Of all President Obama’s initiatives since taking office, few have upset hard-line hawks more than his embrace of the goal of “global zero”—the elimination of all nuclear weapons worldwide. The most recent example is Keith Payne’s essay in the Weekly Standard, which decries Obama’s vision as “nuclear utopianism” and his arms-control efforts as “wishful thinking.”
Payne portrays a world in which nuclear dangers to the United States are increasingly ominous. He rattles off several examples: the arsenals of Russia and China, North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear programs, an unstable Pakistan and so on. At the same time, Payne contends, the Obama administration is more concerned with “movement toward nuclear zero” than “U.S. deterrence capabilities.” To support this claim, he cites reports that the Defense Department has prepared options for cutting the U.S. nuclear stockpile by up to 80 percent.
Payne gets a number of things right, but the position he attacks is a straw man. He is surely correct that American nuclear reductions will not convince leaders in Pyongyang or elsewhere to abandon their nuclear weapons. Yet although Payne attributes this position to “senior administration officials,” it seems difficult to believe that anyone in the U.S. government actually believes this. More likely, they see that as a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and one of the world’s two leading nuclear powers, Washington has an obligation to take “good faith” steps toward disarmament. If it wants to corral other nations to pressure Iran to meet its NPT obligations, it cannot be perceived as shirking its own.
Nor does it appear that Obama is hell-bent on taking the United States down the road toward zero by itself. As Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made clear, the prospective options presented to the president for nuclear reductions are all “all based on potential bilateral negotiations with the Russians.”
There are plenty of legitimate criticisms to make of Obama’s nuclear policies. Payne’s choice to set his targets on a straw man makes his piece a flawed one.