Despite all the hoopla about President Barack Obama’s summit on nuclear security and a new arms control deal, the eventual results of his laudable efforts will probably be modest and will likely be dwarfed by the damage to nuclear security done by George W. Bush’s prior administration.
Although the possibility of nuclear terrorism probably has been overstated – terrorists would have trouble getting fissionable material already under controls – it is not out of the question and can be made even more improbable by nations taking added measures to secure such dangerous substances. Obama wants – as the Ukraine has done – all countries to pledge to lock down their nuclear material by 2012. But pledges aside, many countries are not that serious about doing so or simply can’t afford it.
Obama’s task is made more difficult by his own and his predecessor’s actions in Southwest and South Asia, respectively. The George W. Bush administration, in order to contain China, sidled up to India and disastrously pledged to sell it nuclear fuel for its civilian reactors, thus freeing up Indian nuclear facilities to make material for more atomic weapons. India’s archrival, Pakistan, already destabilized by the Bush-initiated nation-building bog in neighboring Afghanistan (that instability is being exacerbated by Obama’s ill-advised escalation of the Afghan conflict), is now shifting into overdrive to produce more nuclear material to keep up with the Singhs. Pakistan, fighting an insurgency of Islamist militants, is the last country on earth in which involvement in a "bake-off" to create more nuclear material is desirable. In setting a horrible precedent by completing the Indian nuclear deal with a nation that has spurned the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Bush administration chose largesse for the already heavily subsidized American nuclear industry over good sense.
As for Obama’s strategic arms control deal with the Russians, it cuts deployed warheads by only 30 percent, and even that is helped out by new ways of counting them. However, the agreement and his slight tightening of U.S. declaratory doctrine on when nuclear weapons would be used may have marginal positive effects by making nuclear weapons less legitimate in the eyes of most non-nuclear nations. Of course, such countries know that the new U.S. doctrine might likely be thrown out the window in a crisis. Furthermore, the policy already seems to have had the opposite effect on Iran, which, along with other nations that have eschewed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has been excluded from the narrowing doctrine. Iran bitterly complained that the new U.S. policy implicitly targeted it with nuclear weapons. The doctrinal shift may very well make Iran more, rather than less, likely to continue its probable quest to get a countering nuclear deterrent.
Nevertheless, the modest arms control agreement with Russia on deployed strategic long-range weapons does start repairing an unnecessarily tattered relationship with Russia. This improvement in relations will be needed for the harder task of reducing or eliminating shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons and atomic devices in storage. To reach such a needed agreement, the United States likely would have to either get rid of missile defense or adopt a joint U.S.-Russian system, some of which would be on Russia’s territory; the U.S. would also either need to scrap the NATO alliance or admit Russia and eliminate the Article V U.S. security guarantee for European nations.
Thus, Obama’s achievements in nuclear security and arms control are, so far, more modest than all the publicity implies, but at least Obama has refocused world attention on what is still the only existential threat in U.S. history – nuclear war – and the improbable, but potentially disastrous, threat of nuclear terrorism. In its pursuit of nation-building and military social work in overseas quagmires, the Bush administration had neglected both.