Obama’s Vision of a Global Nonproliferation Regime: Two Scenarios


By Lydia Walker

Since he became US President, Barack Obama has placed nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament on the international agenda. What have been his means? First, he used a public platform to spotlight his personal commitment to nonproliferation in his Prague Speech. Second, he moderated his past skepticism towards nuclear partnerships with nations who have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). On his recent visit to India, Obama supported India’s membership to the Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG), revealing that he considers the NPT to be most useful as a code of conduct rather than as a legal treaty. But Obama’s nonproliferation strategy, which has combined idealism with pragmatic diplomacy, has been stalled. The President may not be able to get New START, a seemingly uncontroversial arms control agreement with Russia, signed by the US Senate.

Based on his rollercoaster ride, what might be Obama’s future (re)vison of a global nonproliferation regime? Will the limits of international-legal treaties, and his failure to get the US Senate to ratify them, stop him from investing his political clout in international nonproliferation? Or will he seek alternative frameworks to work around the existing constraints in terms of enforcement and ratification of the present nonproliferation regime? The following are two speculative scenarios.

Scenario 1: Replace Nonproliferation with Counterproliferation
Obama decides that internationally he has too much to handle – two active fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan in the Long War against Global Terrorism, and a new one opening up in Yemen, coupled with the competitive currency devaluation brinkmanship with China. Moreover, the slackening US domestic economy strengthens his political opponents. Therefore, he no longer has the flexibility to give global nonproliferation more attention. Besides, increased tension on the Korean peninsula and nuclear pronouncements by Iran make this task increasingly difficult. In order to gain the votes of a new Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a wafer-thin majority in the Senate, the Obama administration looks back to 2003. It then uses the Bush administration’s doctrine of counterproliferation to justify surgical strikes on the North Korean and Iranian nuclear facilities. The language of counterproliferation replaces nonproliferation and future disarmament in Obama’s nuclear policy. Prague 2010 looks like a remote, isolated moment in time.

Scenario 2: Nonproliferation as a Normative Concept
In an effort to maintain Indian support for the US’s increasingly controversial international monetary policies, Obama facilitates trade of nuclear technologies, traditionally limited to NPT signers with India. In consequence, the NPT becomes less important as a legal document and increasingly becomes a normative framework of behaviour. WikiLeaks then publicizes specific information on the Israeli nuclear weapons program. That “open secret” is secret no more. But the Obama Administration will not sanction so close an ally. Instead, an international consensus develops where signing the NPT is less important than abiding by its provisions. Additionally, the difficulties involved in getting the US Senate to ratify New START makes the Obama administration look for alternatives – specifically NATO – to craft an arms control agreement with Russia. Gradually, the executive branch continues to work around the Senate by making fewer and fewer formal bilateral treaties; instead the White House uses multilateral partnerships in lieu of bilateral negotiations. This means that existing agreements are not deemed binding for the US, and other nations reciprocate in kind. However, this flexibility and room for future maneuvering allows for a greater number of informal nonproliferation agreements. These informal arrangements begin to assist the NPT regime by converting it into an international nonproliferation consensus.

These scenarios highlight two themes that have become familiar over Obama’s last two years in office. The first, depicted in Scenario 1, are the surprising continuities between the Obama administration and that of George W. Bush. The international landscape did not suddenly change in January 2009. Policies that may have seemed singular to the second Bush Administration have continued into the Obama administration. Yet counterproliferation as a justification for international intervention is unlikely to return: Obama’s commitment to nonproliferation is long-standing – while he may not be able to continue to put much weight behind nonproliferation policies, why would he spend political capital on counterproliferation – a policy that is not only unpopular internationally, but also personally repugnant?

A second theme, exposed in Scenario 2, is Obama’s skill as a consensus builder and his image as a transformational figure. Though his glow may be dimming at home, abroad much of that sheen remains. In this scenario, Obama is able to turn the tables – instead of weaknesses at home diminishing his international clout, he uses flexible international solutions to marginalize his domestic opponents. 2011 may well bring about new permutations in Obama’s nuclear policy. Future events will shape these shifts. Normative nonproliferation would be a way for Obama to parlay his strengths to cover his weakness – to revive the spirit of the NPT despite its limitations.

Lydia Walker
Research Intern, IPCS
email: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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