Berlin and the Arms-Control Debate

The president's speech on nuclear weapons and new guidance materials were a sensible step forward for U.S. policy.

Public debate on nuclear-weapons policy is relatively rare these days. Two developments nevertheless pushed the topic back into the limelight last week. On June 19th, President Obama delivered a wide-ranging foreign-policy speech in Berlin that touched briefly on nuclear-arms control. Later that same day, the White House released a summary of new presidential guidance resulting from a lengthy interagency review of what’s needed for nuclear deterrence. Criticism quickly followed from both ends of the political spectrum—but for very different reasons.

Arms-control advocates, on the one hand, felt that the president had passed up an opportunity to aggressively advance his nuclear agenda. They had anticipated that he would use the Berlin speech to rekindle interest in steps he had proposed four years earlier in Prague to eventually bring about “a world without nuclear weapons.” They had also hoped that new presidential guidance would direct the Pentagon to take actions that would more dramatically reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security policy. They were disappointed on both counts. The New York Times editorial board reflected this mood, describing Obama’s proposals as “a disappointing example of what happens when soaring vision collides with the reality of obstructive Republican senators, a recalcitrant Russia and a convergence of regional crises.”

Conservative critics, on the other hand, lambasted the president’s call for further reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. The GOP chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, “Buck" McKeon, stated that “desire to negotiate a new round of arms control with the Russians, while Russia is cheating on a major existing nuclear arms control treaty, strains credulity.” The ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee, asserted that additional limitations of the U.S. nuclear arsenal without first modernizing existing forces could amount to “unilateral disarmament.” Twenty-four Republican senators signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry arguing that “any further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal should only be conducted through a treaty subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.”

Despite these sharply contrasting reactions, the approach taken by President Obama and his administration actually represents a relatively moderate and measured effort to reconcile two dominant, but different themes in current American thinking about nuclear weapons. The first is the belief that the United States should continue to lead international efforts to limit and reduce nuclear arsenals, prevent nuclear proliferation, and secure nuclear materials. The second is the belief that appropriately sized nuclear forces still play an essential role in protecting U.S. and allied security interests.

The Berlin speech addressed the first; the summary of the new guidance largely spoke to the second. Taken together, they represent a pragmatic and workable basis for forging a sustainable, bipartisan consensus on nuclear weapons and arms-control policy.

What the President Said

The biggest news from the Berlin speech was President Obama’s announcement that the United States could reduce its “deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third” and still maintain a strong and credible deterrent. (Given that the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, sets a limit of 1550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons, a one-third reduction translates to 1000-1100 weapons.) He also stated that he intended to “seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.”

Other than defining the magnitude of possible cuts, the president said little else that was fundamentally new. Following the completion of the New START in 2010, senior American officials had hoped to pursue even further reductions in long-range nuclear forces and, for the first time, to set limits on tactical and nondeployed weapons. However, profound differences between Washington and Moscow on missile defense—and a host of other bilateral issues—essentially blocked further negotiations. At the same time, the highly partisan atmosphere inside the beltway left little space or appetite for seriously debating arms-control matters.

Not much has changed on both accounts in recent months, and the prospects for renewed arms control talks in the immediate future are far from bright. Thus, it is not surprising that the president’s language on nuclear issues in Berlin was decidedly more tempered and subdued than the soaring rhetoric of his 2009 Prague speech. Arms-control advocates were clearly disappointed; they had expected more.