Why Did Obama Scrap Nuclear Disarmament in the State of the Union?

G. Philip Hughes (Ambassador to Barbados and Eastern Caribbean, 1990-1993)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Hughes’ February 26, 2013 opinion piece as published in U.S. News & World Report.


On Sunday, February 10, The New York Times reported prominently that President Obama’s State of the Union address would feature a renewed drive by the president for nuclear weapons reduction toward his avowed goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world. There were ample details: U.S. nuclear forces to be cut by one third, taking our arsenal of actively deployed weapons down to a level of 1,000—well below the New START goal, ratified in 2009, of 1,550 such weapons by 2018.

There was a quote: Obama “believes that we can make pretty radical reductions—and save a lot of money—without compromising American security in the second term. And the Joint Chiefs have signed off on that concept.”

A game-plan was outlined: Obama would reach “an informal agreement” with Russia’s Vladimir Putin for mutual reductions within the New START framework. Ratification would be unnecessary. No need for the Senate to get involved.

National security adviser Tom Donilon would travel next month to Moscow, following on Vice President Joe Biden’s recent confab with Russian leaders attending a security conference in southern Germany, all to pave the way for a pair of Obama-Putin summit meetings this summer.

That was quite a wind-up. And then came the pitch: “At the same time, we will engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals, and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that might fall into the wrong hands…”

That’s it?! That’s all President Obama had to say about his cherished goal of world-wide nuclear disarmament—the commitment that, largely, won him a Nobel Peace Prize—in his first State of the Union address after his historic re-election? What happened? How could the venerable Times have gotten the story so wrong?

Well, what happened is North Korea! Evidently its new dictator, Kim Jong-Un, doesn’t read the New York Times. Or perhaps he just has a timetable of his own. Because on the morning of the president’s speech, news reports around the world headlined North Korea’s third nuclear weapons test.

Well, that certainly must have “put the cat among the pigeons” in the White House preparations for the president’s address that same night. As a veteran of past administrations’ State of the Union “drill,” I can readily imagine the paragraphs of visionary, high-minded, man-of-peace prose, prefigured by advance reports like the Times‘s, being ripped out and tossed on the cutting room floor overnight before Obama’s speech. You can just hear the White House advisers muttering, “We can’t have the president looking so out-of-step with reality.” Even if he is.

North Korea’s blast underscored exquisitely the most fundamental contradiction of Obama’s nuclear disarmament ambitions. Its cornerstone rationale is to minimize and reverse the incentives for nuclear proliferation by the world’s ‘wannabe’ nuclear powers—mainly rogue states like Iran and North Korea implacably hostile to the United States and the West.

It just wouldn’t do to have the president announce his next down-payment on this idealistic goal right on the heels of North Korea, the biggest Non-Proliferation Treaty violator, taking another unmistakable step closer toward nuclear weapons capability, complete with bellicose threats against the United States and South Korea. To boot, eight weeks earlier North Korea launched a long-range missile, ostensibly a space launch, obviously intended to eventually threaten the United States with nuclear attack. Against this backdrop a big play on nuclear weapons reduction in the State of the Union address, justified as heading off precisely what had just happened, risked making Obama look dangerously naïve.

As it happens, the over-80 percent reduction in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals since their Cold War peak in 1986—and the 50 percent reduction in U.S. deployed and nondeployed nuclear weapons ordered by President George W. Bush after the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty—have had no impact on Iran and North Korea. But that’s not the only contradiction in Obama’s nuclear policy.

The rationale for further nuclear reductions rests heavily on the end of the Cold War—but Obama’s approach to nuclear arms reductions is completely rooted in the Cold War. It remains an entirely bilateral exercise between the United States and Russia, just like in the Cold War days. Other “lesser” nuclear powers—China, India, Pakistan, whose arsenals become more significant with each round of U.S.-Russian cuts—get to “sit this one out.” And there’s no pretense of trying to bring rogue proliferators like Iran and North Korea—the principal dangers—into any kind of multilateral bargain exchanging U.S.-Russian reductions for the unwinding of their nuclear programs.

The Obama team holds out the prospect that U.S. nuclear deterrence will protect our friends and allies abroad in case North Korea and Iran ultimately fulfill their manifest ambitions to deploy offensive nuclear arms. But how is this supposed to work when, at the same time, Obama’s policies continue to whittle down and weaken that deterrent force?

So, will Obama temper his quest for still further nuclear arms cuts in the face of North Korea’s latest provocation? Surely not. This is among the highest priorities of his national security strategy. But with the Senate losing its most knowledgeable and articulate voice on these issues as a result of Sen. Jon Kyl’s  retirement, and with Obama’s nomination of former senator Chuck Hagel—co-author of a “Global Zero” report advocating unilateral reduction of the U.S. nuclear deterrent—to be secretary of defense, the question is: Will anyone emerge in the Senate willing or able to apply the brakes?