Michael KreponSecond Term Blues

There have been only two Democratic Presidents since FDR who have been elected to serve two full terms. On nuclear issues, Barack Obama seems to be following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton.

President Clinton achieved considerable success in reducing nuclear dangers during his first term, but lost momentum during his second. In his first term, Mr. Clinton midwifed the denuclearization of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, thereby strengthening the Nonproliferation Treaty and jump-starting the implementation of two Strategic Arms Reduction treaties negotiated by his predecessor, George H.W. Bush. President Clinton expanded the ambit of Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reductions programs in the former Soviet Union, and completed negotiations on the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Not bad for four years of hard work.

In contrast, President Clinton’s record on nuclear matters was very spotty during his second term. He successfully defused a serious crisis between India and Pakistan, and he focused briefly on ratifying the Test Ban Treaty, without success. But mostly, his attention was focused elsewhere.

President Obama also attended to nuclear issues during his first term, but significant efforts now yield smaller returns. His first term’s nuclear agenda was dominated by calendar-driven events – the expiration of verifiable strategic arms reduction arrangements with Moscow and the need for a successful Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference – along with the initiation of summitry on nuclear security. New START was modest because the Kremlin balked at deeper cuts. The United States has now essentially joined Russia in meeting mandated reductions five years ahead of schedule. Even so, the Obama administration was obliged to endorse pricey commitments to refurbish what is now known as the nuclear enterprise.

New START’s most important accomplishment has been to reestablish a process of verifiable US-Russian reductions. Its monitoring provisions are good for ten years and can be extended for another five. A new treaty isn’t required during this timeframe, if the parties can agree to employ New START’s monitoring provisions for deeper cuts.

Mr. Obama’s speech in Berlin proposed up to one-third reductions to approximately 1,000 warheads on deployed strategic forces. While the number 1,000 is neither hard nor fast, since warheads can be uploaded on launchers if the necessity arises, the notion of a one-third reduction is nothing to sneeze at: the last time the US nuclear arsenal exceeded this number was in 1953. The number 1,000 has also been an important way-station in ambitious plans for phased nuclear reductions, and getting used to a smaller number makes deeper cuts easier to accept down the road.

Mr. Obama’s second term nuclear agenda now seems hemmed in. He doesn’t have a far-sighted, willing partner in the Kremlin. No Republican leader on Capitol Hill has championed further cuts in nuclear arsenals. Mid-sized inventories are growing in China, India and Pakistan. The Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs are stubbornly resistant to external constraints. The next NPT Review Conference could get ugly. And promises made to the Congress in conjunction with New START ratification can’t be kept with ballooning costs, questionable rationales, and budget constraints.

Under these circumstances, the White House has proposed parallel steps to maintain momentum for strategic arms reductions. In doing so, the Obama administration risks getting stiffed by the Kremlin, making the option of unilateral reductions subject to a sharper criticism on Capitol Hill.

Domestic US critics of nuclear arms reductions have the power to block treaties and brake momentum, but not to reverse course. Deeper cuts may well be mandated by budget cuts and the Pentagon’s preferences, if not by treaty provisions. The George W. Bush administration was notably disinterested in treaties, preferring instead to downsize the US nuclear arsenal as needed. Democrats may well be headed in the same direction.

Other issues have risen to the top of President Obama’s agenda – items that offer either a greater return on diplomatic investment, or hellish problems that are growing and refuse to be set aside. One example: His speech in Berlin devoted more time and a greater sense of urgency to climate change than to nuclear arms reductions. Unlike his proposed nuclear reductions, the President intends to address reductions in carbon emissions by unilateral measures and without further delay. Nuclear danger was the quintessential threat of the 20th Century. Is climate change the quintessential threat of the 21st Century? At present, killer storms figure more in the public’s consciousness than mushroom clouds.


  1. Tom Sauer (History)

    I happen to disagree. Obama in his first term did much more on nuclear disarmament than Clinton did during his two terms.

