Obama’s mixed record on fighting nuclear weapons

The World
President Obama making his famous Prague speech in 2009

President Obama making his famous Prague speech in 2009

Petr Josek/Reuters

Shortly after taking office, President Barack Obama gave a speech in Prague outlining an ambitious plan to rid the world of nuclear weapons. The vision helped win him a Nobel Peace Prize.

But it clearly hasn't succeeded. So, how much has the president actually accomplished in containing these weapons of mass destruction?

Matthew Bunn has some answers. He’s with the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University's Belfer Center.

“President Obama has made some major progress on controlling nuclear dangers,” says Bunn. He highlights a new nuclear arms agreement with Russia, and the "breakthrough" agreement with Iran.

There are, in fact, fewer nuclear weapons in the world today than there were in January 2009.

“Both the United States and Russia, who have more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, have continued to reduce their stocks of nuclear weapons, though slowly.”

Bunn also highlights Obama’s drive to secure and track nuclear materials to prevent them from getting into the hands of terrorists. Obama sponsored a regular series of international summits on the issue, and Bunn says that’s led to "great improvements" in the security of nuclear materials.

But there are failures too.

“Almost all of the rest of what he hoped for in the Prague speech in 2009 remains unaccomplished,” says Bunn. “So we have no progress on a comprehensive test ban; we have a nuclear arms race in South Asia between India and Pakistan that is very dangerous. We have North Korea expanding its nuclear arsenal in a very dangerous way.”

Bunn also points out that tensions have resurfaced with Russia.

“The successes are real and important,” says Bunn, “but the world has proven to be more resistant to change in nuclear postures than Obama expected when he came to office.”

“So there’s a lot of work for the next president still to do,” he adds.

Meanwhile, the United States is maintaining its nuclear strength.

“What President Obama said is that we will seek the safety of a world free of nuclear weapons, but will maintain a safe, secure and reliable deterrent in the meantime,” says Bunn. “And unfortunately most of the effort since then has been focused on the safe, secure and reliable deterrent.

“It’s an amazing irony of history that the president who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his soaring disarmament rhetoric is also the president who has laid out literally a trillion dollar program over the next 30 years to modernize every aspect of the US nuclear arsenal to last, essentially, forever.”

All that said, Bunn remains optimistic that there could one day be a world without nuclear weapons, with enough common sense safeguards for international security.

“I don’t expect it’s going to be here tomorrow, but I can at least imagine that world… To say never can these conflicts be resolved represents a failure of imagination.”