Obama, the UN, and the Bomb: Six Takeaway Points
In the nuclear security business, it's a good day when nothing goes wrong. It's a great day when something goes right. The latter can be few and far between, but this week we saw two great days back-to-back during President Obama's time at the UN.
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On Wednesday, Obama used his time in front of the General Assembly to name "four pillars that are fundamental to the future that we want for our children." Non-proliferation and disarmament were the first pillar, and Obama was clear to point out that the U.S. was embracing its responsibility to "keep our end of the bargain" on nuclear security. In other words, the days of "do as we say, not as we do" are over.
On Thursday, Obama became the first U.S. President ever to chair a summit-level meeting of the Security Council -- meaning that the members were represented by their heads of state. That meeting generated unanimous approval for Resolution 1887, which would provide a framework for cracking down on countries -- such as Iran -- whose nuclear programs threaten international stability. We'll see the results of this strategy almost immediately, as a statement about a recently-uncovered covert Iranian nuclear facility is expected later today.
Here's the takeaway from New York:
1) Security isn't just the responsibility of world leaders. There are only a couple dozen people on the planet who can have a direct impact on nuclear policy. But, as President Obama stated, "real change can only come through the people" that world leaders represent. With partisan domestic issues tearing the American public apart at home, achieving nuclear security is something we all can and should agree on. That's why (prepare for blatant self-promoting plug) I'm delighted that the Two Futures Project -- a movement to raise up an authentically Christian witness on nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 era -- has just launched a twelve-city speaking tour to inform the faithful nationwide about the challenges and opportunities we face.
2) The security benefits of nonproliferation require movement on disarmament. In the post-Cold War era this is critical, because the treaty obligations that prevent non-nuclear nations from building new nuclear weapons (nonproliferation) are paired with the nuclear powers' good faith commitment to pursue the reduction and elimination of their own arsenals (disarmament). For this reason, a two-tiered status quo of nuclear haves and have-nots cannot be sustained over the long term. If we want to prevent future nuclear breakout, the nuclear powers have got to be serious about leading by example. As Sam Nunn says, we're toeing the line between "cooperation and catastrophe."
3) U.S. leadership is necessary but not sufficient to achieve nuclear security. President Obama offered what one news outlet called "put up or shut up" remarks to the General Assembly, saying, "those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world's problems alone." As the world's only superpower, the U.S. is the only country that can plausibly blaze the trail to a nuclear weapons-free world. But we can't go it alone -- leadership means that others are following along. In the wake of the failed neoconservative experiment in global domination, we're now seeing what it looks like to be a responsible superpower: embracing our power and wealth and not apologizing for our national interests, while also recognizing, as Obama said, that "in an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero sum game." The gains achieved at the UN -- including a verbal agreement from Russia to take a harder line on Iranian flaunting of international law -- are critical to addressing the most immediate crises of nuclear breakout.
4) Progress requires a bold long-term vision and concrete short-term steps. This link between the vision of a nuclear weapons-free world and threat-reduction measures was articulated by George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn in their landmark Wall Street Journal op-ed calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons. President Obama's time at the UN proved what they posited: that the vision gives urgency and cohesion to the steps, and the steps give reality and teeth to the vision. This fact was demonstrated by the unanimous vote in the Security Council to crack down on potential nuclear breakout, and to make a priority of securing nuclear material from the hands of terrorists. And Secretary Clinton's address to a conference on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was a demonstration of the administration's commitment to "ban the bang" once and for all.
5) A world free of nuclear weapons is a safer world. Opponents of the Obama/Reagan vision of a nuclear-free world decry it as risky, without ever acknowledging the risks of the status quo. The fact is that it is more dangerous to maintain Cold War nuclear postures than it is to pursue responsible, verifiable, multilateral disarmament. In particular, opponents have raised the specter of extended deterrence -- America's commitment to defend allies from nuclear attack -- by saying that if we continue our bilateral arms reductions with the Russians, our allies will be forced to build their own nuclear arsenals. The redness of this particular herring was shown up by our national allies' unanimous and strong support for Obama's proposals -- especially the remarks of the new Japanese prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama.
6) Dealing with nuclear weapons is the key to addressing other global issues. Oftentimes nuclear weapons seem like an anachronistic problem, a relic of the Cold War, compared with the crises of pandemic disease and climate change that threaten the twenty-first century. But all of these problems are of a piece: the bomb was the first technological development -- but far from the last -- that gave globe-spanning potential to the homicidal impulses of the human heart. President Obama identified four pillars of security; nuclear weapons were rightfully first, but they are not alone. If we can't deal with nuclear weapons -- a relatively simple technology with a notoriously fragile supply chain -- then we won't be able to deal with the far more complex issues arising now. By contrast, if we can successfully tackle nuclear weapons, the cooperative mechanisms and trust-building necessary for disarmament may well be the key to advancement on a host of other problems.
Tyler Wigg-Stevenson is the founding director of the Two Futures Project, a contributing editor to Sojourners magazine, and the author of Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age.