It is no fun to be the one who rains on the parade, and, if nothing else, President Obama’s trip to Europe has been quite a parade. Or maybe “sold-out concert tour” is the better metaphor. There was a jolly town hall meeting in Strasbourg, France; a wonderful encounter between Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni, spectacular street scenes in Prague. The world’s statesmen fell over themselves to be photographed with the American president. During one photo session, the Italian prime minister, Sylvio Berlusconi, howled so loudly for Obama’s attention, that the queen of England was visibly unamused. (“Why does he have to shout?” she declared.)
Still, someone has to say it: Although some things went well on this trip, some things went badly. The centerpiece of the visit, Obama’s keynote foreign policy speech in Prague — leaked in advance, billed as a major statement — was, to put it bluntly, peculiar. He used it to call for “a world without nuclear weapons” and a new series of arms control negotiations with Russia. This was not wrong, necessarily, and not evil. But it was strange.
Clearly, the “no nukes” policy is one close to the president’s heart. The Prague speech even carried echoes of that most famous of all Obama speeches, the one he made after losing the New Hampshire primary. “There are those who hear talk of a world without nuclear weapons and doubt whether it is worth setting a goal that seems impossible,” he told his Czech audience. (Recall: “We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics.”) “When nations and peoples allow themselves to be defined by their differences, the gulf between them widens,” he continued. (“We are not as divided as our politics suggests.”) He didn’t say “Yes, we can” at the end, but he did say “human destiny will be what we make of it” — which amounts to the same thing.
The rhetoric was Obama’s — and so was the idea. Look at his record: One of the few foreign policy initiatives to which Obama stuck his name during his brief Senate term was an increase in funding for nuclear nonproliferation. One of the few trips Obama managed as a senator was a nuclear inspection tour of Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan.
Which is all very nice — but as the central plank in an American president’s foreign policy, a call for universal nuclear disarmament seems rather beside the point. Apparently, Obama’s intention is to lead by example: If the United States cuts its own nuclear arsenal and bans testing, then, allegedly, others will follow.
Yet there is no evidence that U.S. nuclear arms reductions have ever inspired others to do the same. All of the world’s more recent nuclear powers — Israel, India, Pakistan — acquired their weapons well after such talks began, more than 40 years ago.
As for the North Koreans, they chose the very day of the Prague speech to launch (unsuccessfully) an experimental missile. In its wake, neither China nor Russia wanted to condemn the launch, since doing so might set a precedent that would be uncomfortable for them. “Every state has the right to the peaceful use of outer space,” said a Russian envoy to the United Nations. His government does want arms reduction talks, but only because its nuclear arsenal is rapidly deteriorating. By agreeing to start them, we’ve unnecessarily handed Moscow a bargaining chip.
More to the point, nuclear weapons, while terrifying in the abstract, are not an immediate strategic threat to Europe or the United States — even from Iran. Biological weapons are potentially more lethal. Chemical weapons are far cheaper to produce. Within the United States, ordinary bombs and rogue airplanes have already caused plenty of damage.
Conventional weapons, meanwhile, have not gone out of fashion. The most recent use of military force in Europe — the Russian-Georgian conflict last August — involved tanks and infantry, not nukes. Even if Russia sold its remaining nuclear weapons for scrap metal, its military would still pose a threat to the country’s neighbors, just as a China without nukes could still invade Taiwan.
In other words, ridding the world of nuclear weapons would be very nice, but on its own it won’t alter the international balance of power, stop al-Qaeda or prevent large authoritarian states from invading their smaller neighbors. However unsuccessful the promotion of democracy has been, it is, ultimately, the only way to achieve these goals. Plus I’m not sure the French, however much they loved Michelle’s flowery dress, have much interest in giving up their force de frappe. Ditto the British. And since they don’t pose a threat, to us or anyone else, it’s not clear why we should waste diplomatic capital trying to make them do so.
It could be, of course, that the Prague speech represented a holding pattern: Obama will talk about “no nukes” until he finds a more satisfying idea on which to hang his foreign policy. And if not, all of that goodwill, so much in evidence last week, might well go to waste.