Barack Obama, A Promised Land (New York: Crown, 2020)
“Whatever you do won’t be enough. … Try anyway.”
— President Barack Obama
It was December 2009 and the still-new president was in his hotel room in Oslo getting dressed in the tuxedo he would wear for the ceremony to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. An aide knocked on the door and urged him to look out the window. Pulling back the shades, Barack Obama saw several thousand people in the narrow street below holding lit candles over their heads to celebrate him. “[O]n some level,” he notes in his excellent new 700-page memoir, “the crowds below were cheering an illusion … The idea that I, or any one person, could bring order to [this chaotic world] seemed laughable.” (p. 446)
Obama famously had questioned how he deserved this prize so early in his presidency. One answer was the “Prague speech” he had given that April, stating “clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Now, 11 years later, Obama devotes more words in his memoir to describing the scene on the streets through which his motorcade lumbered en route to the speech site than he does to the content of the speech. (p. 348)
The reticence clearly is not an accident. Throughout the book he barely mentions and never explores in depth what had been hailed earlier as the Prague Agenda.
For example, in an insightful 12-page discussion of Russian politics and U.S. efforts to “reset” relations with Moscow, Obama writes merely that his initial meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev produced “an agreed-upon framework for the new strategic arms treaty, which would reduce each side’s allowable nuclear warheads and delivery systems by up to one-third.” (p. 462)
Nowhere in the text does he mention the considerable labor that he personally devoted to shaping his administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, which was completed in 2010. His signature nuclear policy innovation, a “forty-seven-nation nuclear security summit” to strengthen international efforts to keep nuclear materials away from terrorists, gets no more mention than these four hyphenated words. North Korea receives two glancing comments.
Why does Obama — who was deeply engaged in nuclear policy issues throughout his presidency — devote so little to the topic in his memoir? What does this omission reveal about the politics of nuclear weapons in the United States? And finally, what should those working to reduce nuclear risks around the world learn from Obama’s attempts to grapple with his own legacy on nuclear matters?
There are many ways to interpret Obama’s nuclear reticence. He paid more personal attention to nuclear policy than any president since Ronald Reagan, and he was more knowledgeable about details than any predecessor, except perhaps Jimmy Carter. Disappointment over the results are surely a factor. Although this memoir covers only the first 18 months of his presidency, it is informed by knowledge of what happened later, including the near collapse of arms control with Russia, renewed qualitative arms racing with Russia and China, North Korea’s burgeoning arsenal, and the impossibility of winning Republican support for a nuclear deal with Iran.
But Obama faced lots of other disappointments that he discusses at length. He writes 30 pages on climate change policy and his diplomatic intervention to save the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009. You can imagine him saying of New START nuclear policy what he writes wryly about the Copenhagen effort:
All that for an interim agreement that — even if it worked entirely as planned — would be at best a preliminary, halting step toward solving a possible planetary tragedy, a pail of water thrown on a raging fire. I realized that for all the power inherent in the seat I now occupied, there would always be a chasm between what I knew should be done to achieve a better world and what in a day, week, or year I found myself actually able to accomplish. (p. 516)
An earlier passage may partially answer why nuclear issues barely register in the book. In recounting the 2009 press conference in Moscow with Medvedev where Obama had described the framework for what became the New START Treaty, Obama wryly (as usual) notes that Robert Gibbs, his press secretary, “was more excited by Russia’s agreement to lift restrictions on certain U.S. livestock exports, a change worth more than $1 billion to American farmers and ranchers.” This, Gibbs said, was “[s]omething folks back home actually care about.” (p. 462) Later, Obama bemoans the absence of a strong domestic constituency “clamoring” for the treaty’s ratification by the Senate, which left him no choice but to make “a devil’s bargain” with Republican leaders to boost funding to modernize the nuclear weapons infrastructure. (p. 608)
To sell books or political candidates today, the less said about nuclear policy the better. The public and media don’t follow the details. They can’t reasonably assess the pros and cons of policy options. Until there is a nuclear war — or a real scare that one is imminent — busy people are unlikely to demand big changes.
