Speaking in Prague a year ago, President Obama proclaimed "America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons," and outlined a sweeping agenda to address both longstanding and emerging perils from the world's only true weapon of mass destruction.
Those pledges included:
• reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy;
• negotiating a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia;
• pursuing ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, signed but not yet ratified by the U.S.;
• seeking a new treaty to end production of "fissile materials for use in state nuclear weapons;"
• strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; and
• launching a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material worldwide in four years.
It's a sweeping agenda to start moving nuclear issues among states off the dead-center of the Bush years. It addresses changing international realities, including the end of Cold War adversarial relationships and the growing problem of "non-state actors" like Al Qaeda pursuing weapons-grade nuclear materials and technology.
This spring elements of the agenda are emerging, with the release of the Nuclear Posture Review, the signing of the U.S.-Russia "New START" agreement and the 47-nation Nuclear Security Summit. The process will continue as the U.S. participates in the Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference at the United Nations in May.
As with all complex political processes, there are pluses and minuses. Support by the majority of Americans who hope nuclear weapons will be abolished in our lifetimes can help to uphold the program's many positive aspects against far right obstructionism. And positive pressure can help to strengthen areas where contradictions exist.
The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) lays out the administration's fundamental approach to nuclear weapons and nuclear arms control and disarmament. It declares the U.S. "will not use or threaten to use" nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states that signed and are in compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. At the same time, the U.S. is not yet ready to say its nuclear weapons exist only to deter a nuclear attack.
This is a big step away from old Cold War policies - and an area that needs strengthening.
As Arms Control Association executive director Daryl Kimball wrote recently in the Moscow Times, "Assigning U.S. nuclear weapons any role beyond ‘core nuclear deterrence' is both unnecessary and counterproductive. The United States, as well as Russia, should adopt a ‘sole purpose' policy now rather than later."
The NPR also declares the U.S. will not conduct nuclear tests and will not develop new nuclear warheads, new military missions or capabilities.
But observers express concern over its discussion of "life extension programs," including refurbishing existing warheads, reusing nuclear components from different warheads, and even "replacement" of nuclear components under limited conditions.
Scott Yundt, staff attorney for Tri-Valley Communities against a Radioactive Environment (Tri-Valley CAREs) writes that this can open the way for the powerful nuclear weapons laboratories "to research and develop what will be essentially new warheads." Tri-Valley CAREs cites scientific advisors who warn that "replacement" is both unnecessary and scientifically risky. The Arms Control Association's Kimball says that "given the success of ongoing U.S. warhead life-extension programs," new warheads and renewed testing aren't necessary to maintain reliability of the existing nuclear stockpile.
The signing of New START in Prague earlier this month is another big step forward in the Obama agenda. While the cuts in long-range offensive nuclear weapons are modest - the negotiators say 30 percent and many experts say it's less - they represent progress that has been lacking for many years.
On the plus side, according to John Isaacs of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, are better verification and a "stable and predictable U.S.-Russian nuclear relationship" that "sets the stage for discussion on deep reductions in U.S. and Russian arsenals in the future." Since each country can still destroy the other, and the world, many times over, those new discussions will be vital for real disarmament.
Though Senate consent to ratify New START is by no means certain, many observers believe that enough of a bipartisan consensus exists to make ratification likely.
But the price of such a consensus may be conditions that undermine the administration's stated objectives.
In December 40 Republican senators, joined by Connecticut independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, wrote to President Obama insisting on a big hike in nuclear weapons spending before they would back the new pact. According to Tri-Valley CAREs, they demanded that the entire nuclear arsenal be replaced with new modified nuclear weapons, as well as a series of new warhead component production facilities.
And indeed the president has now proposed the largest-ever budget for nuclear arms.
All of which means the "nuclear spring" heralds major advances that deserve and need the full support of the majority of Americans who would like to see a world without nukes, while at the same time demanding our critical attention to eliminate weaknesses that could scuttle those advances.
Much remains to be done before our country can truly say it is living up to the commitment the world's acknowledged nuclear powers made when they signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty four decades ago: "to pursue negotiations in good faith" to achieve complete nuclear disarmament and to conclude a treaty for complete and general disarmament.