Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes teased an Arms Control Association audience in June by stating “I can promise you today that President Obama is continuing to review a number of ways he can advance the Prague agenda over the course of the next seven months. Put simply, our work is not finished on these issues.”
It might be too soon to take a full victory lap, but for those who have been forcefully pushing back on the Obama administration’s last ditch efforts to weaken the U.S. nuclear deterrent before he leaves office, there has been some encouraging developments. On Tuesday Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told airmen at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico that the doctrine of nuclear deterrence that allows for the possibility that the United States might launch a first nuclear strike before an enemy attacks will remain the policy of the United States. He said “That’s our doctrine now, and we don’t have any intention of changing that doctrine.”
The United States maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity.” This means that the United States does not say whether we will employ a nuclear weapon first in a conflict or only in response to a nuclear attack. This keeps our enemies guessing and has the effect of dissuading them from calculating that they can get away with attacks on the United States or our allies as long as they are not nuclear. According to media reports, U.S. allies including the U.K., France, Japan, South Korea, and Germany expressed serious concern over the possibility of the U.S. change in policy. But arms control groups and some Democrat policymakers were clamoring for the Obama administration to change U.S. policy before the clock runs out, and to exchange the long-standing bi-partisan policy of strategic ambiguity for “no first use.”
The administration was also pursuing a UN Security Council Resolution to further the aims of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the Senate rejected in 1999. The administration knew it was unlikely, if not impossible, to achieve Senate ratification due to the treaty’s overwhelming unpopularity (for a slew of good reasons), and so it sought to circumvent the Senate altogether. Several senators, including Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and many other Republican senators rejected those efforts and took the administration to task over its unconstitutional executive overreach.
In the end, the Obama administration was forced to back off its initial pursuit of a legally binding Resolution at the UNSC and instead settled for one that merely “urges” states to ratify the treaty and “calls upon” states not to test nuclear weapons.
While there are several weeks left in President Obama’s final term, the window is quickly closing and opposition to his radical disarmament agenda remains strong, and so far, very effective.