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Obama’s nuclear policy: A diplomatic Cold War?

April 1, 2010
Obama nuclear power UN talk

Obama chairs the Security Council Summit on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. Image courtesy 'United Nations Photo' on Flickr.

As my co-blogger recently wrote, the U.S. and Russia are finally making inroads on a re-vamped agreement to reduce their nuclear arms.

A reduction of any sort is, without a doubt, something to celebrate. The Cold War is over, and the world now has decades of nuclear disasters to point to which demonstrate the severe danger and potential mass destruction that such weapons hold.

But this treaty is just one part of U.S. President Obama’s nuclear strategy. Talk surrounding Obama’s stance on nuclear weapons has been central to both domestic and international policies and politicking since he began running for office on a platform that simultaneously included nuclear non-proliferation and the increased use of nuclear power as an alternative to carbon-based energy. Obama’s rhetorical commitment to global disarmament was central to the Nobel committee’s decision to give the Peace Prize to the president. But the nuances of Obama’s visions and goals remain muddled and hypocritical, their long-term impact difficult to measure.

At the beginning of each new administration, U.S. presidents outline their position in the Nuclear Posture Review. The terms of this document influence budgets, treaties, and weapons deployment and retirement for five to ten years. Central to Obama’s Posture is the roll-back of militaristic and aggressive George W. Bush policies. Specifically, Obama’s administration has pledged to not respond to a chemical attack with a nuclear one, and to cut the stockpile of weapons (a goal being at least partially met through the Russian treaty). While Bush saw nuclear weapons as an offensive mechanism, Obama focuses primarily on their defensive use. It is unclear, however, if the U.S. maintains that the country could use them offensively if provoked.

Despite the fact that the U.S. is the largest owner of nuclear weapons in the world—with a current stockpile of 9,400, 5,000 of which are active—Obama’s nuclear platform has focused primarily on convincing other countries to give up their proposed or current nuclear arsensals. In May, world leaders will meet to discuss the global Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. According to the Washington Post, “That treaty is at the heart of Obama’s strategy to combat the most urgent threat today: the spread of nuclear weapons to unstable states and to terrorists.” Obama’s main targets are North Korea (which currently has less than 10 nuclear warheads) and Iran (many experts say it is unlikely that the country has any such weapons), as well as non-state, anti-U.S. groups. In his April 2009 speech in Prague—which the Nobel committee cited when awarding the Peace Prize—Obama said: “In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up. More nations have acquired these weapons. Testing has continued. Black market trade in nuclear secrets and nuclear materials abound. The technology to build a bomb has spread. Terrorists are determined to buy, build or steal one.”

In a subtle, ironic and tactically brilliant turn of face, Obama’s nuclear posturing attempts to use nuclear arms proliferation as a way to control states, maintain international power and global leadership, and forge ties between allies in order to combat distant enemies. While the tactics differ greatly, the aims are similar to that of the Cold War. An “Axis of Evil” eerily parallel to rhetoric and fears attributed to the Soviet Block emerged under Bush and been strongly reiterated by Obama. But rather than acquiring weapons to deter the enemies’ use, Obama is flexing his diplomatic muscle to shame current and potential allies into isolating these so-called rogue states. Who the U.S. targets is indicative of global power and allies: while Israel’s ownership of 80 warheads is disregarded by the administration, any bombastic sound reverberating through Iran or mention of the word “nuclear” by North Korea results in global summits and threat of sanctions. Obama’s stance is not so much a commitment to end the ownership of nuclear warheads as a whole, but rather the control of nuclear warheads by a U.S.-lead regime.

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