Obama Picks Up His Own Nuclear Baton

In a speech in Berlin on June 19, a second-term Obama laid out a larger foreign policy agenda and a small working 'to-do list' for one of the president's top legacy issues: reducing the threat of nuclear weapons and terrorism to enhance US national and fiscal security.
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By Lt. General Robert Gard, Jr. (USA, Ret.) & Ambassador (Ret.) Thomas Graham, Jr.

In a speech in Berlin on June 19, a second-term Obama picked up the nuclear baton from first-term Obama, a baton which had been entrusted to him by three generations of presidents from both parties, including Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy.

The speech laid out a larger foreign policy agenda and a small working 'to-do list' for one of the president's top legacy issues: reducing the threat of nuclear weapons and terrorism to enhance US national and fiscal security.

Only three months after taking the oath of office in 2009, President Obama gave an address in Prague that lead to the New START Treaty, the removal of nuclear materials from ten countries and two Nuclear Security Summits.

These achievements reduced the number of Russian nuclear weapons that could target a U.S. city and decreased the risk of terrorist organizations gaining access to dangerous nuclear materials.

In Berlin, the president laid out the next phase of his agenda. Most notably, he announced a reduction of up to a one-third in deployed strategic nuclear warheads by Russia and the U.S. below the New START levels.

In 2010, these two countries agreed to reduce the number of deployed long-range nuclear weapons to no more than 1,550. Even under New START limits, both countries will maintain far more than enough nuclear weapons capable of leveling hundreds of cities in microseconds.

In supporting further cuts in deployed strategic nuclear weapons, President Obama is acting on a bipartisan consensus that U.S. nuclear strategy remains based on a confrontation with the Soviet Union that no longer exists. Further reductions with Russia would increase U.S. security by reducing the number of nuclear weapons that can be pointed at US cities almost instantaneously.

Reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical, or battlefield, nuclear weapons, a priority also highlighted by the president, would limit a class of weapons that have outlived their purpose and are particularly susceptible to theft by terrorists.

According to the Ploughshares Fund, the U.S. will spend $640 billion dollars on nuclear weapons and related programs over the next decade. In this time of economic uncertainty, updating U.S. nuclear strategy can generate significant cost savings, thereby freeing funds for higher priority security programs.

While enshrining further reductions with Russia in a formal treaty would be ideal, the two sides could also choose to pursue deployed weapons cuts with politically binding, reciprocal steps and utilize the New START monitoring system to verify the lower level. Non-treaty-based reductions have been a respected feature of U.S. defense policy under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

The Berlin Agenda extends far beyond bilateral U.S.-Russia deals; it also seeks to prevent proliferation, prohibit nuclear weapons testing and end the production of fissile materials, highly enriched uranium and plutonium.

Diplomacy is the only long-term solution to preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons. High level talks with North Korea are already being debated in Washington and a new president in Iran could provide new opportunities for productive discussions.

The president restated his commitment to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons with a new treaty ending fissile material production and a commitment to continue the Nuclear Security Summit meetings into 2016, a signature achievement of Obama's first term.

A Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty would severely limit the ability of a rogue state to obtain the materials necessary to develop a nuclear device. Ending the production of fissile materials also takes a huge step forward to preventing countries from going nuclear.

U.S. approval of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty would strengthen the inhibition against nuclear weapons testing and development. The U.S. signed the treaty in 1996, but it has not yet received Senate approval for ratification.

This treaty would enhance security by retarding the ability of other nuclear states to improve their arsenals and the incentive for would-be nuclear states to construct these destructive bombs. Security experts overwhelmingly agree that the United States can maintain a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear arsenal in the absence of testing.

The Berlin Agenda is ambitious, but carries the potential for significant pay offs. If the provisions of the Berlin agenda are realized, the U.S. will be one step closer to a future without the threat of nuclear terrorism or annihilation. As Obama said, "As long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe" -- that's something upon which J.F.K., Reagan, Bush and Obama have agreed.

Lt. General Robert Gard, Jr. (USA, Ret.) is the former president of National Defense University and the chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Ambassador (Ret.) Thomas Graham, Jr. is the former Special Representative of the President for Arms Control, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament and a member of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation National Advisory Board.

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