control advocates had urged that it should, that the sole purpose of the U.S. arsenal was to respond to a nuclear attack -- instead leaving open the possibility that the U.S. could be the first to use nukes in a conflict. And it recommended maintaining the U.S.'s traditional three-pronged combination of air-based, land-based, and sea-based missiles, disappointing those who think we could safely eliminate one of those with no cost to our global reach. Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, says the decision was "yet another shortcoming" of the NPR.

Opponents of reductions, by contrast, could barely contain their enthusiasm. Gen. Kevin Chilton, then the commander of Stratcom, called the NPR "a tremendously good-news story" for advocates of traditional Cold-War-era deterrence, adding that his team was "intimately involved" with the document's production. Schlesinger declared: "It is something of a gift that the NPR turned out to be as strong as it is."

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Obama's team argues that moving more quickly could have backfired. "A very bold, overly aggressive arms-control agenda is one the Russians are not prepared for, is one our allies are not prepared for, and therefore isn't practical," one administration official says. The official refers to Obama's "balanced approach," designed to "take practical steps toward the long-term goal, while ensuring that deterrence remains effective."

But as Obama has at times discovered on domestic policy lately, when you're facing adversaries intent on thwarting you, a balanced approach can mean you end up conceding a lot. Traditionally, Senate ratification of major arms control treaties has been little more than a formality. But in exchange for Republican support for New START, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who has been deeply skeptical of arms reductions, demanded that the White House put up $85 billion -- at a time of massive concern over the federal deficit -- to maintain and modernize some of the very weapons systems that many see as outdated and obsolete.

Not all arms-control advocates think that's a bad thing. "I think it actually helps you get to zero," Acton says. "It makes a world of low numbers a safer place, because it's harder for Russia to win an arms race."

But it certainly creates some strange optics, if nothing else. The new funding means that despite the president's call for a nuke-free world, we'll spend more under his administration to maintain our nuclear warheads than we did under President Bush -- a situation that Kimball, calls "incongruous."

And it continued a pattern of generous Obama administration funding for the U.S. weapons program. In February 2010, it asked for $80 billion over 10 years - a 15 percent increase over the Bush administration -- for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the U.S. weapons complex. "I'd have killed for that budget and that much high-level attention in the administration." Linton Brooks, who served as NNSA administrator during the Bush years, said at a briefing shortly afterwards.

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Things don't figure to get any easier from here, either when it comes to reducing the U.S.'s own arsenal or on arms control efforts more broadly.

Though Kyl, the GOP's prime arms-control skeptic, is stepping down next year, a Republican-controlled Senate could doom the administration's chances of getting further deals through at an acceptable cost. That could spell trouble for one of the next big items on Obama's arms-control agenda: finally ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which was signed back in 1996 and bans all nuclear testing.

For now though, arms-control advocates are still looking on the bright side, even as they acknowledge that the momentum that Kissinger, Nunn, Schultz, Perry, and Obama helped generate a few years ago has petered out, at least for the moment. "The most recent wave in support of zero has crested, leaving behind an altered nuclear landscape," Michael Krepon, a nuclear policy expert at the Stimson Center, wrote recently. "Zero will always be in the picture now."

Image credit: REUTERS/Viktor Korotayev

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Zachary Roth is a senior national affairs reporter for Yahoo News.

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