Reforming Global Nuclear Security: A Worthwhile Legacy for President Obama?

March 28, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

This week in The Hague, Netherlands, the Nuclear Security Summit concluded with world leaders converging to discuss the dangers of nuclear arsenals and methods for pushing forward without them.  This push has been a major policy initiative of President Obama who advocated for the next site of talks to be in the United States for 2016.  The timing seemed coincidental for the summit given the Russian invasion of Crimea and Ukraine’s outrage over the violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum – an agreement between the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine that guaranteed Ukrainian sovereignty as long as they gave up their nuclear missiles, which was part of the old Soviet Union’s arsenal after they broke apart.  Today, Ukraine would be a major nuclear power if they had held on to that stockpile.  Now debate is focused on whether nuclear weapons are a necessity to establish and maintain global power and legitimacy.  Ukraine asserts that if they had nuclear weapons, Russia would never have invaded them.

This stance has been debated for some time now.  Many believe it is the stance of North Korea, who this week tested and launched two midrange missiles.  Regional leaders believed the North Korean test launch was done deliberately to coincide with the closed door meetings between the United States, Japan, and South Korea at The Hague Summit.  Japan has been very forthcoming in giving up its nuclear weapons capability, perhaps because it is allied so closely with the United States and the United States has assured Japan security.  South Korea has also been very cooperative in this matter but North Korea is threatening regional security with their ongoing tests.  The country already has nuclear capabilities but delivery methods have still, for the most part, been in beta.  The recent tests this week demonstrated a midrange missile capability of up to 400 miles.  North Korea continues to violate UN sanctions and Security Council Resolutions, yet there has been little blowback, perhaps given the uncertainty of how they would respond.

President Obama is pleased with other countries and their efforts to disarm with 35 countries agreeing to increase their nuclear security.  The Associated Press noted that since President Obama initiated nuclear security talks in 2010, the number of nuclear capable countries has dropped from 39 to 25.  President Obama also offered a global nuclear architecture in order to reduce highly enriched uranium around the world.

As Graham Allison from the Atlantic stated, “no nuclear-weapons material means no mushroom clouds and no nuclear terrorism.”  President Obama is trying to make the world a safer place but countries such as the United States and Russia control much of the world’s nuclear stock piles, which makes them very powerful.  When examining Iran, the next rising nuclear country, it is clear they see the writing on the wall.  As Robin Wright, distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, stated recently at a policy roundtable, Iran is strategically lonely.  They are a Shiite majority country surrounded by Sunni majorities making them a regional minority.  Iran has been forced to tactically, not strategically, align with leaders such as Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq because, as Wright states, Iran understands the map of the Middle East can be re-drawn.  Iran wants to maintain the status quo and not become further marginalized by an increased Sunni regional majority.  Iran is not “in love” with either leader but until a more viable partner emerges, they will be forced to tactically align with them.

Perhaps by pursuing nuclear technology, Iran will be able to deter potential threats in the future and provide regional legitimacy to their nation.  They are not facing threats from just the Arab world, Israel would also like to see Iran fall.  The Iran nuclear program has made the Israelis very uncomfortable and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has orated his dissatisfaction with the nuclear deal initiated between Iran and the P5+1 countries.  Israel wants a full dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program, which is not an option at this stage.  As Bijan Khajehpour, Managing Partner at Atieh International, stated this week at a policy roundtable, “Iran is reactive,” not proactive meaning they react to threats in the region.  According to Khajehpour, as long as Israel (a nuclear country) threatens military force, Iran will react.  Progress will not be made until there is change on both sides.

This same dilemma has plagued Pakistan who has been competing with India for regional dominance for over a half century.  As Husain Haqqani notes in his book “Magnificent Delusions,” former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto stated in 1965 that “if India built the bomb, ‘we will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.  We have no other choice.'”  The United States and Soviet military arms buildup was also based on this same principle.  Saudi Arabia may also be looking to put forth a nuclear program if their regional enemy Iran acquires weapons.

As President Obama is set to leave office in just over two years, he wants to ensure that global nuclear security is a major part of his legacy.  However, recent developments may diminish his efforts.  North Korea seems focused on gaining functioning nuclear weapons capabilities, which will deter other nations from threatening them militarily.  Ukraine believes they were taken advantage of by signing the Budapest Memorandum because now that international agreement (it was not a formal treaty) has not been enforced.  This is an example to other nations that giving up nuclear weapons so easily may not be a wise decision given the lack of enforcement for a piece of paper.  President Obama is trying to establish an international treaty to rid the world of weapons grade nuclear material but if there is no guarantee of enforcement, many weaker nations may be skeptical to sign.  Nuclear weapons are a great supplement for weak military or economic nations to deter threats.  It will be a great challenge for President Obama to make his goal a reality in the unstable environment of geopolitics.