by Jules Witcover

Pivot to Foreign Policy: American-Russian Cooperation
American-Russian Cooperation

President Obama's quick trip to Prague to sign a new nuclear arms control treaty with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev marks a sharp pivot by the administration from domestic to foreign policy, and in some ways a welcome one.

After an intense sales follow-up at home to his successful but highly controversial enactment of broad health-care insurance reform, the American president is plunging into an equally historic campaign to roll back the threat of nuclear war.

While the shift may be dismissed by domestic critics as a diversionary move from the continuing health-care argument, it puts Obama on another stage that can tap into his relatively undiminished stature in Europe, where he is perceived as offering a clear change from the previous years of U.S. unilateralism.

Beyond characterizing the treaty signing as a tangible "resetting" of the American-Russian relationship, Obama corralled a bevy of other European leaders to the event. Their presence underscored the multilateral stake in nuclear nonproliferation of which he had spoken in Prague a year earlier.

Obama optimistically claimed that he and Medvedev not only had "stopped the drift" in their two countries' previously disintegrating cooperation, but also through the treaty had established a milestone for nuclear security and nonproliferation beyond their borders. Provisions include sharp reductions "nearly in half" in their nuclear stockpiles and weapons delivery systems, as well as improved regimes for verifying compliance, beyond provisions of the expired 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

Still unresolved and of Russian concern are American considerations of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe that U.S. advocates say would be intended to counter any nuclear threat from Iran's continuing quest for a nuclear-weapons capability, rather than from Russia.

The treaty agreement with Moscow, requiring Senate confirmation, is a prelude to an international summit called by Obama in Washington next week to advance his aggressive pursuit of global nuclear nonproliferation.

Along with the new treaty, the Obama administration has avowed that the United States will not target nuclear weapons against any signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that have no nuclear weapons of their own -- an obvious inducement for nations outside the treaty to sign up.

All this is occurring just as the Obama administration is pursuing a new non-nuclear weapons program called Prompt Global Strike. It is to have a long-range conventional-weapons capability to target terrorist and other threats, providing a potent deterrent well short of nuclear devastation.

One challenge to development and deployment of such a non-nuclear intercontinental missile is to find ways that it could be verified as non-nuclear by the Russians or other non-targeted country, and thus prevent a nuclear response by such unintended target.

In any event, the world rather miraculously has avoided any use of a nuclear device since the United States dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan that brought a swift end to World War II. But it also triggered a lasting debate on the imperative and wisdom of that fateful decision.

The closest known peril to such use came 17 years later in the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Soviet Union put nuclear weapons and delivery systems aimed at the United States onto the island. President John F. Kennedy with a naval quarantine achieved their removal after days of tense jockeying.

Throughout the more than 40 years of Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, adherence to a deterrence policy of "mutual assured destruction" (MAD) held the original and then subsequent nuclear powers at bay, along with limited nuclear arms reductions along the way.

But even the end of the Cold War, while vastly lowering international tensions, did not eradicate the threat of nuclear holocaust, by intent or miscalculation. The rise of terrorism generated fear of rogue countries or groups acquiring and using a nuclear device, warranting the diplomatic quest for nonproliferation that has just taken a major step forward in Prague.

So as Obama struggles to cope with a restive public at home that appears to threaten his domestic agenda, like any other American president he cannot afford to ignore the heavy demands of foreign-policy leadership in the nuclear age.


Available at

Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court

The Political Fix: Changing the Game of American Democracy, from the Grassroots to the White House


Receive our political analysis by email by subscribing here

Pivot to Foreign Policy: American-Russian Cooperation | Jules Witcover - Politics Today

© Tribune Media Services