A Nuclear-Free Mirage? Obstacles to President Obama’s Goal of a Nuclear Weapons Free World

FAS published a new Issue Brief, “A Nuclear-Free Mirage? Obstacles to President Obama’s Goal of a Nuclear Weapons Free World.” Dr. Robert Standish Norris, Senior Fellow for Nuclear Policy at FAS was interviewed by Charles Blair, Director of FAS’s Terrorism Analysis Project, about the obstacles to the implementation of the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). After twenty years since the end of the Cold War, how far down the path are we toward a nuclear weapons free world? Despite President Obama’s goal of eventual nuclear disarmament, Dr. Norris explains why the latest effort to alter the role of nuclear weapons—a necessity if we seek to eliminate them—is likely to falter. Listen to the FAS Podcast here.

Almost two decades have passed since the United States seriously considered reducing the role of its nuclear weapons. The earlier effort—the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review—failed to narrow the broad array of missions assigned to U.S. nuclear forces. Thus, despite significant decreases in the numbers of nuclear weapons, the end of the Cold War precipitated no net downsizing of the U.S. nuclear infrastructure; indeed its collective budget continues to exceed Cold War spending levels. However, President Obama’s 2009 Prague speech harkened back to the halcyon early days of the Post-Cold War world; the President promised to “take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons.”[1]  One year later, In April 2010, the Obama Administration released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), formally articulating a strategy toward a “world free of nuclear weapons.”

Today’s interview with Robert Norris explores the 2010 NPR. Specifically, it addresses how the NPR seeks to achieve President Obama’s vision of a nuclear weapon free world. Unfortunately, Dr. Norris concludes that the NPR is “not up to the task of bringing about this goal.” Why? Dr. Norris argues that a sine qua non to lower levels of nuclear weapons and their eventual elimination is an immediate reduction in their missions. Dr. Norris argues that today “there is only one job left for nuclear weapons: to deter the use of nuclear weapons.”[2] As the NPR goes through its implementation process, Dr. Norris explains, opposition to the types of changes envisioned by the President Obama mount.  “It has to do with constituencies and bureaucracies and careers and budgets and a whole host of things that were the driving forces behind the arms race to begin with,” Dr. Norris explains, adding that, “many of those things are still in place, still operative, [and] resistant to radical kinds of changes.

Alarmingly, listeners should be mindful that these obstacles to President Obama’s vision toward a nuclear weapons free world have gone largely unreported by the media and unexplored by most policy-based non-profit think-tanks. In this regard, FAS stands virtually alone in its exploration of the implementation of the 2010 NPR and its increasingly ephemeral vision of a world free from nuclear weapons.

To read the podcast transcript, click here (PDF).


[1] Remark by President Barack Obama, Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic, April 5, 2009. Available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-By-President-Barack-Obama-In-Prague-As-Delivered/

[2] Hans M. Kristensen, Robert S. Norris, and Ivan Oelrich, From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence: A New Nuclear Policy on the Path Toward Eliminating Nuclear Weapons. Federation of American Scientists, Occasional Paper 7. April 2009, p. 1. Available at: http://www.fas.org/press/news/2009/apr_newreport.html

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5 Responses to “A Nuclear-Free Mirage? Obstacles to President Obama’s Goal of a Nuclear Weapons Free World”

  1. Page van der Linden September 27, 2011 at 11:32 am #

    First of all, thank you for the post.

    One of the most cynical things I’ve read regarding the nuclear complex was at Albuquerque Journal journalist’s John Fleck’s blog, in which he quoted one of your own, the esteemed Hans Kristensen:

    First, we spend substantial sums of money for the new safety and security features. But that means we also need to spend more money to certify that the bombs are really OK. Lather, rinse, repeat. As Kristensen quipped, “It’s a beautiful funding loop.”

    I think that’s a very condensed, pithy version of what Dr. Norris said, as you quoted him. I’m looking forward to downloading the transcript and reading the whole thing. I believe this is a discussion that isn’t necessarily overdue — it has been addressed here and there — but it’s an issue that should be discussed more. I see a panel discussion in my head… that could be great!

  2. Distiller September 27, 2011 at 3:55 pm #

    Agree with the “only one task” approach, *strategic* nuclear weapons having only the singular task of deterring the use of *strategic* nuclear weapons against the U.S. (or let’s make that CONUS, shall we?) by other countries. Think that is an important part if minimum deterrence is the goal.
    And this also abandons the idea of the strategic “umbrella”. NO entanglement!

    But I have to say show more guts in the question of targeting when going for minimum strategic deterrence: Enemy population concentrations are the only worthy and realistic target. If to feel better or more moral or more legally secured you have to find an all-important C3 node in each of the enemy’s (who ever that is) 1m+ or 500k+ population cities, so be it.

    Where I can’t agree is the question of low-yield aka tactical nuclear weapons. A low(ish)-yield tactical warhead is merely an extension of the conventional arsenal. Hence the capability should be expanded all across the forces continuum (aerospace – land – sea) and across a variaty of delivery platforms, not be restricted to aerial delivery by fighterbomber. The more conventional forces levels go down the more a tactical nuclear capability will be required (Russia goes that way), and such a capability needs an awful long time to re-gain once it’s been lost. So just because there is no more (open? official?) doctrine can’t mean it’s not needed. Going strategic-only is the wrong way for a lot of reasons.

  3. MarkoB October 6, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

    This appears to be very interesting and insightful. However, there may be an issue with the underlying premise. That premise is; Obama indeed has a “vision” to abolish nuclear weapons and there are too many “obstacles” that are preventing this vision from being realised. I wager that Obama does not, never has and probably never will have, any such “vision.” In other fields of public policy the non-existience of Obama’s “visions” are now pretty much non-controversial. Curious to observe then that the nuclear security community can’t let go about the sincerity of Obama’s “vision.” There are Wikileaks cables that support my contention from day one; the “vision” was itself a political mirage designed to achieve preferred policy outcomes at the NPT Rev Con and other fora. I can’t really recall anybody who dabbles in nuclear security studies saying this from the get-go.

  4. Johnny December 21, 2011 at 6:17 am #

    In my opinion, There is no problem with a country having nuclear weapons unless its government:

    a) verbally threatens to attack another country
    b) has a track record of invading other countries
    c) sponsors terrorist groups in other countries

  5. todd January 12, 2012 at 11:08 pm #

    to johnyy
    I agree with you
    but what about those that get greedy and want to dominate the world?

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