Friday 15 Oct 2021 | 01:06 | SYDNEY
Friday 15 Oct 2021 | 01:06 | SYDNEY

Obama UNSC gamble


Rory Medcalf


21 September 2009 15:41

Visionary, bold and long-overdue, or risky diplomatic over-reach: however you see President Obama's UN Security Council summit this Thursday on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, there's little doubt it will make history.

Perhaps it will build on the momentum of Obama's Prague speech, the Wall Street Journal op-eds by US elder statesmen, the ICNND and other initiatives, producing the breakthrough needed for a new consensus on reducing nuclear dangers. Or perhaps, by pushing too hard and too fast for commitments from so many powers on so many contested issues — cuts in nuclear arsenals, changes in nuclear doctrine, the future of atomic energy, how to handle Iran and North Korea — the summit will expose how deep and how many are the fissures of competing national interests.

Some might criticise Obama's draft UNSC resolution as largely a repackaging of accepting wisdom. But even if that is so, there is so much of it in one document that many countries might find at least one clause to balk at.  

It is not as if Washington is not willing to lead by example. The US has made concessions on several related fronts lately, including abandoning ground-based missile defence plans in Europe, accepting bilateral talks with North Korea and signaling, it would seem, quite dramatic reductions in the size of the US nuclear armoury.

But the hint I find most intriguing is the reference in the UNSC resolution to something we have barely heard of since 1995: a US 'negative security assurance'. This is a promise not to use nuclear weapons against NPT member states that do not themselves possess nuclear weapons. That amounts to an undertaking not to threaten North Korea with nuclear arms were it to rejoin the NPT and abjure its own nuclear weapons program. And it could be a step toward a No First Use policy by the US, which would be a radical departure.

The No First Use debate in East Asia is explored my new Lowy Institute Analysis published today, as are the challenges Obama will have in bringing China, Japan and the Koreas on board his quest for nuclear abolition. The piece is based on discussions with regional experts and amounts to something of a reality check on nuclear disarmament in the region. But it also contains a few ideas on ways forward, which I hope in at least some small way will find resonance in New York on Thursday.

Photo by Flickr user riacale, used under a Creative commons license.