Nonproliferation

Obama’s Nonproliferation Record Earns Failing Grade

President Obama just wrapped up his last Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., where he gathered more than 50 world leaders. Much of the time was spent praising what the administration hails as accomplishments towards securing the world’s nuclear weapons and achieving the President’s ambitious nuclear disarmament agenda as laid out in his 2009 speech in Prague. But, if one actually looks at the risks of nuclear war as well as the likelihood of proliferation at the start of the President’s term compared to now, the Obama’s nonproliferation record earns a failing grade. This becomes clear when one reflects on the Russian nuclear posture, the much ballyhooed Iran deal, and the situation in nuclear North Korea.

First, Russia, the country with which both then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama were determined to reset relations, was a no-show at the Nuclear Summit. Not only is U.S.-Russia relations far worse now than it was even before President Obama assumed office, but under Putin Russia has significantly amped up its nuclear brinksmanship and is devoting massive resources to its nuclear modernization program. Lowering the number of nuclear weapons in both the U.S. and Russian arsenals was a foundational component of the Russia reset. Although the President did secure the New START Treaty, which lowered the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons limit to 1,550 by February 2018, Bill Gertz reported in the midst of the Summit that Russia has doubled its nuclear warhead output, putting it beyond the limits of the New START Treaty. Additionally, in early 2015 Russia ended the twenty-year nuclear alliance called the cooperative threat reduction programs, which allowed the United States to assist in protecting Russia’s largest stockpiles of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium from being stolen or sold on the black market. Plus, administration officials continue to try to move Russia back into compliance with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which it remains in violation.

Second, the Obama administration began its negotiations with the P5+1 with an ambitions set of criteria for preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapons capability, and the deal that came out of negotiations did not meet the criteria. For example, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) does not have “anytime, anywhere” access to Iran’s nuclear facilities while Iran is permitted to enrich to some degree and to continue work on the highly challenging component of its nuclear weapons program—its missiles. Plus, Iran was not required to come clean on the past military dimensions of its nuclear program, which precludes inspectors from having a clear baseline from which to compare Iran’s current nuclear activity. At the Summit the President said that “even if Iran cheats”, a nuclear weapons capability will still take a year to achieve. It is as if the President knows Iran will cheat, except now, after a year with that $100 + billion in sanctions relief, Iran will have a much improved missile program, a stronger military, greater regional power, and international legitimacy, even while it continues its support for terror.

Third, on the heels of North Korea’s fourth nuclear weapons test, it successfully tested a three-stage missile in the form of a satellite launch. After the U.N. passed additional sanctions, Pyongyang responded by threatening to launch a nuclear attack against the United States and our ally, South Korea. The current head of North Command, Admiral William Gortney, testified before Congress that it is possible North Korea does have the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon across the entire continental United States, although we have not seen it overcome certain technology challenges. During the time President Obama has been at the helm, a nuclear attack on our South Korean allies has become more, not less, likely, and the Hermit Kingdom is more capable at making good on its threats to hit the United States with a nuclear weapon. Because Iran has been one of North Korea’s primary missile clients, and because the UNSCR that accompanied the Iran deal relaxes restrictions on Iran’s missile program, we should expect proliferation of at least missiles and related technology to Iran.

Additionally, during the press conference that closed out the Nuclear Summit, President Obama had harsh words for Donald Trump’s categorically foolish suggestion that South Korea and Japan should acquire their own nuclear weapons, and rightfully so. But because of President Obama’s failed nonproliferation agenda, South Korea and Japan, in addition to Gulf Countries fearing Iranian hegemony and eventual nuclear weapons, are more, not less, tempted to acquire their own nuclear weapons. President Obama has made Donald Trump’s suggestion a real possibility, and the world is far more unstable while nuclear war more plausible.

Rebeccah Heinrichs is a contributing editor for Providence and a fellow at the Hudson Institute, where she provides research and commentary on a range of security issues and specializes in deterrence and counter-proliferation. You can follow Rebeccah on Twitter at @RLHeinrichs.

Photo Credit: During the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April 2010. By Korea.net via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • In reality, it is technology that makes proliferation inevitable. And thus survival requires that we take a new approach to resolving conflicts now before prolifieration becomes more signficiant than it currently is.