A little-known fact about the Nuclear Security Summit, which concluded in Washington on April 1, is that it focused only on highly enriched uranium (HEU) in civilian possession, which means mostly materials used for academic research or for producing medical isotopes.

Nuclear Security Summit took place against the backdrop of a new arms race
Nuclear Security Summit 2016 took place against the backdrop of a new arms race

The remaining 97% of the world’s supply of HEU is held in military stockpiles, which are not open to discussion. Indeed, when it comes to HEU, even 3% is not negligible, but the brouhaha about the Washington summit, attended by 52 nations and four organizations, must be put in perspective.

The rubric Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) is being perceived as President Barack Obama’s nuclear legacy. Obama won the Nobel for promising during his 2008 election campaign to work for nuclear disarmament, which upon reaching the White House he realized was beyond his capability to achieve – and, perhaps, would not even be in the interests of his country – and he therefore decided to settle for the NSS, an improbable mission to catalyze the efforts to make the world safer by focusing on 3% of the world’s nuclear material stockpiles.

This may sound Kafkaesque, but then, Obama is a smart politician. What he has done is to peel off the legacy of the United Nations watchdog acting in this field already and to virtually transmute it as his presidential legacy. The forum he created is an unnecessary duplication of the work of the United Nations.

The Russians resented what Obama did and Moscow point blank insists that it only respects the United Nations as the charioteer of international consensus and norms on such a sensitive transnational issue of grave import to international security.

Clearly, most countries that attended this week’s Washington summit would agree with Russia on this score. Nonetheless, they chose to go through the motion of keeping Obama in good humor.

The US can at best extend help to individual countries on a bilateral basis to secure their nuclear materials – provided, of course, they welcome such help. Equally, these countries are unwilling to accept policy prescriptions or monitoring role by the US. Nor do they allow themselves to be made accountable to Washington.

On the other hand, US lacks the capacity or the means to enforce discipline, either. Thus, Obama has created a dubious legacy insofar as nuclear safety and security is and shall remain a national responsibility for a foreseeable future.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif simply dropped out at the last minute and decided to give the NSS a pass, pleading he had important things to do at home. Sharif was apprehensive that Obama might coax him to discuss Pakistan’s embrace of a new generation of small, tactical nuclear weapons, which US officials consider highly vulnerable to theft or misuse.

The NSS may not have a future beyond the Obama presidency.  The next US president could well hand over the platform to international organizations that are seriously working on the issues of nuclear safety and security. In fact, the US’ budget for aiding global nuclear clean-ups has been cut by half and the Obama administration is now projecting lower spending year after year for years to come, postponing or canceling a wide range of nuclear security activities that had been included in previous plans.

All things considered, therefore, Obama should have gone about very differently to “earn” his Nobel. He could have looked for a nuclear legacy in mainstream nuclear disarmament, because he is a genuinely passionate believer in the politics and ethics of that cause.

But Obama faltered. His fundamental mistakes were three. First and foremost, he alienated a “natural ally” – Russia. How can there be any progress in disarmament without Russia walking hand in hand with the US? It would be somewhat akin to “Hamlet” without the Prince of Denmark.

Obama’s decision to co-opt the previous administrations’ containment strategy against Moscow ratcheted up Russian-American tensions and in turn slammed the door shut against any prospect of Russia placing trust on the US’ good intentions in a strategic dialogue. Suffice it to say, Russia’s dependence on its thermonuclear deterrent against the US is at its highest level today.

Second, the US’ rebalance strategy in Asia and the taunts in the disputed waters of the South China Sea as well as a host of other steps (such the deployment of the missile defense system in Japan and possibly in South Korea, strengthening of the US-Japan defense treaty and so on) have certainly contributed to Beijing boosting its own deterrent capability vis-à-vis the US.

The Financial Times newspaper reported on Thursday even as the NSS meeting began in Washington that a new generation of Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles may come into service this year, heralding a period of rapid nuclear build-up by China. The report said,

  • With a 14,500 km estimated range, the DF-41 is the first Chinese missile capable of carrying multiple warheads that can strike any part of the US from anywhere in China… DF-41 did a number of things that old missiles could not… DF-41 has a mobile launcher. The longer range also means it can be deployed anywhere in China.

Of course, it will be a long time before China achieves nuclear parity with the US (or Russia) as the world leaders in stockpiled warheads, but China clearly sees this as a gap that must be addressed.

The heart of the matter is that the Nuclear Security Summit took place against the backdrop of a new arms race with the big powers aggressively modernizing, upgrading and expanding their nuclear arms.

Of course, Obama himself has gone back on his 2010 pledge not to “develop new nuclear warheads or pursue new military missions or new capabilities”. During his presidency, the US has initiated a trillion-dollar program to “modernize” its nuclear stockpiles.

The program aims at upgrading the existing nuclear warheads by wedding them to precision-guided missiles, and will provide mechanisms to adjust their yield so as to make them easier to use alongside conventional weapons. Abandoning its own pledge “not to develop or deploy nuclear weapons”, the Obama administration is pressing ahead with plans, among other things, to:

  • Replace its Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (each of which carries 24 Trident II missiles);
  • Expand the F-35 fighter program;
  • Procure a next-generation stealth aircraft (Northrop Grumman B-21) capable of delivering high-yield nuclear weapons; and,
  • Develop a whole new generation of weapons – direct-energy beams, rail guns, hypersonic missiles, miniaturized nuclear warheads, precision-guided nuclear delivery systems and so on – whose cumulative impact is that they break down the “firewall” between conventional and nuclear war.

Astonishingly enough, American pundits have begun strategizing a “winnable nuclear war”. Under Obama’s watch, conditions are being created for the first time for a world war involving combatants who possess nuclear weapons, where the rules of engagement are being rewritten in such a way that if a war breaks out, the use of nuclear weapons becomes a high probability.

In sum, it is this “second nuclear age” that constitutes President Obama’s true nuclear legacy. The NSS is a mirage. What a legacy for an extraordinary statesman who insists he abhors all wars!

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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