Dirty Budgets Threaten Obama's Daring Vision

On April 5th 2009, Barack Obama gave an unprecedented speech in Prague, in which he dedicated his presidency to laying the ground work for a world without nuclear weapons. “As the only nuclear power to have ever used a nuclear weapon,” he said, “the United States has a moral responsibility to act.” Today, an out-of-control nuclear weapons budget threatens that vision.

Friday marked the fifth anniversary of this historic vision. There is no doubt that the President has lived up to some of his commitments. After vowing to pursue a new treaty with Russia, the Senate joined together in 2010 to ratify the New START treaty. This treaty placed Russia and the U.S. on track to reduce the number of deployed nuclear weapons. Additionally, Obama has been good on his word in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to non-nuclear states. After pledging in Prague that the U.S. would finally engage in dialogue with Iran, Obama has shown resoluteness in getting a final agreement that would prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

Despite these major successes, certain factors have inevitably escaped the President’s control. In particular, his administration has been plagued by partisan stalling and international rivalries. Congress is still sitting on ratification of the CTBT, making the U.S. one of only eight signatory states who have still failed to do so. Abroad, nuclear-armed North Korea continues to loom large, with threats of another nuclear test on the horizon. With his invasion of Crimea, Vladimir Putin is becoming more of a Cold War revivalist and less of a viable arms control negotiating partner.

When Obama gave his speech in 2009, the United States was still engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, a reduced U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has brought much-needed relief to the U.S. budget. Recognizing that our national defense must adjust to strategic and fiscal realities, The Pentagon is reducing active duty personnel to pre-WWII levels and cutting out costly modernizations for unnecessary ships and fighter jets. But as the military trims down with an eye to the future, the 2015 nuclear weapons budget continues to look like something from the past. Despite the fact that these no longer meet our strategic needs, their budget continues to increase.

In Prague the president promised that, “to reverse Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same.” Today, while the role of nuclear weapons might be changing, President Obama’s requested nuclear weapons budget shows the persistence of Cold War mindsets in the Pentagon. The nuclear warhead budget alone has increased by 7% over FY 2014. By FY 2019, under the current spending paradigm, it will rise by 24%. To make matters worse, while the U.S. plans to rebuild its stockpile, the programs responsible for the dismantlement of nuclear weapons will take a 45% cut in funding. To top it off, programs intended to clean up the radioactive and toxic wastes produced by nuclear facilities will see no additional funding even though clean-up costs are on the rise. In sum, we’ll be spending more to build more weapons, less to get rid of them and next to nothing to clean up after ourselves.

It’s hard to argue that this budget is what the President had in mind when he made his bold Prague speech. Cold War mindsets are pervasive as ever. While we seem to be on the brink of rolling back the tide of proliferation completely, with a possible nuclear deal with Iran, we are slowing down as we approach the finish line. Non-proliferation programs stand to take a 21% cut under the current proposal.

The number to trump all the others, however, is the projection that the United States will spend $1 trillion on its nuclear force over the next thirty years. The security environment is changing rapidly and the U.S. military is working to adapt. However, as seen with the nuclear budget, the mindsets of nuclear policymakers remain focused on fighting last century’s nuclear war. Dr. Strangelove is alive and well.

It is time to match Obama’s daring vision with a nuclear weapons budget that upholds, not undercuts, the Prague vision of five years ago.