The President's Prague Agenda on the Brink

On Thursday, Rachel Maddow asked me if President Obama was going to fulfill the visionary agenda he laid out four years ago in Prague. I paused. What should I say? I support this agenda to move us step by step towards what Obama termed "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." But progress has been slow. I took a deep breath and answered the only way I could: honestly.


"I don't know," I told Rachel. The President deserves an A+ for his vision, for his drive, for his commitment, I said. But very little has been done over the past few years to advance the goal of reducing the role and numbers of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy. This is why a powerful coalition of many of my colleagues warned this week of "the price for this policy inertia." Our Ploughshares Fund grantee, former UK Minister of Defense Des Brown, joined with former Senator Sam Nunn and 30 other senior political, military and security experts who warn that unless we jump start the Prague agenda we face increased security risks, increased costs, misdirected resources and the undermining of the trust necessary to meet emerging threats.

We are at a critical decision point. And there is much to build on and to encourage the President. In the past four years, he made solid progress on some of the promises he made in the Prague speech.

He promised the U.S. would "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in [its] national security strategy…and begin the work of reducing [its] nuclear arsenal." It has.

He promised the U.S. would "negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians." It has.

He promised his administration would "seek engagement with Iran based on mutual interests and mutual respect." It has.

He promised to "secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years." He's close.

Most importantly, he promised that the U.S. would "take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons," and it has.

But since the ratification of New START two years ago, he has lost momentum. In part, it is because the Russians are hesitant to engage in new reduction talks. In part, it is because his political opponents viciously attack whatever the President does -- or does not do -- on national security. But in large part, it is because many of his own officials in the White House and the Department of Defense drag their feet on the President's agenda. They say it is too hard, or too risky, or too ambitious.

The President has to change this. He made a good start with his last nuclear policy speech in December where he promised that "missile by missile, warhead by warhead shell by shell we are putting a bygone era behind us." He needs to speak to the nation again, and soon, with hard talk on nuclear risks and nuclear policy. He needs to slow down the procurement of a whole new generation of nuclear-armed missiles, bombers and submarines now snaking their way through Congress. He needs to put policy back in command of procurement and not be driven by the inertia of Cold War weapon programs. Most importantly he needs to build on the growing bipartisan consensus that America can defend its interests with many fewer weapons at lower costs.

All this is possible. There is reason to expect that the President will do this. And that he will get strong support from Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. It is our job to create the political space that allows him to do it and create the political will in his administration to get the job done.

Photo by Mocha_208