In his first visit to Berlin since becoming president, Barack Obama will give a speech including an update on his plan to rid the world of nuclear weapons and an announcement that he wants to further reduce America’s deployed stockpile of nuclear bombs by one third, a proposal that already faces stiff GOP opposition.
Obama laid out his famous Prague agenda in a landmark speech speech in the Czech capital only three months into his presidency in 2009.
“The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War ... Today the Cold War has disappeared, but thousands of those weapons have not,” Obama said. “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can.’”
Four years after the speech, Obama’s record on nuclear disarmament has been mixed. His administration spent huge amounts of time and political capital to pass the New START nuclear-reductions treaty with Russia in 2010, which required both countries to reduce their stockpiles of deployed nuclear weapons to about 1,550 each by 2018. The White House has been trying to start negotiations on a follow-up pact, but the Russians have not yet agreed to discuss further reductions.
Obama now wants to move forward with further American reductions regardless, and will outline his desire to do so at the East side of the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin on Wednesday, two administration officials told The Daily Beast. Administration officials made calls to leaders on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to inform them that Obama will announce a desire to have a one-third reduction in deployed nuclear weapons beyond current commitments, to about 1,000 total deployed nukes, two senior Senate aides told The Daily Beast.
The New York Times reported in February that plans for new cuts to the nuclear arsenal would be announced in this year’s State of the Union address, but when the speech was delivered, Obama only said, “We’ll engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals.”
Some reports at the time speculated that the White House removed the announcement from the State of the Union speech because North Korea detonated a nuclear bomb on February 12, making nuclear reductions politically unwise. But multiple administration sources said Tuesday that the delay was due to an interagency dispute over the cuts, which pitted the Pentagon against the State Department. The Pentagon wanted to announce the reductions only in conjunction with an announcement that the Russians had agreed to move in the same direction. The State Department wanted to proceed unilaterally, hoping the Russians would join in later.
Following Obama’s cool meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Northern Ireland at the G8 on Monday, the White House announced a new bilateral agreement on cooperative threat reduction, meant to replace the Nunn-Lugar initiative, which expires this month. Putin had declared Russia would not extend the Nunn-Lugar project, which includes U.S. personnel monitoring and helping to round up loose nukes in the former Soviet Union. The details of the new initiative are still unclear, but administration sources said it was a pared-down version of the previous agreement.
There was no announcement on whether the Russians had agreed to new negotiations over nuclear cuts and the National Security Council declined to comment on the announcement or the speech in any way.
National-Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Vice President Joe Biden have been leading a government-wide effort to kick-start such negotiations with the Russian government for months, with no visible success.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that the Russians are not interested in new nuclear-arms reduction talks unless they include many other topics, including conventional weapons, space weapons, and missile defense. In March the Obama administration unilaterally scuttled their own plan to deploy advanced missile defense interceptors in Europe, a move they insisted was not about coaxing the Russians into further nuclear-reduction talks.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans in both the House and Senate have been increasingly upset about what they see as the administration’s failure to fulfill the commitments it made when seeking ratification of the New START treaty, which included pledging tens of billions of dollars for modernization and maintenance of the nuclear stockpile. Several leading Republican lawmakers told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that they will work to thwart any plan to reduce the arsenal further, especially if the reductions are done unilaterally without Russian buy-in.
“I remember the New START treaty debates where the administration made a number of promises in order to secure votes with regard to the modernization of our nuclear stockpile. And to the best of my knowledge those promises have not been kept,” said Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) in an interview. “So I would certainly not favor unilateral concessions, and the administration needs to be serious about how the dangerous the world is, and it’s not getting any safer, so making unilateral concessions strike me as unwise.”
Asked what Senate Republicans would do to oppose the new reductions, Cornyn said, “We’ll think of something.”
Over on the House side, senior GOP lawmakers are well past the thinking stage and have already been fighting and winning a legislative battle to constrain the president’s ability to further his nuclear agenda. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), the chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, wrote in a Januray letter to Biden that any further nuclear reductions should be run through Congress rather than decided by the executive branch alone.
Rogers pointed out in the letter that in 2002, Biden and Sen. Jesse Helms wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell to remind him that “with the exception of the SALT 1 agreement, every significant arms control agreement during the past three decades has been transmitted to the Senate pursuant to the Treaty Clause of the Constitution.”
“Mr. Secretary, we see no reason whatsoever to alter this practice,” Biden and Helms wrote at the time.
Last week, the House voted not to fund the implementation of the New START agreement in the fiscal 2014 appropriations bill, a move seen as an opening salvo in the upcoming battle between Congress and the administration over the new nuclear reductions.
“There’s no reason to attempt to evade the Congress on further nuclear-arms reductions, unless the concern is those reductions can’t stand up to scrutiny,” Rogers told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “I hope it’s clear based on the bipartisan vote on the House floor last week that we won’t let the New START reductions move forward unless there is a clear commitment to follow the established precedent—the Biden-Helms standard—on any potential future reductions.”
Experts see the Obama administration’s nuclear reductions as not only a U.S.-Russia issue, but also an issue related to the other nuclear powers, including China, which has an undisclosed amount of nuclear weapons estimated to be in the hundreds. The House-passed version of the National Defense Authorization Act requires the president to certify that he has “high confidence” in the intelligence community’s assessment of the size of China’s nuclear arsenal before he can spend any money on nuclear disarmament.
“As the number of U.S. deployed nuclear warheads goes lower and lower, China will be in a position conceivably to rapidly ramp up its nuclear arsenal and approach numerical parity with the United States,” said Robert Zarate, policy director of the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington, D.C.
While the U.S. and Russia generally agree that transparency is a key part of nuclear-weapons management, China goes to great lengths to hide the details of its nuclear arsenal, he said. If China is not part of the discussions, that also has repercussions for allies like Japan and South Korea.
“At this point, President Obama’s efforts to kick-start again his stalled agenda for a ‘world without nuclear weapons’ may amount to nothing more than photo-op foreign policy,” Zarate said. “The world has a vote, and even if Russia were to be open to further treaty-based cuts, China, Pakistan, and North Korea are all growing and modernizing their respective nuclear arsenals.”
For many Republicans, the timing of Obama’s speech on the Prague agenda seems ill timed, considering the long list of conflicts raging in the world and the looming threats of an Iranian bomb and potential nuclear terrorism.
“The world is blowing up, and it’s sort of a tone-deaf speech,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told The Daily Beast.