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Seminar on 'The Obama Vision: Are We Moving Toward a World Free of Nuclear Weapons?'

Date: Thursday, 22 April 2010
Time: 2.30pm – 4pm
Venue:S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Click play to listen to the audio recording of the seminar.

Speaker: Mr Miles Pomper, Senior Research Associate, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Washington DC, USA
Chairperson: Dr Rajesh Basrur, Senior Fellow, RSIS Centre for NTS Studies


In 2009, US President Barack Obama gave a historic speech in Prague, calling on the international community to move toward a ‘world free of nuclear weapons’. He laid out a number of specific efforts the US would pursue to help realise this goal. However, with the impending Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, the difficulties of achieving this goal have become apparent. Mr Miles Pomper outlined these complexities and discussed the prospects of achieving the goal of a ‘nuclear weapons-free world’.


Mr Pomper began his presentation by first describing President Obama’s nuclear security strategy, and its goals pertaining to Iran and North Korea in particular. Next, he drew up a ‘scorecard’ to evaluate the success of President Obama’s strategy to date, in the run-up to the review conference in May 2010. Finally, Mr Pomper outlined the prospects for realising a ‘nuclear weapons-free world’.

The Obama Strategy

President Obama took over the reins of government at a time when the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) came under challenge; in particular the nuclear issues surrounding Iran and North Korea, and faced remnant resentment over the fact that promises made during the NPT review conferences in 1995 and 2000 remained largely unfulfilled. As such, President Obama attempted to ‘hit the reset button’, as Mr Pomper pointed out, in order to restore the 1995 and 2000 consensus while achieving specific goals for nuclear security.   

In his monumental speech delivered in Prague in 2009, President Obama outlined several specific goals for future global nuclear security. First, he voiced US support for the elimination of nuclear weapons as a long-term goal. Second, he outlined the more immediate near- and medium-term goals of securing all vulnerable fissile materials within four years. This four-year plan, as Mr Pomper highlighted, reflected the common consensus reached by countries that attended the recently-concluded Nuclear Security Summit. Equally notable in President Obama’s speech was the idea of pursuing selective nuclear security policies to reduce perceived risks on allies and to increase the United States’ leverage over Iran and North Korea, for instance.

According to Mr Pomper, the Obama Strategy focused on Iran, North Korea and Asia in particular. With respect to Iran, President Obama hoped to gain support in the United Nations Security Council and the upcoming review conference to take appropriate measures against Iran’s alleged nuclear weaponisation programme. In the case of North Korea, the US sought to maintain the confidence of Japan and South Korea in its extended nuclear umbrella so as to prevent these two countries from pursuing their own nuclear weapons programme which could precipitate a regional nuclear arms race. Also, the US sought to prevent Pyongyang from attempting to cut unilateral deals with parties beyond the Six-Party Talks. A policy of ‘malign neglect’ has been adopted by President Obama with the belief that Pyongyang will eventually return to the negotiation table. To prevent an Asian nuclear arms race, Mr Pomper pointed out; President Obama strives to involve China, India and Pakistan in the global nuclear arms control regime, with a special focus on getting Beijing onboard these agreements. 

The ‘Obama Scorecard’

Towards the end of his presentation, Mr Pomper briefly summarised the ‘scorecard’ for President Obama’s efforts to date, focusing on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), both of which remain hindered by domestic political barriers. Full compliance of the US in CTBT, according to Mr Pomper, will remain unlikely in President Obama’s first term since a two-third majority in the Senate is almost impossible to achieve without support from the Republican Party. Also, Republican support is necessary for the ratification of START. He argued that the Republicans will most probably demand for more funds to modernise the nuclear arsenal in order to compensate for a quantitative scale-back of nuclear arms as a condition for supporting START. Mr Pomper also pointed out that the prospects of ratifying the Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) remain uncertain. Once FMCT is passed, he argued, signatory countries would fear being left at a disadvantage should their perceived nuclear adversaries manage to exploit the window of negotiation to bolster their nuclear arsenals.   

Success, Failure or Neither?

Before concluding, Mr Pomper recalled the outcomes of past review conferences to serve as a point of comparison. Some flexibility exercised during the 1995 and 2000 conferences, he pointed out, managed to push the process forward. In particular, a permanent NPT had been accepted in place of a disarmament plan. In 2005, however, mutual finger-pointing among states during the review conference boded ill for future global nuclear security prospects. Based on these historical antecedents and judging from contemporary assessments, Mr Pomper postulated a ‘Copenhagen Half-Loaf’ outcome for the upcoming review conference; insufficient in satisfying everyone’s expectations and also insufficient when parties to the conference fail to reach any significant consensus, leading to a disaster akin to that in 2005. Lastly, Mr Pomper argued that for the conference to be a success, universal compliance by nuclear weapons states (NWS) and non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS), not a consensus document, is what is clearly needed.


The goal of a ‘nuclear weapons-free world’ as proposed by President Obama, opined one participant, may be attainable, though this should not merely hinge on treaties. A philosophical rather than operational approach, this participant suggested, may be helpful in asking whether the world is really against nuclear weapons. Complete elimination of nuclear weapons, Mr Pomper conceded, is almost impossible to achieve due to varying opinions worldwide among NWS and NNWS.

One participant questioned what the likely scenario over the next few years would be following the recent conclusion of the Nuclear Security Summit, and the impact of the summit’s outcome on the role of nuclear power in world energy security. Mr Pomper suggested a scenario where the implementation of global nuclear security regimes would continue to be fraught with political difficulty. He also argued that, while nuclear energy may be important for energy security, it is still important to consider other viable, alternative energy sources. The future role of nuclear in the world energy security paradigm, Mr Pomper proposed, is in large part dependent on nuclear security.

In response to one participant’s request for him to comment on Israel’s nuclear weapon capability, Mr Pomper highlighted that Arab states have no interest in publicising this issue for fear of galvanising public opinion to counter Israel with the building of their own nuclear arsenals. He felt that more needs to be done to devise incentives for Israel to deactivate its Dimona nuclear reactor, though prospects of such remain relatively dim in view of Israel’s perception of its security situation. 

Even if the US scales down its nuclear arsenal, one participant pointed out, there remains no real development of any conceptual basis for nuclear deterrence with fewer weapons. The participant questioned if ‘minimal deterrence’ can serve as a new conceptual basis for global nuclear security. To that, Mr Pomper highlighted that no major conceptual change has ever occurred in the US, due in significant part to bureaucratic inertia within the US Government; in particular the Department of Defense which drafts the quadrennial Nuclear Posture Review outlining the role of nuclear weapons in US national security.


Miles Pomper is a senior research associate in the Washington, DC office of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.  He joined CNS in 2009 after serving as Editor-in-Chief of Arms Control Today from 2003 to 2009. Previously, he was the lead foreign policy reporter for CQ Weekly, where he covered the full range of foreign policy issues before Congress, including arms control and proliferation concerns. His career has also included several years spent covering national security and political issues at the Legi-Slate News Service and the publication of book chapters, analytical articles, and reports for publications, such as Foreign Service JournalNuclear Engineering International, and the Centre for International Governance Innovation. Mr Pomper's work at CNS focuses on tracking efforts by the US government to address proliferation developments, measures for reinforcing the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and initiatives to reduce the proliferation dangers of the anticipated worldwide growth in nuclear energy. Before working as a full-time journalist, Mr Pomper served as Foreign Service Officer with the US Information Agency. For several years, he served as Assistant Information Officer and a spokesperson of the US Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. He holds a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

Posted on: 22/4/2010 2:30:00 PM  |  Topic: Energy Security

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