On April 5, 2009, the newly elected Barack Obama gave a now-famous speech in Prague that focused on the threat of nuclear weapons. In it he gave “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” He stated:
“The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War. … [A]s the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.”
Based largely on this call to action, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later in 2009. Almost exactly a year after the Prague speech—on April 8, 2010—he was back in Prague to sign the New START treaty with Russia, which cut nuclear arsenals and put back in place a strict verification regime that had been dropped by the Bush administration.
A loss of focus
But unfortunately the administration has dropped its focus on what steps the United States can and should take to “put an end to Cold War thinking,” as Mr. Obama said in Prague. To do this, the rhetoric must be matched by actual changes in U.S. nuclear policy and nuclear war plans, namely, in how the U.S. thinks about and plans to use its nuclear arsenal. As Commander-in-Chief, Mr. Obama can make these changes—without Congress, without Russia, and without weakening the deterrent posed by the large number of U.S. nuclear weapons based on submarines.
For example, the President should take U.S. land-based missiles off hair-trigger alert and remove options from U.S. war plans to launch nuclear weapons based on warning of an attack. This option has led to the increased risk of a nuclear launch a disturbing number of times in past decades, and has been called for by high-level military and political officials—including President Obama.
He should also declare a policy of “sole purpose,” that is, make it U.S. policy that the only use for its nuclear weapons is to deter, and if necessary respond to, a nuclear attack. Today, the United States reserves the option to use nuclear weapons first.
He should require that the U.S. not develop new nuclear weapons, but instead refurbish U.S. warheads as they age to keep the U.S. deterrent credible. Currently the administration is proposing a new, untested warhead design that may lead to pressure on a future administration to restart nuclear testing. A resumption of testing would undermine the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty as well as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Go to Japan
It’s time for President Obama to regain his focus on nuclear weapons and take steps in the remaining 18 months of his presidency to reduce Cold War thinking and reduce nuclear risks.
August 6 and 9 will mark the 70th anniversaries of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We and other organizations and experts have sent a letter urging the president to go to Japan for the anniversaries, as a way of drawing attention back to nuclear weapons issues and making clear the president’s intent to take meaningful steps before he leaves office. More than 11,000 activists have joined this call by sending emails to the White House.
Going to Japan would be an important symbolic action. But taking the actions we’ve outlined above would be more than just symbolism—it would make the United States and the world more secure.
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