In their upcoming Oct. 22 debate, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will finally go head-to-head on foreign policy. Nuclear weapons and arms control, however, have not been identified as topics for their third encounter. That’s too bad, because these subjects are central to the security of the United States — and in 2013 the president will face a significant opportunity for nuclear arms control.
There is little question that Obama sees value in reducing nuclear arms. Within months of taking office in January 2009, he delivered a speech in Prague laying out the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world. To be sure, he attached qualifiers and said he might not live to see achievement of the goal. In the near term, he called for reducing the role and number of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy, and both the nuclear posture review his administration completed in 2010 and the New START treaty it signed with Russia that same year reflected that aim.
Little of significance on arms control, however, has happened in the second half of Obama’s term. Although the president called for a new round of negotiations following New START to reduce nonstrategic and reserve nuclear warheads as well as deployed strategic nuclear forces, no such negotiations have followed. NATO adopted a deterrence and defense posture review that conditioned any change in the U.S. nuclear presence in Europe on Russian actions. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is no closer to ratification than in 2009. And completion of the administration’s nuclear posture review implementation study — which will set the president’s nuclear weapons policy and number of nuclear weapons needed to support it — has been delayed.