    The CWC was negotiated and signed under Bush,Sr, not Clinton.
    The CTBT was negotiated under Clinton, but as a compromise promising more money to the nuclear labs than during the Cold War. His failure to get the Senate ratify the CTBT is probably Clinton’s biggest foreign policy failure.
    Clinton neither succeeded in negotiating and ratifying one nuclear reduction agreement with Russia. Obama in contrast succeeded in convincing Russia and more than 10 Republicans to ratify New START, something that many believed was impossible.
    In comparison with the Nuclear Posture Review in 1993-1994 is the Obama’s NPR, though not revolutionary, an achievement. Clinton’s NPR was a disaster. Not one new idea came out of it. (I wrote my PhD on this topic, published by I.B. Tauris, London, in 2005 under the title ‘Nuclear Inertia. US Nuclear Weapons Policy after the Cold War’). Obama’s NPR succeeded to push through the idea of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US defense policy, and also changed the declaratory policy to a certain extent.

    The biggest achievement of President Obama, however, is his Prague speech, his first speech abroad that was entirely focussed on the idea of nuclear elimination. It gave a boost to those who kept the flame alive of nuclear disarmament during the 1990’s and beyond. It is not by chance that the renewed interest in the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons (by the International Red Cross, and states like Norway, Switzerland, and Austria) originated from that period.

    Of course, Obama could have done much more, starting with the withdrawal of the tacnukes from Europe. But the fact that he again mentioned nuclear disarmament in his Berlin’speech means that he will try to do more in this domain the coming years, probably also on the tacnukes. By the way, the US does not need to wait to withdraw the tacnukes from Europe until Putin agrees. In contrast to the US, Russia has no nuclear weapons stationed on other countries’ soil. Withdraw them first and start talking about tacnukes with Russia thereafter. It would bring down the number of nuclear weapon states from 14 to 9, and save the 2015 NPT review conference.

    • krepon (History)

      Thanks for the correction. Clinton secured the Senate’s consent to ratification of the CWC. He was unable to achieve the same result for the CTBT. Perhaps Republican Senators will allow Democratic Presidents one treaty and no more.

  2. SQ (History)

    How timely. Here’s the latest New START fact sheet with aggregate numbers:


    Of course, it’s a bit misleading to compare 1,000 deployed strategic warheads under New START to the size of the entire arsenal at any point. So much is excluded. We focus too much on these headline numbers when the counting rules shift from one treaty to the next. Some guy named Jeffrey Lewis made this point in connection with the cuts recently proposed in Berlin:


    • George William Herbert (History)

      Just noticed this in the B-2 stats …

      10 counted as deployed, 10 as non-deployed, 1 as test.

      That seems to still count the Spirit of Kansas (crashed and burned 2008-02-32 at Andersen AFB in Guam) as either non-deployed or test. As far as I know, it was a total hull loss… ?

    • SQ (History)

      I’m going with “non-deployed.”

  3. Bradley Laing (History)


    —U.S. and South Korean nuclear issues negotiation related document.

  4. Bradley Laing (History)

    —I do not expect you to use this in this comments thread, I just want to send you some ideas.

    48th anniversary of first atomic test is comming up this month.

    1.) How many people of “the Manhattan Project” are alive to see the 48th anniversary?

    2.) what kind of influence did the less famous “Manhattan Project” people have over the last 48 years? Teller, Opppenhiemer, and other big names had a lot of influence. But how were the rest viewed?

    3.) Is the publics idea of the amount of their influence different than what the evidence points to? (I include big names and small names in this question.)

    4.) Could someone make a map of the world, and color code countries with one color for “heroes,” another for “indifferent” a third for “villians,” and a fourth for “changed attitude since End of Cold War, see notes section?”

    5.) I think Col. Paul Tibbets, in the 1960s, was forced out of some peacetime position involving India because of his role in bombing Hiroshima.

    I’m sure that *some* people in India, when the UK got the Atomic bomb, must have shivered, and said “The people who had no business colonising India and denying India independence have the Atomic Bomb! What a horrible tragedy!”

    Yet is that how they viewed the Manhattan Project? As an extension of British Colonialism, the version that they knew in their own lifetime?

  5. Bradley Laing (History)

    Clarification: could someone make a color coded map of the world showing how the Manhattan Project members were viewed, as heros, villians, unimportant, or changed attitude since the end of the cold war?

    • SQ (History)

      Maybe it varies by Manhattan Project members, right? I don’t think anyone has polled Indians or Australians or Lebanese on Oppenheimer vs. Teller just yet…

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