Ten Years after Obama’s Prague Speech

Ten Years after Obama’s Prague Speech

T.P Sreenivasan

Like many other initiatives of Barack Obama, his speech on a vision for a world without nuclear weapons has also been consigned to oblivion by his successor within ten years after his historic speech in April 2009. Speaking in Prague on his first visit to Europe within just 10 weeks after he became President, Obama voiced his deep interest in reducing nuclear arms, including a “commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Though he said that this would not happen in his first term or his second term or even his lifetime, this was the first endorsement by a US President of Rajiv Gandhi’s Action Plan on nuclear disarmament of 1988. He added, significantly, that, as long as nuclear arms existed, the United States would maintain a “safe, secure and effective” nuclear arsenal.

Obama’s speech came in the wake of a movement for “Global Zero” and an OP-Ed by four cold warriors (Former secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, one-time Defense Secretary William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn) to abolish the very weapons they once saw as projections of their nation’s power. But today, the United States and Russia are developing new nuclear capabilities, while the nuclear arms control regime is due to expire in 2021. Not only has Obama’s vision been abandoned but a new nuclear arms race has been unleashed by the US and Russia, with China refusing to join any arms control negotiations. The world today is moving back to the days when the hood of the nuclear cobra menacingly spread over the globe.

Obama’s critics had ridiculed him ten years ago as naïve and idealistic. It was pointed out that achieving a world without nuclear arms would require that nations should conclude that they could protect their vital interests without nuclear arms. New and very intrusive verification mechanisms should be developed and an enforcement mechanism against any cheating state should be instituted. These are not easy to accomplish. But truth remained even at that time that a world in which nuclear arms were reliably and verifiably eliminated would be very much in the U.S. interest.

President Trump has unabashedly embraced nuclear arms race as the pillar of stability of the US and President Putin has claimed that he has the capacity today to attack the United States at the time and place of his choice. Nuclear war today poses the one existential threat to the United States. President Trump realises that in a non-nuclear world, America would enjoy the advantages of geography (the protection afforded by two wide oceans and friendly neighbors in Canada and Mexico), the world’s most powerful conventional forces, and an unrivalled network of allies. The U.S. conventional forces could threaten any would-be adversary menacing America or its allies.

A big problem is, however, in trying to persuade other states to accept a non-nuclear world. The balance of advantages and disadvantages that would make such a world so attractive for the United States would seem very different to other countries, such as Russia. In any event, matters took a different course than Obama had hoped. Following signature of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in April 2010, he called for negotiations with Russia to further reduce strategic nuclear weapons and bring in non-strategic nuclear weapons. That raised the possibility that, for the first time ever, the two countries might negotiate limits on their entire nuclear arsenals.

Today, Russia and the United States have launched major nuclear force modernization programs. These programs focus largely on replacing old systems. Both sides, however, also plan to add new capabilities, including exotic strategic weapons and low-yield nuclear arms. One likely and unfortunate result of all this is that the threshold for employment of nuclear weapons will be lower.

In another important development, the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in February 2019 the withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, (INF Treaty) in what was a long-expected decision by President Donald Trump’s administration. “For years, Russia has violated the terms of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty without remorse,” Pompeo told reporters at the State Department. “It does no good to sign an agreement if a party’s not going to comply with it.”

The INF Treaty, signed in 1987, is a landmark arms control agreement that bars the United States and Russia from having ground-launched cruise missiles with a range between 500 and 5,000 kilometers (310 to 3,100 miles). It was the first arms control agreement to ban a full class of weapons.

While experts and Western officials broadly agree Russia is violating the treaty, they are split on whether the Trump administration’s decision to scrap it is a good idea. NATO supported the U.S. decision. But some experts fear the exit could trigger a new nuclear arms race with Russia and may jeopardize another critical nuclear arms control agreement: the so-called New START treaty. There is also speculation that the US and Russia felt that arms control agreements without China would be meaningless from now on and China is in no mood to join in.

Some developments in civilian nuclear cooperation of India with Russia and the US should be noted. In Oct 2018

Russian state-owned reactor manufacturer Rosatom said in a statement that the two countries want to build six Russian-design nuclear reactors on a new site in India, boost nuclear cooperation in third countries and new nuclear technologies and are considering building nuclear plants together. The firm said Russia would offer to build its third-generation VVER reactor on the new site and would increase the level of participation of Indian companies in the project. A Rosatom official told Reuters the pact is not a firm contract yet, but an agreement to work toward a contract.

Not to be left behind in civil nuclear cooperation, the US has reiterated in a Joint Statement after a key strategic dialogue that the two nations further agreed to strengthen bilateral security and civil nuclear cooperation, including the establishment of six US nuclear power plants in India. This is no more than a pious declaration as India’s Liability Law and the financial problems of Westinghouse have conspired to make it extremely difficult for the US to build nuclear reactors in India. In effect, the benefit of the India-US nuclear deal may benefit Russia rather than the US. In fact, as I had reported after conversations in Washington in 2009, the US was not really interested in nuclear exports to India. Though PM Modi and President Obama had declared in 2014 that the liability issue was resolved, no nuclear trade has taken place between the two countries.

Ten years after the Prague speech of Obama, the nuclear scenario has taken a turn away from the positive indications of the time. A nuclear apocalypse is not on the cards, but we are not anywhere near a world without nuclear weapons.