President Barack Obama renewed his call to cut the world’s nuclear arsenals, saying the U.S. can ensure its security and that of its allies with one-third fewer weapons.
Even though current threats aren’t as stark as they were in past decades, democratic societies must not ignore the risk of nuclear proliferation or the economic and societal conditions that foster extremism, Obama said in an address today at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate
“So long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe,” he told a crowd of 6,000 invited guests, vowing to open a new round of strategic arms negotiations with Russia.
Russian officials expressed skepticism about a fresh round of talks that doesn’t include other nuclear powers and discussions about U.S. missile defense systems.
Obama covered an array of foreign policy aspirations in his speech, including lessening income inequality, expanding democracy and confronting climate change. He sought cooperation with Russia on shrinking the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals below levels set in a 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty known as New START.
Under that accord, the U.S. and Russia are limited to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads each by 2018. The Senate ratified the treaty in December 2010 over the objections of a majority of Republicans.
While seeking to reduce the number of deployed nuclear weapons, the U.S. will maintain its “nuclear triad” of intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable bombers, according to a report on U.S. nuclear strategy released today by the Pentagon.
The call for the former Cold War rivals to cut their nuclear stockpiles comes amid tensions between the two countries, most recently over the civil war in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been backing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the U.S. and European allies are supporting opposition efforts to oust him.
Putin and Obama discussed nuclear non-proliferation when they held a face-to-face meeting June 17 at the Group of Eight nations summit in Northern Ireland.
Putin’s foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said in Moscow today that any further arms reductions must involve other nations with nuclear arms.
“Other countries should be in the process of cutting their nuclear arsenal as well,” Ushakov told reporters. “The situation is far from that one in the ’60s and ’70s when only the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union held a dialog on reducing their nuclear arms stockpile.”
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin indicated that Russia can’t reduce its arms while the U.S. builds missile defense systems, which long have been a point of friction between the two nations.
“Development of the shield and the sword are mutually interconnected,” he told reporters in St. Petersburg. “Not to understand this is either lie, bluff or demonstration of deep unprofessionalism.”
Even with their disagreements, it’s still possible for Obama and Putin to achieve progress on nuclear-arms issues this year, said Steven Pifer, director of the Arms Control Initiative at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based research group that analyzes national public policy.
“If the sides want to do something on arms control, I think they can manage, they can separate out, the differences on Syria,” Pifer, a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, said before details of Obama’s speech began to emerge. “The Russians in the past have shown themselves perfectly capable of compartmentalization.”
Obama’s goal of reducing nuclear arsenals, which he first set out in a speech in Prague at the beginning of his first term, also will face resistance in Congress.
House Republicans, citing threats from Iran and North Korea, put language in a defense-spending authorization that the administration complained would restrict the president’s ability to enact the nuclear-arms treaty and limit his ability to negotiate further reductions.
The Office of Management and Budget, in a June 11 statement, said the administration “strongly objects” to the limits. Any new weapons treaty would be subject to Senate ratification.
Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said Obama must follow through on promises to modernize its nuclear arsenal before engaging in any new negotiations. Failure to do so, Corker said, “could amount to unilateral disarmament.”
The U.S. spends about $31 billion annually to support an arsenal of about 1,700 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and associated delivery systems, according to the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based policy group.
Obama used the setting, where the Berlin Wall once stood, to evoke high moments in the trans-Atlantic alliance and historic presidential declarations of U.S. moral purpose in global affairs.
“Today’s threats are not as stark as they were half a century ago, but the struggle for freedom and security and human dignity, that struggle goes on,” Obama said. “And I come here for this city of hope because the test of our time demands the same fighting spirit that defined Berlin a half-century ago.”
This month marks the 65th anniversary of the beginning of the Berlin Airlift that sustained the city when the Soviet Union closed supply routes and sought to force it to submit to Communist rule. President John F. Kennedy came to Berlin 50 years ago this month to reaffirm American solidarity with the city and the cause of universal freedom in his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.
President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate in June 1987 while the Berlin Wall still ran beside it and challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”
The city also returned Obama to a triumphant moment in his 2008 presidential campaign, when he drew a crowd of 200,000 to Berlin for a speech promising to heal the rifts in the Atlantic alliance that erupted under then-President George W. Bush. The city’s Victory Column, where Obama delivered the 2008 speech, is within sight of the Brandenburg Gate.
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