Last week in Prague, President Barack Obama said he would lead an effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
You can imagine the reaction in foreign capitals. ("He said what?") Many of Obama's counterparts no doubt smiled a knowing smile: another American full of utopian ideas.
As Obama put it to a large crowd in Prague's central square, "I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."
Surely he knows this isn't going to happen.
Robert Haddick, a former Marine officer who blogs at Westhawk.blogspot.com, put his finger on why the "Global Zero" option is a complete fantasy.
For many countries, nuclear weapons programs are cheaper than maintaining large armies and navies. Nations facing adversaries of greater size and population, such as Pakistan and Israel, see nukes as essential to security. Many countries will see Obama's gambit as blatantly self-serving, given America's overwhelming advantage in conventional forces.
As Haddick wrote, "No country would benefit more from a world free of nuclear weapons than the U.S. For this reason alone, countries such as Russia, China, and Iran will be unfazed by President Obama's appeal for a nuclear-free world. They will see a U.S. push for a nuclear-free world as an attempt to expand U.S. military dominance."
Obama vowed to downplay the role of nukes as a foundation of U.S. defense policy: He promised to work with Russia to drastically cut nuclear stockpiles; push for U.S. ratification of a test-ban treaty, press for more controls on the spread of nuclear weapons, and begin a new global effort to ban production of nuclear material.
Apparently, the White House calculates that these steps will help provide leverage against rogue states such as Iran and North Korea.
If the U.S. assumes the moral high ground – if it reduces its own nuclear stockpile and downgrades the significance of nukes in its defense strategy – then other countries will be more willing to pressure nuclear miscreants such as Iran and North Korea.
That's the theory, anyway. But this assumes countries are actually motivated by the need to engage in moral displays, rather than by calculations of what's in their best interest.
For example, an agreement with Russia to reduce nuclear stockpiles is likely. But that's not because the Russians are eager to join Obama on the moral high ground. It's because they're probably eager to reduce the considerable costs of maintaining their arsenal.
In one of those accidents of timing, a few hours before Obama's speech, North Korea launched a multi-stage rocket over Japan. Obama said the launch showed "the need for action … to prevent the spread of these weapons."
Wrong: Instead, the launch showed the fecklessness of pretending that international agreements and displays of good intentions can change the behavior of countries bent on going nuclear in defiance of world opinion.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was hardly effective in constraining North Korea, which signed it and then simply violated its terms and withdrew. Both Iran and North Korea have been subjected to sanctions and years of diplomatic pressure. Little has worked.
Even more befuddling than Obama's wistful ideas on nuclear strategy was the Pentagon's subsequent recommendation, shortly after the North Korean launch, of a recommended cutback in missile defense spending.
One of the cuts in that program would pare back the airborne laser program, a promising technology that would intercept missiles in their most vulnerable boost phase. Given the manifest determination of Iran and North Korea to develop both nukes and a long-range missile capacity, we need more missile defense, not less.
The basic problem is that persuading responsible states to comply with measures such as test-ban treaties or proliferation controls is fairly easy. The challenge has always been with those states that can’t be constrained by international accords, and for this Obama offers no answer.