Obama’s second chance at Prague nuke agenda

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

The US electorate has spoken, and most of the international diplomats, academics, and others with whom I spoke on the day after our presidential election on 6 November breathed a sigh of relief that the stewardship of the world’s (still) sole superpower will remain in safe hands for another four years. The rest of the world famously backed Barack Obama, so while much of the satisfaction I heard about the Democrat’s re-election pertained particularly to the nuclear-policy matters being addressed in my various meetings, I also found myself, as an American citizen abroad, congratulated more broadly.

The election turned on domestic issues, and even the presidential debate that was supposed to be dedicated to foreign policy pivoted back to the American economy and education system. Nevertheless, the question that I have been asked most is how Obama will use his renewed lease on the White House to address global issues. In my area of specialisation on arms control and non-proliferation, everyone agrees there is much to be done. Unfortunately, there seems little scope for Obama to do it. And, of course, Iran looms large on his agenda.

Obama aimed high in his initial foray into the nuclear subject with his speech in Prague in April 2009. The following year he struck the New START nuclear arms agreement with Russia and corralled global leaders to prioritise efforts to counter nuclear terrorism. After these signal achievements, however, the nuclear agenda stalled.

In following through on his Prague promises, Obama has faced impediments on nearly every front. The constraints begin at home, with one half of the Congress remaining in the hands of those who are hostile to most of his nuclear goals, or at least to seeing him achieve success in the endeavour. The new Senate appears to be no closer to mustering the two-thirds majority necessary to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The leading Republican opponent – Senator John Kyl – is retiring, but the key Republican supporter on this issue – Senator Richard Lugar – was defeated in a primary election by a Tea Party stalwart (Richard Mourdock, whose comment that conception from rape was God’s will resulted in his loss on Tuesday). No Republican senator appears ready and able to take up Lugar’s role in forging domestic consensus on ways to reduce nuclear dangers.

Obama faces other hurdles in forging international consensus on his key nuclear non-proliferation goals. The cooperation that will be necessary from friends, potential partners and potential adversaries is hard to find. Israel wants nothing to do with a Middle East WMD-free zone. Pakistan continues to block negotiation of a treaty to stop the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons. Brazil and Egypt oppose strengthening the verification authority of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Obama’s desire to expand the scope of nuclear arms agreements to include tactical nuclear weapons and other systems is stymied by the greater reliance Russia places on these systems, and the heightened sense of distrust in the Kremlin.

Obama committed an infamous live-mike gaffe in March, when he was recorded telling Russia’s then-president Dmitry Medvedev that there would be more scope to make a deal on missile defence after the November election. The substance was true, but striking any deal will be more difficult now that Vladimir Putin has returned to the Kremlin.

The distrust of an adversary is even more pronounced in the case of the country that presents Obama’s greatest challenge in the nuclear field – Iran. Believing that any compromise will only trigger more demands, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is extremely reluctant to accept any limits on Iran’s uranium enrichment programme. Talks this summer with the E3+3 (Britain, France, Germany, China Russia and US) failed when Iran refused to consider any steps other than capping 20% enrichment, for which it demanded that all sanctions be lifted.

Now that Iran knows with whom it will be dealing in the White House for the next four years, there may be some prospect for more serious negotiations. Indeed, a new meeting is in the works for the next month.  For any deal, Iran would need to see more benefits than the E3+3 have been able to offer so far, which has not been much. But it is questionable whether Obama could garner the domestic support necessary to include any US sanctions relief in the package to be offered to Iran, given that most US sanctions would require Congressional approval to lift.

In sum, there is not much reason to be optimistic that in the nuclear field, Obama will be able to move the world closer to his goals. Still, as long as he is in the White House, the Prague vision will remain US policy. And there are ways he can move US policy toward less reliance on nuclear weapons. Most importantly, the cerebral president will not make impulsive decisions that will make matters worse. Therein lies the reason for the well wishes that I received on 7 November.


One Comment on “Obama’s second chance at Prague nuke agenda”

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