Managing Expectations at the NPT Review Conference

Managing Expectations at the NPT Review Conference

President Barack Obama's multipronged approach to minimizing nuclear risks -- embodied in the simultaneous roll out of the Nuclear Posture Review, the START follow-on treaty with Russia, and the Nuclear Security Summit -- is nothing if not ambitious. Taken together, these steps mark a potential turning-point for U.S. nuclear strategy by reducing the role of nuclear weapons and by prioritizing efforts to lock down weapons-usable material, clamping down on nuclear terrorism, and strengthening international rules against proliferation. As the Nuclear Posture Review puts it, "Changes in the nuclear threat environment have altered the hierarchy of our nuclear concerns and strategic objectives."

Skeptics have questioned this new approach, arguing that it is naive to think that other countries will change their policies based upon how many warheads the United States and Russia deploy, or the role that they ascribe to them. Critics also took aim at the notion that United States policy on deployment and declaratory posture really matters, dismissing the conceit that the new START treaty might "set a good example" for Iran and North Korea.

There is no doubt that a deal with Russia, whatever its merits, doesn't address the threats posed by Iran and North Korea -- but that has never been Obama's claim. The calculus is more complicated: He believes that realigning U.S. nuclear policy is a necessary change in its own right, but that it will also strengthen his hand in seeking more stringent nonproliferation rules across the board. Only by demonstrating seriousness about its disarmament commitments can the United States win over skeptical nations, such as those in the Non-Aligned Movement. The support of these "straddler" states is instrumental to adopting new international controls -- such as more effective safeguards and domestic legislation against nuclear trafficking -- and in isolating nonproliferation outliers like Iran, Syria and North Korea.

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