Obama's Nuclear Realism

05/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In a major foreign policy address in Prague, President Obama declared America's commitment "to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." The president warned that this goal would not be reached quickly, "perhaps not in my lifetime." Nevertheless, some critics have charged that Obama is caught up in a nuclear disarmament fantasy.

In fact, the president's approach is one of steely-eyed realism. Nuclear weapons present us with a set of bad choices. Obama's choice -- to take nuclear arms control and nonproliferation seriously -- is the one most likely to lead to a secure future.

In one sense, there isn't a choice at all. Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution declares that ratified treaties are the "supreme law of the land," and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), ratified by the United States almost 40 years ago, commits us to pursue nuclear disarmament. And in fact, a realistic foreign policy will recognize this as an important goal.

Why? The NPT is a big part of the reason that the world today has only nine nuclear powers, rather than the "15 or 20 or 25" that President John F. Kennedy feared we would soon face. A world with dozens of nuclear powers is a world where the chances of nuclear miscalculation or accident would almost certainly lead to tragedy.

It is also a world with dozens of routes by which terrorists could acquire a nuclear weapon. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, the United States has worked to prevent that world from being born. The NPT is the anchor of the international regime the U.S. helped build to that end.

All but four countries in the world are now party to the NPT. The inspections and monitoring that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) performs under the treaty are imperfect, but they are critical. The inspection regime needs strengthening, but a world without IAEA inspections is a world without our most important tool for monitoring nuclear programs.

The NPT was extended indefinitely in 1995. In that agreement, the non-nuclear weapon states agreed to abide by the treaty's requirements forever. They would never pursue nuclear weapons, though they would have the "inalienable right" to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. To get the extension, the nuclear weapon states pledged to invigorate their efforts at disarmament, and in particular, to bring into force a Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) -- a treaty to stop all nuclear weapons testing.

The NPT was extended, but the CTBT has not entered into force; it remains un-ratified by the United States and eight other crucial countries. In Prague, President Obama pledged to pursue Senate consent to ratify the CTBT. That step alone will likely take a year or more, and demand a great deal of scientific review and political effort.

The president outlined other key steps. The first is to negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia. The negotiation will likely lead to a reduction in the thousands of strategic warheads held by each country, but more important, it should extend START's verification provisions -- those treaty guarantees that allow us to know what Moscow's nuclear arsenal is, and can do.

Both START and the CTBT will be viewed by the world as important steps toward the NPT's goal of nuclear disarmament. The President also committed to the next step, a treaty to halt the production of material for nuclear weapons worldwide. Verification of such a treaty is possible, but negotiating its political and technical details is likely the work of years.

Many further steps will require more ambitious, and probably very lengthy, multilateral negotiations -- as the president implied. Time to get started.

Few imagine that steps such as these will have any direct impact on the interest of states like North Korea or Iran in nuclear weapons. But these steps could have an important impact on the majority of non-nuclear-weapon states, those that are unlikely to pursue nuclear weapons but which are nevertheless important to the health of the NPT.

These states decide how vigorously they will adopt and implement export controls; to what extent they support a more rigorous IAEA inspection regime, or efforts to secure high-enriched uranium worldwide; or whether they support sanctions or other steps against determined proliferators. And a number of these countries have reported that disarmament measures such as the CTBT will make it easier to make progress on nonproliferation issues.

Perhaps this is not true. Perhaps no matter what steps the United States takes, further steps toward nonproliferation will remain beyond reach. But the decades-long history of the nonproliferation regime suggests that surprising progress is possible so long as the United States leads. Both the CTBT and START are in the security interests of the United States; taking these first steps and testing world reaction is the right way forward.

A wise path toward nuclear disarmament will pursue step-by-step arms control agreements that make the United States, and the world, safer at each stage. This will be the work of many years, and is the work of a realistic foreign policy.