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Obama disappoints in Berlin, offering no concrete policy changes for achieving a nuclear weapon free world

US President Obama’s speech in Berlin on 19 June 2013 indicated his readiness to pursue further reductions of the deployed US nuclear arsenal in tandem with Russia. However, his plan for achieving these reductions is unclear, especially given that the Russian government has declared it will not participate in further nuclear reductions if the United States continues to pursue a missile defence system with NATO. Furthermore, the announced goal of reducing the US and Russian deployed nuclear arsenals by 1/3 does not go far enough. Following a series of positive initiatives highlighting mounting concerns over the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, the Berlin speech highlights the Obama administration’s failure to respond to the international desire to achieve the total elimination of nuclear weapons.

“The speech by Obama comes at a point where many states, international organisations and civil society are increasingly raising concerns about the inhumane effects that nuclear weapons entail. We are seeing a growing determination around the world to prevent any future use of nuclear weapons by negotiating a ban on their development, possession, and deployment,” says Beatrice Fihn, programme manager of Reaching Critical Will. “During the Preparatory Committee of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in April, a South Africa-led initiative that highlighted the unacceptable consequences of any detonation of nuclear weapons received cross-regional support from 80 states. We would hope that reductions by nuclear-armed states and the growing concerns about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons will mutually reinforce efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons.”

However, the Russian government has made it clear that it will not pursue further reductions in its nuclear arsenal unless the United States ceases its plans to develop a missile defence system with NATO. Obama’s stated interest in reducing tactical nuclear weapons is likewise tempered by the fact that United States has plans to modernize the B-61 bombs based in Europe. These modernization plans will cost $10 billion, upgrade its accuracy and yield options, and include a new stealth delivery vehicle. Furthermore, as was seen in the last round of arms control negotiations, billions of dollars were promised to the US nuclear complex in exchange for ratification of limited reductions. This will be a recurring problem in the current political context for the ratification of additional reduction treaties and for Obama’s other stated goals, such as ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Meanwhile, significant concerns remain about the on-going modernization programmes in all nuclear-armed states and the continued reliance on nuclear weapons in security doctrines. These challenges, together with the nuclear crisis in the Korean peninsula, demonstrate that nuclear weapons are still a global humanitarian threat today. Yet Obama’s speech focused on steps he laid out in Prague five years ago—steps that do not address the true dangers of nuclear weapons but instead indicate US continued reliance on these weapons for “security”.

“The speech by President Obama may seem to indicate his administration’s willingness to reduce its deployed nuclear weapons, but the policy changes that would need to be adopted in order to achieve these goals are nowhere to be seen,” argued Ray Acheson, director of Reaching Critical Will.

Earlier this year in Oslo, 127 states, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and several UN agencies engaged in a discussion on the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear detonation. But the five recognized nuclear weapon states—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—did not attend. Obama’s speech in Berlin does not address the fact that concerns over the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons increasingly demands that further progress on outlawing and eliminating nuclear weapons is needed.

For more information:

New York: Ray Acheson
Geneva: Beatrice Fihn