Sounds of Silence

Barack Obama's two speeches opening his second term--the Inaugural and the State of the Union--contained only the barest of mentions about reducing nuclear weapons and dealing with the legacies of the Cold War that still haunt us. Perhaps now is not the time. Certainly, these efforts take more than just a whim. They take enormous political willpower, and not only in the United States, but also in Russia and elsewhere.

Hopefully, the coming months will clarify whether Russian President Vladimir Putin has any interest at all in negotiations. Right now, the signs are not very good.

At the same time, if the president doesn't talk about an issue, if he doesn't build political support, then it will fade. That is why his recent speeches were disappointing. Obama has a lot he could talk about, even if the conditions are not particularly auspicious for negotiation. If he stops talking about nuclear issues, then support will diminish in Congress and in public opinion, and he won't have the political foundation for success if and when conditions change.

In March, 2011, the president's national security advisor, Thomas Donilon, delivered a keynote address at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference. At that point, two years had elapsed since Obama outlined his vision of a world without nuclear weapons in Prague. Those two years were "exceedingly productive," Donilon declared.

"Despite this progress, however, we will not rest on our laurels. And I can tell you with certainty that President Obama won’t. Despite the many pressing global challenges that are competing for his attention, he has directed us to keep up the momentum and lay the ground work for additional progress."

He added:

"… we’re making preparations for the next round of nuclear reductions. Under the President’s direction, the Department of Defense will review our strategic requirements and develop options for further reductions in our current nuclear stockpile, which stands at approximately 5,000 warheads, including both deployed and reserve warheads. To develop these options for further reductions, we need to consider several factors, such as potential changes in targeting requirements and alert postures that are required for effective deterrence."


"Once it is complete, this review of our strategic requirements will help shape our negotiating approach to the next agreement with Russia, which we believe should include both non-deployed and nonstrategic nuclear weapons. A priority will be to address Russian tactical nuclear weapons. We will work with our NATO allies to shape an approach to reduce the role and number of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, as Russia takes reciprocal measures to reduce its nonstrategic forces and relocates its nonstrategic forces away from NATO’s borders."

"In advance of a new treaty limiting tactical nuclear weapons, we also plan to consult with our allies on reciprocal actions that could be taken on the basis of parallel steps by each side. As a first step, we would like to increase transparency on a reciprocal basis concerning the numbers, locations, and types of nonstrategic forces in Europe. We will consult with our European allies and invite Russia to join with us to develop this initiative."

"Achieving the next round of strategic arms reductions will be an ambitious task that will take time to complete. No previous arms control agreement has included provisions to limit and monitor non-deployed warheads or tactical warheads. To do so will require more demanding approaches to verification. We are ready to begin discussions soon with Russia on transparency and confidence building measures that could provide the basis for creative verification measures in the next round of U.S.-Russia nuclear arms reductions."

Since Donilon's speech, a lot of work has been completed in government, including the military. Planning, doctrine, targeting -- all of it has been reviewed and discussed. The bottom line is that further reductions could be negotiated without weakening our nuclear deterrent.  Supposedly there are memos which are almost ready for the president's approval -- or perhaps have already been signed. But the president has said nothing about it. All this work has been in secret. And there it rests.

If Obama didn't want to talk about that, he might have mentioned nuclear testing. The latest blast by North Korea is a good time to remind people that the rest of the world has stopped nuclear testing. Obama might have delivered a pitch for Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was signed by the United States but rejected by the chamber in 1999. At the time, there were doubts about whether it was possible to understand the behavior of nuclear weapons without periodically blowing them up. Now, we know, thanks to the stockpile stewardship effort and computational physics, that it is possible. The president has pledged his support for the treaty in the past, and the United States is not testing. But in his recent speeches, Obama didn't mention the treaty once. Why?

If the president could not bring himself to discuss testing, what about taking land-based nuclear-armed missiles off launch-ready alert? This is one place where risky Cold War practices could use some updating. Candidate Obama promised to do this in 2008--a step best taken jointly with Russia. The president seems to have abandoned the idea in 2010 with the Nuclear Posture Review. But it remains important. A detailed and careful study has just been published by United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, authored by Hans M. Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists and Matthew McKinzie of the Natural Resources Defense Council. You can find it here

By the way, would someone please slip this into the president's briefcase to remind him of what a good idea he once had? And stopped talking about?


Getty Images/John W. Adkisson