The generous view of President Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize is that it honored his stated intentions to promote international peace and was meant to spur him to significant achievement. His actions leading up to next May's UN Review Conference on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), will test the validity of this view and the wisdom of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.
Two of Obama's promissory notes mentioned in the committee's award citation were his call for a world free of nuclear weapons and his promotion of "multilateral diplomacy . . . with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play." He can redeem these notes if, by next May, he has taken actions demonstrating his realization that averting nuclear disaster can only be achieved by international, not national or even bi-lateral actions.
The drafters of the NPT rightly coupled the obligations of the nuclear "haves" and the nuclear "have-nots." Those signatory nations without nuclear weapons at the time pledged to forego acquisition of nuclear weapons technology (Article II). Those signatory nations already in possession of nuclear weapons at the timethe US, Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China agreed "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control" (Article VI).
The NPT was opened for signatures in 1968 and went into effect in 1970. That was during the Cold War and its widespread perception that national security calculations had to be based on a bi-polar model of geo-politics. Whether the US-Soviet mistrust justified their maintaining huge nuclear arsenals or was a pretext for securing their hegemonies (or both), the result was their de-coupling the obligations of the nuclear "haves" and the nuclear "have-nots." They used the NPT, not as a commitment to move toward a nuclear-free world by honoring Article VI, but as a mechanism to keep the nuclear club exclusive.
It is quite amazing, in retrospect, that the U.S. and the former Soviet Union got away with the de-coupling as successfully as they did. Until the breakup of the USSR, only two other nations, India and Israel (neither signatory to the NPT), acquired nuclear weapons. Even they, significantly, both refused to declare themselves nuclear "haves." Israel wouldn't admit to having nuclear weapons, and India called its Smiling Buddha test a "peaceful explosion."
But our luck has been running out since the end of the Cold War. Pakistan tested a weapon on April 6, 1998 in anticipation of an imminent round of India's tests. The latter were not billed as peaceful. On May 14, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee publicly declared that "India is now a nuclear weapons state." North Korea joined the nuclear club in this century, and the US and Israel are convinced that Iran's nuclear program is aimed not only at developing a civilian nuclear capability (which is a guaranteed international right under Article IV of the NPT), but also at developing weapons. (This is of course controversial, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, carries out inspections in Iran and continues to declare that Iran is not pursuing nuclear weapons).
Then, of course, there is the possibility of non-national nuclear terrorism, a concern prompted in the last decade by lax security over the former Soviet Union's weapons facilities and given point in this decade by 9-11 and Osama's declared intent to acquire an Islamic bomb. Recent official US assessments of nuclear threats have highlighted this one.
Both the Clinton and Bush administrations acknowledged that geo-politics were no longer bi-polar. Their Nuclear Posture Reviews (NPR) both spoke of a greatly diminished Russian threat and a much increased threat of nuclear proliferation. But in keeping with the Bush Administration's unilateral pursuit of national purposes, its NPR, released in 2002, placed little emphasis on cooperative relations and instead laid out a variety of "legitimate" uses for US nuclear weapons.
The Clinton NPR, released in 1994, had set a different tone. It emphasized the importance of international security mechanisms and specifically the NPT, which was set to expire the following year unless action was taken. And indeed, at the May, 1995 NPT Review Conference, with US support the treaty was extended indefinitely.
But the Clinton NPR failed to acknowledge that nuclear proliferation cannot be stopped as long as some nations maintain significant nuclear arsenals. Its drafters discerned no tension between their endorsement of international cooperation and their recommendation that "nuclear weapons remain an essential part of American military power."
Only in a strategic posture review that Congress commissioned last year did that tension finally surface. America's Strategic Posture, formally released to Congress and the President on May 6, 2009, was produced by a blue ribbon commission chaired by former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry.
In his "Chairman's Preface" to the report, Perry acknowledged that there is a serious tension between coping with proliferation--the threat the commission regarded as the most serious--and our maintaining a nuclear arsenal as a deterrent against threats by other nuclear states. Perry acknowledged that this inherent conflict produced serious disagreement over strategy within the commission.
In the end, the disagreement was papered over, and the specific recommendations in the report did not mark a meaningful break with the Clinton-era NPR. It continued to advocate that nuclear weapons remain an essential part of American military power.
Still, the cat is out of the bag. The challenge to President Obama is to acknowledge the truth expressed in Perry's statement that the unilateral policies needed to maintain US nuclear "strength" will be in conflict with those policies that "promote the international cooperation needed for preventing and rolling back proliferation." The President must privilege the latter over the former.
To these ends there are a number of executive actions he can take prior to next May. One is to intervene in the current NPR process so that its military recommendations will be shaped by diplomatic considerations and thus break with its two predecessors. Another will be to indicate a readiness to move by unilateral, incremental, and reciprocated steps to cut the US and Russian nuclear arsenals far below the ceilings set by the most recent formal agreement (approximately 1500 warheads each, currently being negotiated with Russia as part of the START arms reduction process).
There are other steps the president could take, including taking US nuclear weapons off high-alert status as a safety measure, or adopting a No First Use policy for our nuclear arsenal. Members of Congress, led by U.S. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI), U.S. Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) and U.S. Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) have written to the president to encourage him to adopt such forward-leaning policies in the Nuclear Posture Review.