This Thursday is three years since President Obama delivered his Prague speech, bringing nuclear non-proliferation back on the agenda with his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.
So what has his Administration accomplished? A year after the speech his 2010 Nuclear Posture Review reduced the role of nuclear weapons, he hosted the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, bringing together 47 leaders to discuss the dangers of nuclear terrorism and ways to secure the world’s supply of fissile material (the second was last week in Seoul), and, the New START Treaty was signed, later ratified in December 2011, with cuts to US and Russian arsenals – a high point in the rocky bilateral relationship.
But this has not been easy for Obama. The American right is skeptical, remaining convinced that existing numbers of nuclear weapons are key elements to American security. We face emerging proliferation possibilities in North Korea and Iran, and the loudening “drumbeat of war” in the Middle East. A February Pew research poll indicated over half of Americans favor military action against Iran to prevent them from obtaining nuclear weapons. Public enthusiasm to stop the spread of nuclear weapons should be encouraged, but military action could only escalate the hostility both in the Middle East and domestically within the United States.
In this election year, Obama will likely play safe on arms control. But there is much disappointment in the apparent lack of progress since the start of 2011; much of what he promised has yet to pass. Approaching the election, Obama could focus on diplomatic engagement with Iran and the Middle East and encourage others to do the same; it looks as if he may already have kept the talk of pre-emptive strikes or military action at bay. The Conference on a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, set to take place just after the election, offers an opportune moment to encourage such engagement. There are also opportunities for further talks with Russia on the issues of nuclear arsenal reductions, tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, and ballistic missile defense. At the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul last week, in a private conversation that was caught on microphone between Obama and Russian President Dimitry Medvedev, Obama admitted that he will have more flexibility on these issues after the election. Obvious to any analyst, these private remarks hint at his personal commitment to overcoming the blocks to negotiation.
These are the views of the author.