Obama’s Mixed Bag on Nuclear Weapons

By Angela Canterbury and Sarah Tully

President Obama has long talked the talk of reducing the dangers of nuclear weapons, but the administration has been slow to walk the walk in terms of nuclear weapons reductions in recent years.

A recent study by Federation of American Scientists pointed out that in terms of number of stockpiled warheads and percentage of reduction, Obama has done less than all other post-cold war presidents.

President George W. Bush reduced the U.S. nuclear stockpile by 50% during his tenure in office, surprisingly, qualifying him for the prize of greatest nuclear disarmer by percentage since 1945. President Bush senior claims second prize with 41% reduction. President Eisenhower had the greatest escalation of all time with an increase of 2,117%, although the times were certainly different back then and the United States was starting from a small stockpile. Meanwhile, President Obama has retired 507 warheads or a 10% reduction of the total stockpile.

However, it’s important to put these numbers into context.

Throughout his presidency, Obama has reduced our nuclear weapons stockpile each year. While stockpile numbers diminished more drastically under President Clinton and President Bush, President Obama took on the job when the stockpile was the smallest in decades. For instance, President Bush reduced the nuclear weapons stockpile by 5,304; which is 654 more nukes than the total of 4,650 nuclear weapons the U.S. has today.

The Obama administration got a strong start on reducing the threat of nuclear weapons. In his 2009 foreign policy address in Prague president Obama spoke of “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” In 2011, he secured the historic New START Treaty with Russia which necessitates significant nuclear weapons stockpile reductions on both sides and calls for more rigorous verification and inspection protocols.

The three Nuclear Security Summits initiated by President Obama helped to focus world attention on the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials. According to a New York Times editorial, “[s]ince Mr. Obama took office, he has pushed the international community to improve nuclear security.  The result is that 14 countries have eliminated their nuclear materials stockpiles and 15 others removed or disposed of portions of theirs.”

It is also looking more and more (fingers crossed) like the U.S. and its negotiating partners, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council as well as Germany collectively known as P5+1, are close to a historic deal with Iran to prevent it from getting a nuclear bomb.

He’s certainly done well. Just not quite as well as advocates of reducing nuclear weapons stockpile size and importance would have hoped.

For one, Obama’s record on investing in nuclear non-proliferation programs hasn’t been great as of late. According to a July 2014 analysis of the Obama administration’s security spending out of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the administration chose to cut the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) non-proliferation programs by $399 million and increase spending for weapons activities by $534 million. This was the second straight year of reductions in the U.S. non-proliferation budget.

And this reduction in spending to rein-in nuclear weapons has been met by an increase in spending on nuclear weapons.

In order to get the go-ahead from opponents in Congress on the New START Treaty with Russia, Obama agreed to spend $84 billion in nuclear weapons modernization over the next decade, a number the Congressional Budget Office estimates will likely come in at $355 billion with others estimating $1 trillion over 30 years. This is unnecessary spending on modernization that isn’t needed to meet today’s threats.

Nevertheless, the President did try again for nuclear reduction in 2013. But Vladimir Putin, President of the only country besides the U.S. with thousands of nuclear weapons, rejected Obama’s 2013 proposal to cut Russian and U.S. deployed strategic nuclear warheads beyond the 1,550 agreed upon in New START, down to 1,000.

But the deal hasn’t been sealed yet. Ultimately, the President’s legacy on nuclear issues depends on what gets done over his last two years in office.

The President still has a chance to make strides on the nuclear front. Both Russia and the U.S. have to cut their deployed nukes stockpile to 1,550 by 2018 under the New START accord. Obama could accelerate those reductions in the next two years without waiting for 2018. He could also scrap some of the expensive and arguably unnecessary modernization plans like fitting the F-35 for a nuclear weapon and building a new generation of land-based missiles.

Those of us who are working to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons are eager to see Obama do more and fulfill his Prague promise.