The Corner

Road to Nuclear Zero a Dead End

Two years ago tomorrow, President Obama used a speech in Prague to outline his vision of a world without nuclear weapons and his strategy for countering the spread of nuclear arms to rogue states or terrorists.

With each step the United States takes toward nuclear disarmament, the Obama administration posits, we’ll inspire other nations to give up their nukes and join the fight against proliferation — leading the world to nuclear “zero.”

So is the Obama approach working?

A year after his April 5, 2009 speech in Prague, Obama held a two-day nuclear-security summit in Washington that representatives of nearly 50 nations attended. Certainly, talking about securing nuclear weapons is a good idea. But the summit failed to address sufficiently the biggest proliferation threats: Iran, North Korea, Syria, Pakistan, Burma, China, and Russia.

It’s not a mystery why the Obama administration got no traction. Different countries have different national interests and perceptions of threats.

These differences were underscored shortly after the conference, when both Turkey and Brazil voted against imposing a fourth round of limited sanctions on Iran by the United Nations Security Council. As an additional poke in the eye, they declared their opposition to any future U.N. sanctions.

Obama’s next major move was pushing New START, his prized bilateral arms-control agreement with Russia. Last December, he was able to win Senate ratification of the treaty by a 71– 26 vote. Unfortunately, the pact does nothing to prevent nuclear proliferation — or to take the Russians down the “road to zero.”

Careful examination reveals that New START allows the Russians to increase nuclear stockpiles. It also does nothing to limit Russia’s large short-range nuclear arsenal — the class of nuclear weapons most likely to be used by terrorists, and sought by them as a sacred mission.

Worse, cuts by the United States actually may increase the amount of nuclear weapons worldwide for two reasons:

First, states protected under the U.S. nuclear umbrella (Japan, South Korea, and Turkey, for instance) will become uneasy. They will consider their own nuclear options out of growing fears about their vulnerability.

Second, adversaries and rising powers such as China will be encouraged to compete for parity with America in nukes, something they didn’t seriously contemplate in the past.

What’s more, despite the Obama administration’s claims, the U.S. track record is poor in reducing global nuclear ambitions through arms control.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has eliminated more than 80 percent of its nuclear weapons. In that same period, Pakistan, India, and North Korea all tested nukes and built stockpiles. Iran vigorously pursued its nuclear-weapons program while Russia and China modernized their arsenals.

As Obama focused on Cold War–style arms-control agreements with Russia, these trends only grew worse.

India successfully tested two nuclear-capable, short-range ballistic missiles. Pakistan quickly followed suit. This dangerous dynamic illustrates that other countries aren’t likely to give up their arsenals unless regional conflicts are resolved and their security guaranteed by other means. Underscoring the point, the world just learned that Pakistan doubled its nuclear arsenal in a few years.

No nation shows any sign of wanting to abandon nuclear weapons. Iran continues to move steadily toward nuclear capability and could have a nuke within two years, the CIA estimates. A nuclear Iran could cause a cascade of proliferation in the Middle East — a nightmare scenario. The sand in the hour glass is falling: In the past four years, no fewer than 14 countries in the region have declared their intention to pursue civilian nuclear programs — efforts viewed as hedges against a nuclear Iran.

North Korea, true to form, presses on with nuke and missile programs. Syria continues to violate its nonproliferation obligations by obstructing inspections of suspected sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency. And, although sanctions force Iran and North Korea to pay a political price for their defiance, sanctions aren’t enough to halt their nuke programs.

Now, the Obama administration wants to take the next step toward a world without nuclear weapons by negotiating a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, a global pact to prevent signatory countries from producing new material for nukes. Pakistan, intent on building its arsenal, stands in the way of negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament.

It is unlikely Islamabad would sign the treaty or walk down the “road to zero” in the near future, and Tehran likely will have the bomb soon.

Given this landscape, the administration should consider the unintended consequences of its push for nuclear disarmament and rethink its approach. Two years since Prague, time is running out.

— Owen Graham is research coordinator for national security and foreign policy in The Heritage Foundation’s Davis Institute for International Studies, where Michaela Bendikova is research assistant for missile defense.

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