The reality behind Obama’s nuclear disarmament plan

In 2009, the newly-elected president of the United States committed “to seek the peace and security of the world without nuclear weapons”. For his vision, the folks in Oslo gave him the Nobel Peace Prize. The following year, Obama arranged for world leaders to come to Washington for his first “nuclear summit”, where he basked in international applause for the initiative he had launched. The bomb hasn’t been banned of course, but nuclear summits make for such good political theatre Obama is holding a fourth one this week (March 31–April 1).

The reason we’ll never have nuclear disarmament is that many countries depend for their security on the deterrent power of nuclear weapons – including the United States and, for that matter, Canada. And some of the countries which don’t currently possess nuclear weapons don’t want to rule them out given conditions in their neighbourhoods. It makes no sense for a country under any kind of existential threat to forego a source of national security, certainly not out of concern for the sensitivities of the “peace movement”.

What does make sense is to ensure that existing nuclear arsenals and the materials to build nuclear weapons are well and truly safeguarded and kept out of the hands of either irresponsible states or terrorist organizations. This is a function for individual countries who have military and/or civilian nuclear programs, with the technical advice and assistance of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The system worked well for a while, but it broke down badly in the 1980s when a Pakistani nuclear physicist and metallurgical engineer named A. Q. Khan helped North Korea, Libya and Iran to launch nuclear weapons programs.

Then, in the 1990s, controls started to fall apart on the enormous arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons which had been built by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. This raised the possibility that dangerous materials and technology would come into the possession of well-healed terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. The fear wasn’t so much outright theft as local authorities selling off unsecured materials or Russian nuclear scientists offering their services for a fee. There were also worries about environmental calamities resulting from rusting nuclear submarines in Arctic waters and toxin spills.

This situation prompted US senators Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN) in 1991 to initiate the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program “to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction and their associated infrastructure in former Soviet Union states”. The Nunn-Lugar initiative later morphed into the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction launched in 2002 at the G8 summit in Kananaskis, Alberta. Participants pledged $20 billion over ten years to help Russia and other former Soviet republics dismantle decommissioned nuclear submarines, destroy stockpiles of chemical weapons, safeguard and dispose of fissile material, and employ former weapons scientists. The program has since been extended. Canada has spent in the range of $1.5 billion on projects in Russia and Ukraine.

Despite his public embrace of nuclear disarmament, Obama has had to settle for what a White House official described as “the incremental nature of success”. His pronouncements are still lofty enough to warm the hearts of nuclear abolitionists, but the reality has been very modest advancements on the process begun with Nunn-Lugar. The 2010, 2012 and 2014 summits were essentially pledging events – not unlike charity fundraisers – where world leaders were pressured to arrive with “gift baskets” (presumably for Obama) reflecting their commitment to enhancing nuclear security in their respective countries. The measure of each summit was how much more the leaders had pledged than the last time. Some of the “gifts” took the form of promises to ship unwanted nuclear explosives or fissile materials (capable of sustaining a nuclear fission chain reaction) to the United States or Russia (!) for destruction.

It’s useful stuff, but one hopes for less theatrics in future in addressing the deadly menace of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, there is comfort in knowing that governments everywhere are tightening up their national controls, sharing intelligence, and taking action to disrupt the clandestine market in WMD.

Arms Control Association

Paul H. Chapin

Paul Chapin is Executive Editor of The Vimy Report. During a 30-year career in the Canadian foreign service, he served in Tel Aviv, Moscow, at NATO, and in Washington where he was head of the political section. He can be reached at

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