President Obama used the backdrop of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on Wednesday to renew calls for the U.S. to reduce its stockpile of nuclear warheads, but the modest disarmament push underscores just how much has changed for a man who five years ago drew 200,000 people for a similar speech in heart of the German capital.
In that first grand address as candidate Obama, he also called for the U.S. and Russia to cut nuclear arsenals and offered the lofty goal of “a world without nuclear weapons.”
Analysts say he has made progress toward that aim, but both nations have a long way to go just to meet existing obligations and it is difficult to know for sure whether Moscow remains committed to its end of the bargain.
On Wednesday, in front of a much smaller, invitation-only crowd of about 6,000 Berliners, Mr. Obama — visibly sweating and speaking from behind the protection of bulletproof glass — again said he will pursue “the security of a world without nuclear weapons,” but conceded that his “dream” is a long way off.
“We may no longer live in fear of global annihilation, but so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe,” said Mr. Obama, wrapping up a European trip that included the Group of Eight summit this week in Northern Ireland. “We have more work to do. So today, I’m announcing additional steps forward. After a comprehensive review, I’ve determined that we can ensure the security of America and our allies, and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third.”
Mr. Obama’s proposal would go beyond the reductions in nuclear arsenals outlined in existing agreements with Russia. If the current deals are fulfilled over the next decade and the U.S. meets Mr. Obama’s new goal, that would leave the U.S. with about 1,000 deployed nuclear warheads.
Just before Mr. Obama’s Berlin speech, Mr. Putin said that Moscow “cannot allow the balance of the system of strategic deterrence to be disturbed or the effectiveness of our nuclear force to be decreased,” according to the BBC.
One of Mr. Putin’s key foreign policy advisers, Yury Ushakov, later said nuclear negotiations should no longer include only the U.S. and its former Cold War superpower rival.
“The situation now is not like in the 1960s and 1970s,” he said. “We need to look more broadly … and increase the circle of participants in possible contacts on this matter.”
Analysts say it was easier in 2008 for Mr. Obama to offer the ambitious — and perhaps unrealistic — goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. At the time, it was routine for him to bash the foreign policy of his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush, and boast of how he would do better.
During more than four years of governing, he has been responsible for leading nuclear negotiations with Russia.
“Part of the problem he had in Berlin is that four years ago he had to compete with the Bush administration’s nuclear policy. This time, he had to compete with himself,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists and an authority on nuclear weapons and policy.
In Washington, it took little time for Republicans on Capitol Hill to cast Mr. Obama’s proposal as another example of a weakening of American defenses.
“President Obama basically told Russia’s president that he’ll walk away from our nuclear deterrence and at the same time is also walking away from helping protect our close allies in Europe right [now] when the threat is greatest for them particularly from Iran,” said Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Mr. Vitter and other Republicans also called for Congress to be involved with any discussions of further nuclear drawdown.
When put into historical perspective, the overall cache of American nuclear weapons already is relatively small. At the height of the Cold War, the nation had more than 31,000 nuclear weapons.
Today, that number is about 4,650, down from more than 5,100 in 2009, Mr. Obama’s first year in office.
The White House’s updated “nuclear weapons employment strategy,” released during the G-8 summit, calls for additional reviews of the arsenal. The policy “narrows U.S. nuclear strategy to focus on only those objectives and missions that are necessary for deterrence in the 21st century.”
It also directs the Department of Defense to strengthen its non-nuclear capabilities and calls for a reduction in “launch-under-attack capability,” or nuclear weapons ready to be fired in the event of an unexpected attack.
“I think both sides realize that they have enormous amounts of [nuclear] forces compared to any other nuclear state in the world,” he said. “Both sides have an interest in cutting the fat from the bone here and trying to get down to something affordable and reasonable for the type of world we’re heading into.”
Other analysts say that, despite the declining nuclear arsenals, Mr. Obama may be going too fast, especially with nuclear powers such as North Korea and China not factored into the calculations. Robert Zarate, policy director at the Foreign Policy Institute, warned in an analysis published Wednesday that the president’s proposed cut “comes at a dangerous time.”
“The president sees his plan as the next step in someday achieving his dream of a ‘world without nuclear weapons,’” Mr. Zarate noted. “But the world has a vote, too, and even if Russia is open to further nuclear cuts — something which remains unclear at this point — other nations do not appear to share President Obama’s aspiration.”