This guest contribution from Heather Wokusch, a writer, educator, and activist based in Vienna, Austria, recounts the discussion at the 6th Prague Agenda Conference in early December 2016, and the somber mood of the event. The event took place in the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, but prior to the inauguration. “Collective handwringing about the implications of a Trump presidency served as backdrop for the conference,” she writes, “with participants checking their phones for Trump news much as one would for storm updates.”
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In 2009, President Obama stood at Hradčany Square in Prague and told a crowd of 20,000 that “the United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons.” The nuclear-policy agenda from that speech worried deterrence advocates but inspired those seeking hope and change for disarmament. Even the Norwegian Nobel Committee cited Obama’s Prague nuclear agenda in awarding him the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.
But what has Obama’s 2009 vision actually achieved? That question was recently debated at the 6th Prague Agenda Conference, which showcased an impressive roster of international academics, diplomats and activists at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.
While the conference yielded no clear consensus on Obama’s record, it provided insights into upcoming hot-button issues.
During panel discussions and coffee breaks, Obama’s achievements were often qualified with a ‘but.’ Yes, the US had reduced its warhead stockpile from 2009 to 2014, but only by 7%. Yes, the New START treaty was important, but US-Russia tensions continue to heighten amid an accelerating arms race. Yes, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review reduced the role of nuclear weapons in US national security strategy but failed to include a ‘no first use’ pledge.
Obama’s Nuclear Security Summits also received mixed reviews. Supporters insisted that the Summits had reduced the risk posed by nuclear terrorism by enabling heads of state and security officials to cooperate on nuclear-material safety. Detractors emphasized that only civilian material had been included.
While the disarmament camp criticized Obama’s plan to spend one trillion dollars on nuclear weapons/infrastructure, others insisted that the modernization program was integral for deterrence.
Few argued that the Non-Proliferation Treaty had been strengthened, and clearly, US ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty remains elusive.
In short, while there were differing views about Obama’s record, there was consensus that global challenges regarding nuclear weapons have arguably worsened.
The Iran deal
Predictable fault lines drew around the Iran deal, with critics complaining that the country’s uranium enrichment set a dangerous precedent, sunset clauses merely bought time, and the lack of US domestic political support was ultimately a deal-breaker.
But Laura Rockwood, Executive Director of the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP), argued that the agreement had averted a military intervention and that talk of rollback “gives fire to those in Iran who claim the US was not serious in negotiating this deal.”
President-elect Trump’s inner circle appears to be having a similar debate. While Trump has said that dismantling the agreement is his “number one priority,” some of the anti-Iranian hawks in his cabinet have strongly defended the nuclear deal.
In short, ditching or even renegotiating the multilateral agreement may be unlikely during the next administration, but heightened US-Iran tensions can be expected.
Another nonproliferation flashpoint was North Korea (the DPRK).
Jessica Cox of the US State Department argued for continuing the existing sanctions regime, but others pointed to evidence that the “strategic patience” policy of the Obama Administration had failed. Calls for China to rein in the DPRK, possibly via secondary sanctions, were countered with doubts about prospects for further cuts and appeals for constructive multilateral talks.
Meanwhile, Trump’s approach to the DPRK’s nuclear ambitions – if he has a coherent approach – remains hard to decipher from 3 am tweets and cryptic comments. He has threatened trade consequences if Beijing does not take action against Pyongyang (even suggesting that China make leader Kim Jong Un “disappear in one form or another very quickly”). In response, Beijing has elaborated its contributions, such as the Six Party Talks.
But the DPRK’s nuclear program continues to defy. And fluidity in the South Korean political situation doesn’t help.
It is worth remembering, however, that among nuclear-armed states, the DPRK was alone in supporting the UNGA resolution to convene ban negotiations in 2017. Time will tell if Trump actually makes good on his campaign promise to engage Kim in dialogue.
Concerns were raised about strategic stability between the US and Russia.
Matthew Kroenig of Georgetown University questioned the impact of the New START agreement, within the context of Russia’s “making explicit threats in a way that hasn’t happened since the Cold War, violating testing agreements, and getting weapons well above the agreed number, raising questions about whether it will meet its obligations before 2018.”
There were differing opinions about Russia’s absence during the March 2016 Nuclear Security Summit. While some saw impudence towards Obama, others chalked it up to summit fatigue.