One could say that the public doesn’t care or follow what’s going on in Afghanistan, either, yet Obama writes much more about it. The difference is that Afghanistan was a war and topic of necessity — as Obama insisted in the 2008 campaign. He had to deal with it. Nuclear policy is an issue of choice so long as deterrence seems to be working. When the political payoff is negligible, it is better to turn to other things. People do get alarmed by Iranian or North Korean proliferation. The president should try to address those challenges. But neither the public nor Congress and the defense establishment see how stopping proliferation requires fidelity to nuclear disarmament, as Obama argued.
Public inattention means that Republican leaders could have relatively free hands to pursue arms control and disarmament measures if they wanted to. Their supporters will not protest, and Democrats by and large will go along. Democratic leaders face a much tougher challenge. The more public their arms control-related initiatives, the more that nativist Republican forces will counter them with narratives of weakness, naivete, and indulgence of evil Iranian Ayatollahs, Chinese Communists, or Russian cheaters. Those narratives win in cable news and internet combat in swing states and districts. To counter them and buy the necessary Republican votes, Democrats are compelled to fund new or different military capabilities that signify strength and revenue to defense contractors and host states. This says more about the public and the political-psychology of enmity than it does about Democrats, but the reader imagines that the Obama of the Prague speech underestimated the challenge.
For Democrats, the most plausible way around the mass constituency problem is to appoint motivated experts to key administration positions and to team them with military leaders who share the view that nuclear deterrence can be maintained between the United States and Russia and China with much leaner arsenals. Obama had a few such officials (e.g., Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller) but neither Secretary of Defense Robert Gates nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shared his nuclear policy predilections or exerted themselves against domestic and international resistance to them.
The political logic of selecting and working with military leaders who share a president’s view on the relative importance of conventional versus nuclear forces for securing the United States and allies is affirmed, indirectly, in another line from Gibbs. Talking about what became the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Obama wonders if the public would understand the arcane rule changes involved. Gibbs assures him, “They don’t need to understand it. … If the banks hate it, they’ll figure it must be a good thing.” (p. 553) In nuclear policy, the equivalent line might be, “If the military hates it, the public will figure it’s a bad thing.” In general, Obama stays shy of arguing with the military. Indeed, the memoir’s discussions of Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and Adm. Mike Mullen are sugarcoated compared to Bob Woodward’s account of White House-military relations in Obama’s Wars.
According to the Constitution, civilians should direct the military, of course. But the public trusts military leaders more when it comes to national security, especially compared to Democrats. To shift national nuclear policies in the current environment, the president needs to win 60 votes in the Senate to advance legislation — 67 to ratify treaties. This requires persuading senators from swing states to support the agenda. If the military joins opponents against a Democratic president, that president and his or her policies will lose. (This logic may, in part, be reflected in President-elect Joe Biden’s selection of retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III as secretary of defense. Due to the public’s trust in the armed forces, Austin’s military experience is likely to be a political asset. His impact on potential nuclear policy is unclear. Austin comes from the Army, a service that is less invested in the nuclear enterprise, as they and the Marines don’t have any nuclear weapons. As former commander of U.S. Central Command, he will have the best possible credibility for arguing in favor of returning to the Iran nuclear deal — credibility that Biden will need in front of the Congress and the public.)
To win military leaders’ support for new nuclear policies, or at least their politically useful nonresistance, experts and civilian officials will need to offer the military better alternatives for deterring or defeating threats. The best such alternatives would be dialing down Russian and Chinese coercion of their neighbors, and negotiating verifiable reductions of Russian nuclear forces and limitations on China’s military buildup. The United States, of course, will have to provide reciprocal reassurance to Moscow and Beijing, which is easier said than done. The other, not mutually exclusive, need is to improve U.S. and allied non-nuclear capabilities to prevent Russia or China from taking small bits of disputed territory and then leaving Washington with the dreadful choice of capitulation or major conflict that could escalate — purposefully or inadvertently — to nuclear war. To allay concerns of arms racing, Washington should make clear to Moscow and Beijing that it prefers to negotiate confidence-building and arms control mechanisms with them if they want to.
Rather than the audacious hope of Senator Obama, President Obama’s experience suggests that people seeking the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons need an attitude more like Albert Camus’ Sisyphus, whom “we must imagine happy” as he repeatedly pushes the rock up the hill. This is the Obama that comes through the superb memoir: patient, ironic, steadily trying, and grinning even as he knows that whatever we can accomplish may not be enough.
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George Perkovich is the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Chair and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.