Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 07:18 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 07:18 | SYDNEY

Obama and nuclear abolition (part 2)


Rory Medcalf


8 April 2009 15:45

Obama’s Prague speech was about much more than North Korea (see part 1). It was essentially two years in the drafting. In January 2007, a quartet of US elder statesmen became an unlikely Four Horsemen against the Apocalypse. George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn issued a manifesto for a new kind of abolitionist — realists against the bomb. They took their case further a year later. 

Their argument was that, with the spread of nuclear weapons to more countries and potentially to terrorists, a concerted effort to reduce nuclear dangers and turn back proliferation was a priority for US security. This would need global solidarity, which the US could only credibly muster if it took the lead in winding back its own huge nuclear capabilities.

The quartet’s advocacy has coalesced with other efforts by citizens and governments, not least Australian and Japanese sponsorship of a high-profile commission to advise the world on eliminating nuclear weapons. This panel, co-chaired by Gareth Evans and former Japanese foreign minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, could end up providing an intellectual pillar of the Obama plan.

The pressure for it to deliver innovative and practical ideas will now rise. So will the expectation on the Australian and Japanese governments to follow up with action. Some prominent Australians have already begun calling on Canberra to reconsider how it characterises its reliance, as an ally, on the US nuclear deterrent.

But at this stage, the White House remains the key to any real-world outcomes. A major achievement of the Four Horsemen has been to build support on both sides in Washington for the US to lead global arms control. McCain and Obama both promised this. Now Obama has shown he means it. Much of the Prague speech is straight out of the ‘realist abolitionist’ playbook:

  • US and Russia leading the way through an agreement on further force reductions
  • US ratification of the CTBT, partly as a way of prompting others (notably China and India) to get on board
  • US acceptance of verification provisions in a future Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, which should help propel negotiations in Geneva
  • A renewed international effort to secure nuclear materials against terrorists
  • Recognition that truly peaceful uses of nuclear energy need to be assisted (opponents of nuclear energy take note) if the Non-Proliferation Treaty is to hold. 

Alongside all of this, the Prague speech contains elements of caution. Obama has not discarded the Bush plan to put missile defence interceptors in Europe even though this has irked Russia. But he has promised that this shield will be abandoned as soon as the world ensures Iran is not forging a nuclear spear.

The President also wisely underlined that America will retain a credible deterrent for as long as nuclear weapons exist elsewhere — and that it will extend that umbrella to allies in need. Such reassurance is critical, especially to Tokyo, so long as a nuclear-armed China's strategic goals are uncertain and North Korean missiles can strike Japan. His talk of revisiting US nuclear strategy does not (yet) suggest a doctrine of No First Use of nuclear weapons, or of ending the ambiguity under which America might conceivably brandish nuclear arms as a deterrent against chemical, biological or even conventional attack.

Yet these familiar notes of realism should not obscure how bold a change to the global security landscape is now the policy of the world's most powerful country. Noble words in Europe's Golden City won't suddenly make Asia safer. But, if determinedly followed through, they will be the first step to reducing nuclear perils in the decades ahead. 

Disclosure: The Lowy Institute is a partner of the Nuclear Threat Initiative's Nuclear Security Project and an associated research centre for the ICNND.

Photo by Flickr user Pere Ubu, used under a Creative Commons license.