Why Obama's stance on nukes makes me sleep better at night.

For a while there, it was looking like we were going to spend the next four years arguing whether Barack Obama’s foreign policy was actually different than George W. Bush’s. As I noted the other day, Robert Kagan, the neoconservative foreign policy adviser to the McCain campaign, has been arguing that “the pretense of radical change has required some sleight of hand.” A few former Bush officials have made similar points. And, last week, the Foreign Policy Initiative--the new joint venture between Kagan and Bill Kristol, the same duo that brought us the pro-Iraq war Project for a New American Century--held a bipartisan love-fest in support of Obama’s approach to Afghanistan. Fortunately, the president’s speech in Prague last weekend on nuclear policy was about as un-Bush-like as you can get--and the pushback from the right has already begun.

The keystone of the Obama speech was his call for a world free of nuclear weapons. That idea is certainly un-conservative in the ideological sense, but it’s not as radical as you might think. For one thing, the United States committed itself to eventual disarmament 40 years ago, when it signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and it reiterated that promise when the treaty was extended in 1995. What’s more, throughout the Cold War, American presidents routinely (and publicly) dreamed of a world unthreatened by atomic apocalypse. Admittedly such calls were usually just rhetorical. (When they weren’t--as when Reagan suggested to Gorbachev at the Rekyjavik summit that we just get rid of the damn things--they sparked fear both at home and among allies who depended on us for their security.) But in the last couple of years, the idea has received growing attention among serious foreign policy thinkers, in no small part because of a widely read op-ed by Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn, and Bill Perry, which argued that establishing disarmament as a goal would, at the very least, facilitate interim steps to protect us against nuclear conflict and nuclear terrorism.

If Obama’s speech seems revolutionary, it’s because the Bush administration actually moved in the opposite direction. For example, Bush’s 2001 Nuclear Posture Review appeared to expand the scenarios under which the United States would use nuclear weapons; and to that end, the administration pursued research on low-yield and earth-penetrating nuclear weapons that ostensibly would have been more “usable” because they would have caused less collateral damage. Bush also rejected treaties, like a ban on nuclear weapons testing and a verifiable halt to the production of any more fissile material for bombs. The point was to preserve maximum flexibility in case we ever wanted to improve or build up the nuclear arsenal and to establish nuclear weapons as legitimate weapons of war--instead of as a deterrent force only to be used as a last resort.

To be fair, President Bush did negotiate a treaty with Russia that greatly reduced the number of strategic weapons each country could deploy. But in some ways the so-called Moscow Treaty, signed in 2002, was the exception that proved the rule. Analysts across the ideological spectrum agreed that we didn’t need the thousands of warheads in our arsenal, but rather than negotiate a treaty, Bush at first insisted on reciprocal unilateral cuts, in order to avoid a legally binding commitment. Under pressure from the Russians, he eventually changed his mind, but the resulting document was a treaty in little more than name. Weighing in at a modest 500 words, it restricted only “deployed” warheads (not those kept in storage), and it did not require the destruction of delivery vehicles. Weirdly, it expires the very day that its limits go into effect (that is, each country has to meet its target numbers by December 31, 2012, but the treaty expires that same day). And it had no verification provisions. That’s why there’s such a rush to negotiate another treaty this year. The 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which did have verification procedures, expires in December.

Which brings us to the particulars of Obama’s plan. Contra Bush, Obama has pledged to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy. (There’s another Nuclear Posture Review slated for this year.) He promised to negotiate a follow-on to START, not the more permissive Moscow Treaty. He said he would negotiate a verifiable halt to the production of fissile material for weapons purposes. He also pledged to “immediately and aggressively” seek Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which President Clinton signed in 1996* but which the Senate rejected two years later amid fears (stoked by right-wing commentators) that it wasn’t verifiable and that our nuclear arsenal would decay if we didn’t periodically explode a warhead. Even though the United States hasn’t tested a nuclear weapon since 1992, many non-nuclear countries see CTBT ratification as a bellwether of U.S. nuclear intentions. And it’s significant that, in a year when Obama is facing so many challenging fights on the Hill, he’s willing to expend capital on a measure whose previous defeat was a major blow to Democratic stewardship of foreign policy.

In some ways, then, what was most significant about Obama’s speech was less the call for disarmament than his demonstrable commitment to arms control and cooperative security. He’s not just eschewing nuclear testing and the production of fissile material--Bush did those things as well--he’s doing it so as to strengthen the nonproliferation regime. As I wrote in my book (which is now out in paperback, by the way), the chief problem with the Bush administration was its tendency to see the world in terms of us-versus-them, which led it to oppose negotiations and certainly treaties (especially arms control treaties). Manichaean thinkers like Bush see security as a matter of either isolation or dominance. By contrast, Obama understands that transnational threats require transnational responses. No matter how strong you are, you’re not going to be able to protect yourself by yourself. You need the cooperation of others, and that may entail restricting your behavior. Obama’s speech was as clear a statement of this worldview as we’ve seen.

To conservatives, of course, this approach--and particularly any call for disarmament--is woefully na?ve. Bill Kristol, trotting out his analogy-for-all-seasons, noted that we did have a world without nuclear weapons … in 1939. His point is that we could only disarm if we no longer had enemies, and that in a dangerous world where states like North Korea launch missiles over Japan, they serve a valuable purpose. Well, yes, nuclear weapons deter the use of nuclear weapons by our enemies, but Kristol doesn’t seem to realize that if we could verifiably eliminate them altogether, we’d be in a much better military position than we are now. After all, the only existential threat to the United States is a nuclear assault, and given our overwhelming conventional might, our relative military power would be far greater in a nuclear-free world. Disarmament is not simply a utopian fantasy; it’s a recipe--albeit an extremely challenging one to implement--for greater security in a proliferated world.

Kristol seems to be suggesting that if we’d had nukes in 1939 we might have avoided World War II. Perhaps. But we’re never going to be the only power with nuclear weapons again, and he’d do well to remember that between 1945 and 1949, when the United States did have a nuclear monopoly, the Soviets installed puppet regimes in Eastern Europe, China fell to the communists, and North Korea invaded the South. Nuclear weapons were a poor guarantor of American security. On some level, Kristol and others must realize this, or they wouldn’t be so concerned about a nuclear Iran.

Of course, the prospect of a nuclear Iran is frightening, and Obama’s quest for disarmament isn‘t going to change that--at least not directly. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad obviously doesn’t care if we ratify the CTBT. But European countries do, and they can help squeeze Tehran. Obama’s arms control efforts may not engender warmth and comity in rogue state capitals, but they can build capital among those states whose help we need while reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism. Proliferation is a problem best solved through the strength provided by an international regime. One could dismiss this idea as starry-eyed one-worldism, but remember: We’ve tried it the other way over the last eight years. And look where we are.

J. Peter Scoblic, TNR’s executive editor, is the author of U.S. vs. Them: Conservatism in the Age of Nuclear Terror, which was just released in paperback.

*The piece originally said that Clinton signed the CTBT in 1997.

By J. Peter Scoblic