FPI Bulletin: Obama’s Journey from Prague to Hiroshima

June 2, 2016

During his visit to Hiroshima last week, President Obama delivered the last in a series of major speeches on nuclear arms since the beginning of his first term in office. These speeches have all emphasized the same basic message: that President Obama would ardently pursue a world free of nuclear weapons, but until that time, the United States would maintain an effective nuclear deterrent.

Today, the world is more proliferated than it was when President Obama took office, in part because of the president’s mistaken assumption that other world leaders share his goal. Instead, the administration admits that its adversaries now “cling ever more tightly to their nuclear arsenals.” This reality will require the next administration to strengthen America’s strategic forces and work to reverse the tide of proliferation.

The Prague Agenda

In April 2009, President Obama outlined what is known as the “Prague agenda,” declaring “clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of the world without nuclear weapons.” He described a series of “concrete steps” toward this vision. First, he planned to “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy” and negotiate a new arms control agreement with the Russian Federation. Second, the president pledged to work to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, declaring that “rules must be binding” and that “violations must be punished.” Finally, the president said he would organize an international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world.

President Obama acknowledged that a nuclear-free world “will not be reached quickly – perhaps not in my lifetime.” Thus, as long as nuclear weapons exist, “the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary and guarantee that defense to our allies.” Still, from Prague through speeches ranging from his acceptance of the Nobel Prize in December 2009 to his June 2013 remarks at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, the president emphasized his aspirations for a nuclear-free world over the steps necessary to keep the United States safe until one is achieved.

A Concrete Step: New START and the Nuclear Enterprise

Just one year after his Prague speech, President Obama and Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). In addition to other provisions, the new treaty limited each side to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads, a reduction from the 2,200 warheads allowed under George W. Bush’s Moscow Treaty of 2002. This was the first “concrete step” toward the agenda Obama had described in Prague.

Cast as an element of the U.S.-Russian “reset,” the New START Treaty was intended to help “put an end to Cold War thinking,” as Obama declared in Prague. In reality, Russia never had any interest in the abolition of nuclear weapons. Moscow swiftly rejected Obama’s second term proposal to cut deployed nuclear warheads by as much as a third beyond the New START limits. Instead, Moscow has violated a separate treaty intended to limit intermediate-range ballistic missiles, invaded and deployed nuclear weapons to Crimea, and suggested that a nuclear strike may be necessary to “de-escalate” a future conflict with the West.

While New START did not pave the way toward further nuclear cuts, as the president desired, the debate over its ratification fostered a bipartisan agreement on investments to maintain a strategic deterrent that is safe, secure, and effective.

Even before the administration concluded negotiations for the treaty, a group of 40 GOP senators joined by Joseph Lieberman wrote to express their view that “we don’t believe further reductions can be in the national security interest of the U.S. in the absence of a significant program to modernize our nuclear deterrent.” The administration responded in February 2010, when Vice President Joe Biden pledged that the White House would invest billions in additional funding for the purpose of “maintaining our nuclear stockpile and modernizing our nuclear infrastructure.” During the ratification debate, the administration provided Congress a detailed plan to make these investments.

President Obama made personal commitments as a part of this effort. He certified to Congress that “I intend to modernize or replace the triad of strategic nuclear delivery systems,” and wrote to the chairmen of the congressional appropriations committees that “nuclear modernization requires investment for the long-term [and] that my Administration will pursue these programs and capabilities as long as I am president.”

Although it was Republican senators who first demanded these commitments, they generally enjoy bipartisan support. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has affirmed that “[t]he nuclear deterrent is a must-have.” At a recent hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Ranking Member Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) observed, “we are in the process of modernizing the triad for very obvious and compelling reasons.” Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) recently cheered the “good news” that “the administration and the Republican majority in Congress are keeping the nuclear deterrent safe, secure, and reliable.”

This consensus in support of a modernized strategic triad backed by an invigorated nuclear enterprise will be a positive legacy of the Obama administration, even if it was achieved despite the president’s own instincts. The challenge for the next administration will be to provide the focus and funding to sustain this consensus, an effort that will require ending the Budget Control Act’s harmful cuts to these and other critical defense programs.

A Dangerous Step Back: Iran and Nonproliferation

Although President Obama’s pursuit of his Prague agenda resulted in a bipartisan commitment to modernizing America’s strategic forces, it unfortunately has done little to reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation.

The president has organized a series of nuclear security since 2010, with the most recent one held in Washington, D.C., this past March. These meetings have made some progress toward the president’s goal of securing vulnerable nuclear materials, including the removal and down-blending of hundreds of kilograms of highly enriched uranium around the world. For those countries willing to help secure nuclear materials, this has been an effective means of cooperation.

Unfortunately, the major proliferation threats are not from the countries that willingly attend the president’s nuclear summits. Indeed, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January and is likely preparing a fifth. Pakistan and India continue to grow their nuclear arsenals. China plans to send ballistic missile submarines on patrols of the South China Sea, and Russia has rejected Obama’s desire for additional nuclear cuts.

None of these developments was surprising. At the time of the Prague address, the resistance of China, North Korea, and others to nuclear disarmament was already clear. Yet despite his conviction that nuclear weapons must be eradicated, Obama never seriously grappled with how to persuade other nuclear weapon states and proliferators to sign on to his agenda. Indeed, the whole argument for nuclear zero has never resolved the contradiction that even as the United States has negotiated cuts in its arsenal, proliferation across the world has advanced.

The greatest setback for President Obama’s nuclear zero agenda, however, has been the consequence of his own misguided policy toward Iran. During his remarks in Prague seven years ago, the president warned that “Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile activity poses a real threat, not just to the United States, but to Iran’s neighbors and our allies.” He promised to work to deliver an agreement that would avoid the risk of “a potential nuclear arms race in the region.”

Instead, President Obama negotiated an agreement under which he acknowledges Iran’s “breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero” after a decade. In the meantime, the agreement allows Iran to advance its nuclear program through the research and development of ever more sophisticated centrifuges with which to enrich uranium. Rather than prevent a regional arms race, the administration has instead demarcated its finish line.

Despite the president’s condemnation of Iran’s ballistic missile program, he helped to push through a resolution at the United Nations that now allows Tehran to test ballistic missiles, while his administration strives to enrich the Iranian government’s coffers. Obama has travelled far from his warning in Prague that “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.”


Shortly after President Obama delivered his Prague speech seven years ago, a bipartisan, congressionally-mandated commission delivered its verdict that achieving nuclear zero “would require a fundamental transformation of the world political order.” In Hiroshima, President Obama finally seemed to acknowledge this reality, describing his hope that at least a “persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe” until a time comes that the world achieves a moral awakening to end war altogether.

In the meantime, the next administration will be hard pressed to manage a world that has grown more proliferated under President Obama’s watch. The United States must act to reassure its allies that America’s extended deterrence remains strong. This will require continued investments in our strategic forces and the rejection of unilateral cuts to them. The next administration must also work to convince our adversaries that they will be punished, not rewarded, for their nuclear ambitions.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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