Skip to primary navigation Skip to main content

Obama Prague Speech Meets Reality Four Years Later

April 5, 2013

Four years ago on this day in Prague, President Obama announced he would seek “a world without nuclear weapons.” Since that time:

  • Iran has accelerated its nuclear program.
  • North Korea has conducted at least two nuclear weapon tests and multiple tests of missile technology specifically designed to put the United States at risk.
  • Russia was given the gift of a one-sided arms control treaty (New START), and another round of reductions continues to be sought.
  • China continues to modernize its nuclear arsenal and remains a proliferation concern.

Instead of chasing this dream by believing U.S. reductions have any effect on the nuclear behavior of Iran and North Korea, President Obama should re-dedicate himself to the other promise he made in the Prague speech—“as long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary.” That is, he must implement the nuclear modernization promise he made to secure ratification of New START.


President Obama said in Prague he would “seek engagement with Iran” to address its illicit nuclear program, continuing: “we believe in dialogue.” In July 2009, Secretary of State Clinton said Iran’s opportunity for diplomatic engagement on the issue “will not remain open indefinitely.” In October 2009, President Obama said “we’re not interested in talking for the sake of talking ... [T]he United States will not continue to negotiate indefinitely.”

Unfortunately, that is exactly what we have done, and Iran has used these four years of dialogue to accelerate its nuclear program. For example, the International Atomic Energy Agency Director General recently pointed out how Iran is installing more advanced centrifuges specifically for production of enriched uranium.

But perhaps there is reason for hope, as new Secretary of State Kerry said just last month Iran’s opportunity for a diplomatic solution cannot “remain open indefinitely,” and “talks will not go on for the sake of talks.”

North Korea

On the day of the Prague speech, North Korea, in violation of international rules, tested missile technology specifically designed to target the U.S. homeland. In the speech President Obama said “rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something ... Now is the time for a strong international response ... to pressure the North Koreans to change course.”

President Obama did not follow his own advice, unfortunately, and instead sought to bribe and talk North Korea out of its nuclear and missile programs. Five days after the missile tests, President Obama requested $95 million in supplemental funding “to provide Heavy Fuel Oil or equivalent to North Korea to support the goals of the Six Party Talks.” North Korea responded with a nuclear weapon test on Memorial Day.

Not to be deterred by empirical evidence and past practice, President Obama tried this route again in 2012, announcing he would provide 240,000 metric tons of food assistance to North Korea in exchange for it doing what it already has an obligation to do—not test nuclear or long-range missile technology. North Korea responded with a nuclear weapon test in February 2013 and two separate tests of long range missile technology (April and December 2012).

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

President Obama committed in the Prague speech to seek Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) “immediately and aggressively.” The February North Korean nuclear test laid bare two major problems with this. First, the United States has maintained a nuclear testing moratorium very publicly for more than 20 years. It simply strains credulity to believe North Korea conducted this nuclear test because the United States has not ratified the CTBT, or that ratification would have prevented the test.

Second, the test made clear the verification challenges involved. U.S. analysts were reportedly unable to collect sufficient information to make firm conclusions about the most basic elements of the test, even though collection resources were on full alert and attention prior to the test.

Future Reductions with Russia

President Obama committed in Prague to completing an arms reduction treaty with Russia, which he did in New START; and then seeking “further cuts” after that. Military professionals and leading experts have testified the nuclear numbers of the first completed treaty are exactly what the United States needs. Committing to further reductions would be prejudging without foundation that further reductions are in the U.S. interest.

The head of U.S. Strategic Command General Chilton was asked at a hearing if New START allowed the United States “to maintain a nuclear arsenal that is more than is needed to guarantee an adequate deterrent.” He disagreed with the premise, saying: “I do not agree that it is more than is needed. I think the arsenal that we have is exactly what is needed today to provide the deterrent.” Former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger similarly testified the numbers of strategic nuclear weapons allowed under New START “are adequate, though barely so.” 

A More Realistic Nonproliferation Policy

This empirical evaluation of the idealistic assertions made in the Prague speech about a world without nuclear weapons can be summarized by the Washington Post print edition headline on April 3: “U.S. Efforts on N. Korea, Iran Yield Little.” A more realistic nonproliferation policy is in order. This includes rededicating to modernizing the U.S. arsenal, not limiting U.S. missile defense capabilities, and committing to future reductions only with Senate consent.

In order to secure Senate ratification of New START, President Obama made a commitment to nuclear modernization, which he has already abandoned. He must return to his commitment when submitting his fiscal year 2014 budget request. A credible U.S. nuclear deterrent is actually a force for nonproliferation, as it assures allies they do not need to seek their own nuclear capability.

Next, it is clear President Obama wants to chase yet another arms control agreement with Russia. Russia has said the price for this is a legally binding agreement limiting U.S. missile defenses. Bearing in mind how President Obama told the Russian President he would have “flexibility” on this score “after my election,” Congress must be vigilant in ensuring he does not make further capitulations to Russia on missile defense as part of an arms reduction agreement. Indeed, it was once the position of the Obama Administration that “the issues of missile defense and strategic offensive reductions should be dealt with independently.” President Obama should return to that.

Moreover, if future arms reductions are even to be contemplated, they must be completed in tandem with Russia as part of the treaty process. There is certainly cause for concern, as there is significant talk in the arms control community advising the President to bypass and circumvent the Senate in this effort. For example, in his work for the Global Zero organization, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel signed a report advocating on no less than three occasions that the United States implement arms reductions unilaterally—that is, without Senate ratification of a treaty. Congress must ensure Secretary Hagel adheres to the position of his predecessor, Secretary Panetta, that arms reductions will take place in the Obama Administration only as a result of an arms control treaty process.

In the end, Congress should do its part to ensure U.S. nuclear force levels are maintained and modernized at the New START levels until the Senate ratifies another treaty requiring further reductions—meaning the Senate will be able to pass on the wisdom of those reductions.