WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is in South Korea marking the significant amount of progress made in the past three years on his initiative to secure the world's nuclear materials.
But when it comes to his soaring rhetoric about reducing the threat of nuclear weapons -- with the ultimate goal of "a world without nuclear weapons" at all -- the president has promised much more than he has delivered.
Some major steps forward -- most notably the 2011 START Treaty, which cut by about a third the number of strategic warheads the U.S. and Russia are allowed to deploy -- have been accompanied by reversals, retreats and contradictions.
For instance, Obama promised during the presidential campaign that he would remove "as many weapons as possible" from hair-trigger alert status. He even tweaked his predecessor, George W. Bush, for having made the same promise and having failed to act on it. "I will," Obama said. "We cannot and should not accept the threat of accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch."
But while Obama's major Nuclear Posture Review last year generally de-emphasized the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy, it said nothing about changing alert status. That leaves over 2,000 American and Russian nuclear weapons ready to launch on a few minutes notice, and puts about 100 million people less than an hour away from potential annihilation at any moment.
"The hair-trigger alert fell off the agenda immediately after they entered the White House," said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
As part of his momentous speech embracing nuclear disarmament in Prague in April 2009, Obama promised to "immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty." A ban on nuclear testing is the oldest item on the arms control agenda, and U.S. ratification is seen as essential for the treaty to enter into force.
But the push never came. "Three years ago in Prague, this was going to happen soon," said Joseph Cirincione, who heads the Ploughshares Fund, a private group devoted to nuclear disarmament. "He wanted a new START treaty negotiated by the end of 2009, and the next step was supposed to be ratifications of the CTBT treaty."
Instead, Russian intransigence followed by congressional intransigence delayed ratification of the START treaty until December 2010, at which point, Cirincione said, "arms control fatigue set in. 2011 was basically a wasted year. Nothing happened."
And of course "nothing gets ratified in an election year," he said.
In a major speech at a South Korean university on Monday, Obama took credit for cutting the number of deployed warheads. "As president, I changed our nuclear posture to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy. I made it clear that the United States will not develop new nuclear warheads," he said. "And we will not pursue new military missions for nuclear weapons. We’ve narrowed the range of contingencies under which we would ever use or threaten to use nuclear weapons."
But at the same time, Obama's latest proposed budget continues to call for hundreds of billions of dollars to be invested in, as Cirincione put it, "building literally a whole new generation of strategic delivery vehicles."
And that's where the real arms race is these days.
"It's not a numerical arms race; it is a qualitative arms race, because it is about modernizing and building new platforms," said Kristensen.
Ironically, the build-up of the nuclear weapons program was actually a cost of START ratification, Cirincione said. "The Obama administration's way of assuring the opponents of the treaty in the Senate that they were serious about maintaining the nuclear weapons complex was to throw money at it," he said.
"The president says he wants to reduce weapons, but the contracts for the next generation are going ahead," Cirincione said. "We're regenerating the Cold War arsenal; that's the actual procurement policy right now. We're building it all over again -- same stuff, new names."
First up: New ballistic missile submarines. Billions have already been spent or budgeted, and the total cost is expected to be about $350 billion. After the sub, the focus will shift to new ballistic missiles and heavy bombers.
Obama's argument since Prague has been that as the U.S. reduces its arsenal, it will be easier to generate a stronger international consensus against proliferation.
But can ratcheting up the pressure on other countries to modernize their delivery platforms really count as ratcheting down the nuclear arms race?
Kristensen thinks not. "You have to put the breaks on the modernization at some point," he said.
And that may yet happen. Obama's National Security Council is expected to deliver its recommendations for how to operationalize Obama's plan very soon. And as Cirincione noted, budget pressures are "forcing these choices even on a reluctant Congress."
Cirincione said Obama hasn't been intentionally misleading about his nuclear weapons plans. "I wouldn't say it's dishonest yet," he said. "It's just that it's slower and harder than he wanted."
When might things start to move a little faster, then? The president himself may have unwittingly answered that question on Monday, when he told Russian President Dimitry Medvedev that he will have "more flexibility" after the election, a comment that he intended to be private but was picked up by a live microphone.
Despite a growing agreement among the public and elites alike that nuclear weapons are now a symbol of vulnerability, rather than power, the issue is widely considered a political loser.
Meanwhile, in his public speech on Monday, Obama returned to the subject of a world without nuclear weapons, and explained his thinking.
"As a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, this is our obligation, and it’s one that I take very seriously," he said. "But I believe the United States has a unique responsibility to act -- indeed, we have a moral obligation. I say this as president of the only nation ever to use nuclear weapons. I say it as a Commander-in-Chief who knows that our nuclear codes are never far from my side. Most of all, I say it as a father, who wants my two young daughters to grow up in a world where everything they know and love can’t be instantly wiped out."
Said Kristensen: "He has this very strange bag of apparently conflicting responsibilities."