Obama: Rid World of Nuclear Weapons (Updated)

Barack Obama has a plan to solve the nuclear issues in Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere: have everyone get rid of their nukes.

Senator Barack Obama will propose on Tuesday setting a goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons in the world, saying the United States should greatly reduce its stockpiles to lower the threat of nuclear terrorism, aides say. In a speech at DePaul University in Chicago, Mr. Obama will add his voice to a plan endorsed earlier this year by a bipartisan group of former government officials from the cold war era who say the United States must begin building a global consensus to reverse a reliance on nuclear weapons that have become “increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.” Mr. Obama, according to details provided by his campaign Monday, also will call for pursuing vigorous diplomatic efforts aimed at a global ban on the development, production and deployment of intermediate-range missiles.


His speech was to come one day after an announcement by the Bush administration that it had tripled the rate of dismantling nuclear weapons over the last year, putting the United States on track to reducing its stockpile of weapons by half by 2012. The exact number of weapons being dismantled, like the overall stockpile, is secret, but officials said Monday that with the planned reductions, the total number of American nuclear weapons would be at the lowest levels since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.


If elected, Mr. Obama plans to say, he will lead a global effort to secure nuclear weapons and material at vulnerable sites within four years. He also will pledge to end production of fissile material for weapons, agree not to build new weapons and remove any remaining nuclear weapons from hair-trigger alert.

In his speech, according to a campaign briefing paper, Mr. Obama also will call for using a combination of diplomacy and pressure to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. Aides did not say what Mr. Obama intended to do if diplomacy and sanctions failed.

Reducing stockpiles and changing alert procedures make sense for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s incredibly expensive to maintain an inventory of outdated weapons. But total elimination? That’s crazy talk, right?

Actually, he’s echoing “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” a WSJ op-ed from January by George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn.

Nuclear weapons were essential to maintaining international security during the Cold War because they were a means of deterrence. The end of the Cold War made the doctrine of mutual Soviet-American deterrence obsolete. Deterrence continues to be a relevant consideration for many states with regard to threats from other states. But reliance on nuclear weapons for this purpose is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.

North Korea’s recent nuclear test and Iran’s refusal to stop its program to enrich uranium — potentially to weapons grade — highlight the fact that the world is now on the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear era. Most alarmingly, the likelihood that non-state terrorists will get their hands on nuclear weaponry is increasing. In today’s war waged on world order by terrorists, nuclear weapons are the ultimate means of mass devastation. And non-state terrorist groups with nuclear weapons are conceptually outside the bounds of a deterrent strategy and present difficult new security challenges.

Apart from the terrorist threat, unless urgent new actions are taken, the U.S. soon will be compelled to enter a new nuclear era that will be more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically even more costly than was Cold War deterrence. It is far from certain that we can successfully replicate the old Soviet-American “mutually assured destruction” with an increasing number of potential nuclear enemies world-wide without dramatically increasing the risk that nuclear weapons will be used. New nuclear states do not have the benefit of years of step-by-step safeguards put in effect during the Cold War to prevent nuclear accidents, misjudgments or unauthorized launches. The United States and the Soviet Union learned from mistakes that were less than fatal. Both countries were diligent to ensure that no nuclear weapon was used during the Cold War by design or by accident. Will new nuclear nations and the world be as fortunate in the next 50 years as we were during the Cold War?

If the blessing of a bipartisan group of distinguished foreign policy giants isn’t enough, how about this?

Ronald Reagan called for the abolishment of “all nuclear weapons,” which he considered to be “totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization.”

The WSJ piece outlines in some substantial detail the road to nuclear abolition. Despite the imprimatur of these gentlemen, I remain highly skeptical that uninventing technology is possible or that the types of regimes we’re most concerned about will play along. Further, while I agree that Cold War-style deterrence is much less certain with the North Koreans and Iranians than it was with the Soviets — and I hasten to add there were times when it didn’t seem all that sure even then — it makes sense to maintain a small arsenal for whatever deterrence effect it might provide. For that matter, it’s quite conceivable that the possession of small nuclear arsenals by the likes of India and Pakistan and Israel has a sobering deterrence effect at the regional level.

While I remain unconvinced of either the practicality or even desirability of the goal of a nuclear free world, the outlined process for getting there nonetheless makes a lot of sense. Safeguarding and confidence building measures can be quite useful at preventing misunderstanding, accidents, and the escalation of minor disputes into military conflict.

Update (Dave Schuler)

The prepared text of Sen. Obama’s speech, A New Beginning, is here.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Campaign 2008, Military Affairs, Science & Technology, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that deterrence continues to be a useful approach to discouraging nuclear attack and it could be practical against both Iran and North Korea or other nuclear power wannabes, even in the third party cases frequently brought up in the discussion. Unfortunately, the current crop of politicians, Republican and Democrat, are working hard to undermine its effectiveness, in all likelihood from a combination of ignorance as to the requirements of deterrence and wishful thinking.

    Simply put if the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances is unthinkable then deterrence is dead and yes, indeed, we should destroy our stockpiles unilaterally. Anything that’s said that suggests that we won’t use nuclear weapons under any circumstances undermines deterrence.

    That’s not the only thing, though. The Rumsfeldian “war on the cheap” undermines it, too. The opposite, the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force, is consistent with deterrence, use of minimum force isn’t.

  2. If there’s a way of coercing the countries with which the US does not have good faith into getting rid of their nukes without having nukes itself, then by all means, let the US get rid of its nukes.

    But if forcing the rest of the world to drop their nuclear power requires that the US remain a nuclear power (as I suspect is the case) then I don’t see the logic in the US getting rid of its entire program.

    People complain about consistency and fairness in US demands that other countries disarm. Such issues are (in large part?) irrelevant. After all, coercion is what nuclear power is all about, and coercion is already a hazy moral subject. Simply pointing out that there’s haze (“The US is being inconsistent!”) really says nothing.

  3. G.A.Phillips says:

    Aides did not say what Mr. Obama intended to do if diplomacy and sanctions failed.

    lol, pipe dreams dont need alternatives, just a good ligter!!!!

  4. Alex Knapp says:

    If memory serves, the elimination of nuclear weapons was attempted once before in the late 1980’s by Superman acting under U.N. auspices. His efforts were undermined by Lex Luthor, who used the opportunity to spread mistrust among the major powers of the world, thus increasing market share for his growing arms concerns. Additionally, this effort resulted in the creation of the “Nuclear Man”, a superpowered sociopath whose powers rivalled Superman’s.

    In short, I think we should listen to history on this one…

  5. Kathy says:

    Excellent post, James.

  6. Dale says:

    A noble goal but I’ll believe it when I see it. This genie has been out of the bottle for over 60 years now. I suspect we’re not getting it back in no matter how bad we want to.

  7. Butch says:

    Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya…