Opinion | Graham Allison

Obama’s nuclear vision — or illusion?

Four years ago today, President Obama gave his first speech abroad. In Prague, he announced a bold vision for a “world without nuclear weapons.” Four years on, it is fair to ask: How is that working out? Assessing all the positives, and all the negatives, are we closer to the president’s aspiration — or further from it?

Former Senator Sam Nunn, a leading advocate for pursuing a nuclear weapons-free world, compares this undertaking to climbing an unscaled mountain. Standing in the valley, it may be impossible to see the peak. But as one reaches successive base camps, new vistas appear.

In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Nunn, along with former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and former Secretary of Defense William Perry, applauded Obama for having led the climb to two important “base camps” in the past four years: the New START treaty with Russia to reduce the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads and the Nuclear Security Summits in 2010 and 2012 that focused on the real threat of nuclear terrorism.


But as mountain climbers know, scaling unconquered peaks is much more difficult than climbing a ladder, on which each rung represents a further step toward the goal. Instead, it requires finding ways around crevices and snow packs without triggering an avalanche that could push the climber back down the mountain, perhaps even fatally.

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How do the risks of avalanches compare with the prospects for progress toward the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons? Implementation of New START will subtract at least 1,600 nuclear weapons from current arsenals. But the potential for catastrophic failure appears to be growing on at least three fronts: Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan.

Despite unprecedented economic sanctions that have cut Iran’s oil exports in half and reduced the value of its currency by two-thirds, Iran stands closer to its first nuclear bomb than it did four years ago. At the time of Obama’s speech in Prague, Iran had enough low-enriched uranium, after further enrichment, for one bomb. Today, it has enough for six. Then, it had 4,000 centrifuges operating. Today, it has 10,000 spinning and is installing another 3,000 advanced centrifuges.

Obama has drawn a clear red line declaring that Tehran will not be permitted to acquire a nuclear bomb. But if Iran proceeds, the United States will face a fateful choice between two unacceptable options: attacking to stop Iran or acquiescing to a nuclear-armed state. Whichever of these options one drills down on leaves one with a sense that the other might be better than originally thought.

Over the past decade, North Korea has demonstrated that one of the poorest, most isolated states on Earth can build its own nuclear arsenal. Defying five rounds of UN sanctions and repeated, explicit demands from the United States and China, it now has under its belt enough plutonium to build six to 10 bombs, a new uranium-fueled pathway to additional bombs, three nuclear tests, and a successful long-range missile test. North Korea also has a history of selling nuclear material and technology to whoever will pay. Could its next customer be a terrorist group like Al Qaeda or a state like Iran?


While Iran and North Korea combined have likely produced enough nuclear material for no more than 16 bombs total, Pakistan is now producing enough nuclear material for that many additional bombs every year. It is also actively developing battlefield nuclear weapons to support its doctrine that threatens nuclear use to defeat a conventional Indian attack. Moreover, Pakistan is a frail, if not yet failed, state that is home to several insurgencies and multiple state-sponsored militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, which conducted the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008. And while the military and its intelligence arm, the ISI, appear to exercise control of the country’s nuclear weapons, both were unaware that Osama bin Laden was hiding for years in Abbottabad, a mile away from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point.

No president since JFK has had so vivid a sense of nuclear danger as Obama. But examining the harsh realities in 2013, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, on our present trajectory, the likelihood of a nuclear avalanche is greater than the prospect of reaching the peak. Avoiding that tragic fate will require not just climbing faster on our current course, but making substantial strategic adjustments.

Graham Allison is director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and author of “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis” and “Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.”