Obama’s nuclear world

Obama’s nuclear world

US President Barack Obama gave a gracious speech accepting his Nobel Peace Prize, starting with the humble note that he has yet to earn it. If his Oslo hosts expected a woolly-headed address about peace in our time, they also didn’t get it. He stated clearly that sometimes, war is necessary to defend the peaceable and to serve justice and liberty. He even hit the George W. Bush note that “evil does exist in the world".

Congratulations, Mr President.

On the other hand, Obama also didn’t disappoint the Norwegians, who in giving the award, had cited his “work for a world without nuclear weapons". He repeated his commitment to that cause, starting with his effort to rework the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) of 1991 that expired on 5 December. So it’s worth checking to see how his disarmament vision is faring in the rougher world of rogues and national interest. The answer is not so well.

The administration decided that rather than negotiate an extension of the existing START, a whole new arrangement to limit warheads and delivery systems should be crafted. In July, the US and Russia signed a “framework agreement" to reduce stockpiles by as much as one-third. Alas, the administration was so focused on the numbers that it neglected the stickier details—such as verification, and whether the current START regime would stay in place if negotiations dragged on.

Though the far weaker party, the Russians have figured out their leverage over an administration eager to show any progress. Pushing that advantage, Russia has already secured lower ceilings on nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles, scaled back verification, and pocketed other strategic concessions.

Meanwhile, the world’s rogues continue to pursue nuclear weapons, and Obama said that “it is incumbent upon all of us to insist that nations like Iran and North Korea do not game the system". He added that “we must develop alternatives to violence that are tough enough to change behaviour." But all he has to show for a year of courting these regimes is their refusal even to consider giving up either their weapons (North Korea) or their growing capacity to make them (Iran).

The French, for one, see this danger plainly and want the US to press harder on Tehran. But on these hard cases, the administration can’t muster the same sense of urgency it is bringing to the cause of an unnecessary arms control pact with Russia. Obama is right that he still has to earn that Nobel.


Edited excerpts. Comment at otherviews@livemint.com