The warm rhetoric between Russian President Putin and US President-elect Trump was discussed in coffee breaks – including Trump’s appointment of KT McFarland as Deputy National Security Adviser. McFarland has advocated for bombing Iran and is noted for a 2013 opinion piece entitled, “Putin is the one who really deserves that Nobel Peace Prize.”
While there was disagreement among conference participants regarding next steps to US-Russia strategic stability, there was consensus that nuclear relations had entered terra incognita.
Shifting rules and norms
Collective handwringing about the implications of a Trump presidency served as backdrop for the conference, with participants checking their phones for Trump news much as one would for storm updates.
As Petr Kratochvíl, Director of the Institute of International Relations Prague, noted: “2009 seems to be from a different world… there was hope that change would come, and it would be positive and progressive. Now change seems to be certain but not many of us have much hope that it will be positive or for that matter progressive.”
Whether long-held rules and norms around nuclear weapons still exist or are even desirable was hotly debated. Sadia Tasleem of Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad saw “digital anarchy” as threatening existing paradigms but with the upside of enabling the creation of global networks. Benjamin Tallis of the Institute of International Relations in Prague emphasized the importance yet difficulty of scholars engaging in a “post-truth world” that claims to be “increasingly sick of experts.”
Many doubted whether the “shared values and shared history” mentioned in Obama’s Prague speech even existed. However, Anatoly Reshetnikov of the Central European University in Budapest suggested that protracted disputes could be ended by efforts to converge interpretations of the past, adding that “framing something as a threat, a provocation, a crisis” serves mainly to reinforce fear and confrontation.
Interestingly, whereas Obama’s Prague speech outlined a litany of social challenges that sound a lot like today’s Sustainable Development Goals (jobs, changing climate, poverty, clean energy, etc.), conference speakers seldom connected nuclear weapons to broader social issues, even within the contemporary context of hemorrhaging modernization budgets.
It was agreed that changes in the nuclear landscape require more sophisticated responses. What comprises those changes or responses, however, was contentious.
Dieter Fleck, Rapporteur of the ILA Committee on Nuclear Weapons, Non-Proliferation and Contemporary International Law, said that part of Obama’s 2009 speech still rang true: “the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.” Fleck called for a new diplomatic approach to improve international cooperation and to “seriously review defense doctrines and structures that may be no longer effective to secure international peace and security.”
But what might that new approach entail? Fleck advocated for disarmament discussions: “There are so many instances where great powers didn’t talk to each other in the past that now we have to change that. Nuclear weapons are too important and disastrous to just leave the issue unchecked… The threat is bigger than deterrence.” Angela Kane, Senior Fellow at VCDNP and former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, proposed more multilateralism across the board.
Tallis likened the “emerging global political disorder” to a Gramscian moment of death or interregnum in which the old order is dying but the new order cannot yet be born.
Of course, resolution L.41 was seen as part of the changing environment.
Detractors echoed familiar arguments: a ban would undermine existing nonproliferation and disarmament regimes, would not be verifiable, and would not lead to a reduction in nuclear weapons. Some panelists worried about dangers arising if a resulting ban had gaps.
Kane countered that while L.41 would not deliver disarmament by itself, it was a milestone and “a starting point to pursue negotiations with good faith on effective measures.” She framed L.41’s widespread support within the context of rising impatience regarding lack of action by the P5 in the NPT.
VCDNP’s Rockwood noted a distinct shift in the balance of power between the deterrence approach and the disarmament community. During a panel, she suggested that it was unwise to continue referring to a possible ban treaty as a threat to the NPT… or risk needing to retract later.
Finally, Fleck called for less controversial measures of the resolution (related to transparency, risk elimination, etc.) to be emphasized “to promote confidence building on issues still severely contested.”
Perhaps the strongest statement at the 6th Prague Agenda Conference was the relatively weak attendance. Despite the solid lineup of speakers along with the gracious hospitality of the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Institute of International Relations, most seats remained empty.
Which forces us to confront the question: Will Obama’s Prague Agenda be seen as perpetually significant, a fading historical artifact, or just unfulfilled hopes and dreams?
As another Nobel Laureate observed, the times they are a-changin’. But Obama’s description of the Prague Spring might apply to the potential of today’s energized movement:
It showed us that peaceful protest could shake the foundations of an empire, and expose the emptiness of an ideology. It showed us that small countries can play a pivotal role in world events, and that young people can lead the way in overcoming old conflicts. And it proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon.