The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Obama’s Nuclear Legacy

August 16, 2016

President Obama is looking for ways to leave a lasting foreign policy legacy and substantiate his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize based on a vision for a "world without nuclear weapons." This will be a highly challenging task, notes Paul Saunders, that will require the support of allies and rivals.

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Early in the summer, US officials began to suggest that President Barack Obama could use his final months in office to pursue several nuclear weapons initiatives . While some appear more dramatic and others less so, few appear likely to succeed. More important, none appears likely to make the world a better place, as Mr. Obama seems to hope.

Foreign Policy Problems

It is hardly surprising that the president should be looking to improve his decidedly mixed foreign policy legacy before leaving office in January 2017. Mr. Obama promised to get the United States out of Iraq and then failed to deliver by moving too far and too fast toward his objective. He contrasted Afghanistan—the “good” war—to Iraq but has been unable to accomplish much there either. His most significant new military action, US support for and eventually leadership of NATO air strikes in Libya, produced chaos rather than security. His rejection of air strikes or other intervention in Syria has prompted widespread criticism among Democrats as well as Republicans.

No less problematic, President Obama’s ineffective handling of the Middle East has perhaps fatally undermined his “rebalancing” of US policy toward Asia. The United States still has one foot firmly rooted in the region; moreover, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and other ongoing conflicts drain the time and attention of senior government officials who can work only a certain number of hours each day. On top of this, the principal architects and advocates of the rebalancing policy left government long ago, and both its military and its economic components have lost momentum. The administration’s gross underestimation of Asian (and European) interest in China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) did not help either.

Secretary of State John Kerry has responded to the administration’s crumbling foreign policy by launching what looks like a one-man effort at diplomacy with Russia, meeting his counterpart Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at least four times in the last six months and focusing largely on the crisis in Syria. White House officials are privately dismissive of Kerry’s attempts to engage Moscow and appear to expect little from it; this understandable but rather gloomy attitude can easily produce a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nuclear Dreams and Global Realities

Nevertheless, the president and some of his political advisors appear determined to deliver something to substantiate Mr. Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, which the Nobel Committee awarded on the basis of his “ vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons .” Unfortunately, as even the Nobel Committee implicitly acknowledged in presenting the award, the only “work” that President Obama had done to bring about a world without nuclear weapons in October of 2009—seven months after he entered office—was to create “a new climate in international politics,” something that did not last too long.

Moving forward, the Obama administration faces three considerable challenges in pursuing the president’s “Prague agenda,” named for an April 2009 speech in the Czech capital during which the Mr. Obama outlined his goal to do away with nuclear weapons. One is domestic and two are international.

Mr. Obama’s domestic problem is that he has no support from a Republican-controlled Congress either to make significant changes in domestic policy on nuclear weapons or to negotiate major international agreements. Philosophically, most Republicans see nuclear weapons as essential to US national security and dismiss efforts to eliminate them as hopelessly naïve. Politically, many Republicans also resent the Obama administration’s decision to force a Senate vote on the 2010 New START agreement with Russia during a lame-duck session; the White House feared that a larger Republican minority in the incoming Senate (following the November 2010 elections) could block the deal.

This Republican discontent—and broader Republican distrust of President Obama—has pushed the Obama administration toward possible policies that do not require Congressional approval. According to press reports, some ideas include a “no first use” declaration, a UN Security Council resolution banning nuclear tests, or a decision to cancel or delay a new nuclear-capable cruise missile. The latter could violate an understanding with Senate Republicans who voted for the New START treaty based on assurances that the administration would move forward with nuclear modernization plans.

At the international level, President Obama may have a difficult time finding governments interested in his ideas. Many US allies have already expressed strong reservations about a “no first use” declaration, which they argue could undermine America’s extended nuclear deterrence and expose them to greater risk of attack—particularly by newly more assertive nuclear-armed major powers like China and Russia. Pursuing this in the face of significant opposition from US allies would expose the president to further domestic criticism and could even force his former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to distance herself from the idea during the presidential campaign. Since Republican nominee Donald Trump would likely also attack it, the White House would be declaring something that neither of the president’s potential successors would continue—meaning that there would be no conceivable benefit to Mr. Obama’s legacy.

Some of the administration’s other ideas, like a UN Security Council resolution or an extension of the New START treaty, could only work with Moscow’s agreement. This is the second international problem with President Obama’s end-of-term nuclear ambitions.

Russia’s principal concerns today relate to America’s missile defense systems and to conventional prompt global strike weapons that (Moscow argues) could allow Washington to launch a disarming first-strike without using nuclear missiles. Those are the limits the Kremlin would likely seek, and neither is likely to be palatable in the United States. Indeed, moving toward a world without nuclear weapons arguably requires both of these technologies. More generally, the administration’s wider approach to Russia ensures that President Putin is unlikely to be interested in doing Washington any favors.

Looking ahead to President Obama’s last few months in office, he and his advisors may well continue looking for creative new ways to leave a lasting foreign policy legacy. Their biggest challenge may well be that it is almost impossible to build anything enduring alone, without the support of the US Congress or America’s allies and without interested negotiating partners among US rivals. This is an ironic conclusion for a president whose rejection of unilateralism won so much praise in 2009.

    • Senior Fellow in US Foreign Policy at the Center for the National Interest / President, Energy Innovation Reform Project
    • Paul J. Saunders
    • Paul J. Saunders

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