Does Obama want a nuclear free world?

8:53 am - July 27th 2008

by Sunder Katwala    

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Perhaps the most striking passage in Barack Obama’s Berlin speech was the prominence he gave to his call for the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

This is the moment when we must renew the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. The two superpowers that faced each other across the wall of this city came too close too often to destroying all we have built and all that we love. With that wall gone, we need not stand idly by and watch the further spread of the deadly atom. It is time to secure all loose nuclear materials; to stop the spread of nuclear weapons; and to reduce the arsenals from another era. This is the moment to begin the work of seeking the peace of a world without nuclear weapons.

This will sound radical to American and to European ears, perhaps especially in Britain.

I can not imagine a British Labour party leader giving the issue a similar level of prominence in a major campaign speech.

That is largely because of British domestic politics – and the way in which unilateralism divided the party in the 1950s, then became a symbol of Labour’s unelectability in the 1980s. The Trident renewal debate has often seemed to be as much about electoral politics as national security.

Obama first made this commitment last Autumn in his New Beginning speech. Its inclusion in this flagship European address reinforces the signal that an Obama administration intends to seriously engage with the growing bipartisan support in the United States to replace the theory of deterrence with a strategy to reduce and elimate nuclear weapons.

Henry Kissinger is the standout counterintutive name for a European audience, but he, George Schultz, Sam Nunn and William Perry were able to boast an astonishingly impressive list of the great and good of American diplomacy who have rallied around the goal.

We have also been encouraged by additional indications of general support for this project from other former U.S. officials with extensive experience as secretaries of state and defense and national security advisors. These include: Madeleine Albright, Richard V. Allen, James A. Baker III, Samuel R. Berger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Frank Carlucci, Warren Christopher, William Cohen, Lawrence Eagleburger, Melvin Laird, Anthony Lake, Robert McFarlane, Robert McNamara and Colin Powell.

More recently, the John McCain campaign have also signalled an interest in this agenda, referring to Ronald Reagan’s dream of a nuclear free world. While McCain’s approach is less specific than Obama’s it has led John Kerry to highlight the opportunity this creates for a bipartisan initative.

In Europe, the debate has largely been confined to diplomatic circles, though David Owen’s ‘pro-nukes’ policy was one of the defining issues of his political career, and so his involvement in a joint cross-party initiative with Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind and George Robertson was an attempt to emulate the US elite foreign policy initative.

The British government does share the goal. Former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett gave a significant speech including this commitment in one of her final speeches as Foreign Secretary. The speech was given to the Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference in Washington DC, and took place in the week of the Blair-Brown transition, and so was little noticed except by specialist audiences.

Perhaps the Obama commitment may now lead to a greater public debate on this side of the Atlantic too.

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Environment ,Foreign affairs ,Realpolitik ,United States

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Reader comments

Maybe Gordon Brown should reconsider the UK’s role in US Missile Defence and seek to develop a strategy with our allies in Europe (the political parties and the public) to prevent the US starting a new arms race?

They share the goal…. but what are they actually doing about it?

Its an impressive goal, no doubt. and I’m glad Obama is taking the lead on it. Can’t see it coming from our own political leaders frankly.

Obama’s played this very cleverly. The big headline rhetoric is a world without nuclear weapons. This may appeal to a lot of people on the left and in Europe but is something I don’t agree with and I doubt would win him support in the centre ground in America.

However his actual policy proposals are perfectly sensible. Reducing nuclear proliferation, securing loose nuclear material and reducing (but not removing) existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons are things which most people will agree with even in America.

4. douglas clark


How can you say that a speech that explicity says:

This is the moment when we must renew the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

is some sort of rhetoric?

It either means what it says, or Barak Obama is a liar. And I’ve never seen him lie.

You cannot hide behind policy when you have a clear cut statement like that.,Whatever your personal attraction is to nuclear bombs. What is it with folk like you? My ability to blow you to bits is my moral right, or something?

Douglas, note that it is only a ‘goal’ and therefore not as clearcut a promise as you seem to be interpreting it.

No serious politician will take sweeping unilateral action, so it is clever use of language by Obama to plot a course between either extreme, although it remains to be seen whether it is empty rhetoric or backed up by something more meaningful.

It is undeniable that he is a skillful orator, so it would be interesting to find out if his verbal dexterity is matched by tactical fluency as well as knowledge and acceptance of his personal limitations.

He has shown the ability to think on his feet and condense his use of words in a way which hasn’t created any hostages to fortune yet. In getting to this position so young he has shown far-sightedness and in getting to this position now he betrays his qualification of a certain ruthlessness. So far, so impressive, but the exponential risk for him grows in that the requirement to conciliate is removed from him as he rises in popularity with every small success.

6. douglas clark


I never imagined that the US was going to go unilateral. What kind of idiot do you think I am? It is, though, objective setting. And, as an objective, or more importantly as a pursued policy, it is completely admirable. Especially as it is coming from the next POTUS. If anyone on this planet can set an agenda it is the President of the USA,

We’ll need to see what transpires from this, but shariq’s negativism, and to some extent your own, should cause you both to question what you stand for. I think Barak Obama has outlined a sensible course for humanity. Any arguement there?

DC, don’t think youre an idiot, just over-hasty sometimes. Maybe it is possible to admire the intended purpose, but some restraint should sensibly be shown in linking intents and purposes.

Where I stand is opposed to duopolistic politics represented by the Rep/Dem split which creates forced choices that never truly satisfies anyone – particularly when defining questions like nuclear weapons are not a simple two-way matter of either/or peace or war.

What Barack Obama has done in this case is to reaffirm previous intentions in a way that hints at a new method of productive bargaining without making any promises, so I remain to be convinced that these words can or will be followed up in any meaningful way.

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