Obama’s Nuclear Agenda: Tactical Successes, Strategic Guesses

A couple scattershot thoughts on President Barack Obama’s nuclear nonproliferation agenda in the aftermath of this week’s Nuclear Security Summit:

First of all, in combination, there’s no question that the follow-on START treaty, the Nuclear Posture Review and the nuke summit in Washington represent significant, if incremental, successes. From a political optics perspective, Obama achieved a high-priority agenda item, left his mark on a legacy item and demonstrated well-regarded global leadership, in that order. Anyone who doubts the potency of that sequence needs to check their head with a geiger counter. This was a good couple weeks for the president, and when you look closely at the issues involved, there’s little to quibble with in terms of what he accomplished.

In addition to the nominal securization of nuclear material, the summit’s significant “deliverables” were what didn’t happen: There were none of the promised significant, off-message shows of disunity, in particular regarding Israel’s nuclear wild-card status, as well as regarding the NPT-loophole imbalance between India and Pakistan. That shows that, for all the challenges Obama faces in terms of his regional policies in the Middle East and South Asia, he still commands respect and can control the agenda — at least at his summit on his turf.

On the other hand, I’m still agnostic on how all this fits into his broader strategy of reinforcing the nuclear nonproliferation regime, with an eye to isolating Iran, North Korea and any potential copycat or follow-the-leader candidates. Whatever buy-in for sanctions that Obama might have wrung from Russia and China at the summit is vague and subject to change, at best. As for the upcoming NPT Review conference, it’s unlikely that the modest advances of the START follow-on, combined with the NPR shift, will be enough to buy broad consensus for the American agenda — especially in the absence of any progress on Israel’s “magical realist” nuclear posture. And even in the event that the NPT conference somehow does turn out to be a smashing success, it will be too late to influence the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. (Although it might mitigate some of the worst-case aftermath scenarios of an Iranian nuclear weapons capability.)

In other words, the long-term strategy is based on a narrative that is either unlikely to occur or that will be ineffectual if it does.

That doesn’t make what Obama did manage to accomplish the past few weeks insignificant or somehow not worth the effort. Taken on its own terms, and depending on subsequent events, I think it could end up being regarded as a historic inflection point — and I say that as someone who initally dismissed Obama’s first Prague speech outlining this vision.

But I don’t think it will have the strategic pay-off that it is being packaged to deliver. It might change the world in the long run, but it won’t make Obama’s short-term problems any easier to resolve.