Most newly-elected presidents spend their first 100 days on big, bold ideas. With a new administration seated and a new atmosphere in Washington, incoming presidents attempt to capitalize on their election victories in the hope of pushing through initiatives that would be politically impossible in normal circumstances. President Barack Obama not only followed that precedent, but went above and beyond any of his successors by calling for a world without nuclear weapons.
In one of his first significant foreign policy speeches of his presidency, President Obama addressed a crowd in Prague and let it be known that the United States would redouble its efforts to make a nuclear-weapons free world more more than an optimistic, pie-in-the-sky talking point.
“[A]s the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon,” Obama said, “the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it. So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Nearly eight years after he delivered that address, President Obama has had a mixed record on the nuclear non-proliferation front. Faced with an ever-evolving international security landscape, skittish Republicans in Congress who are resistant to any reductions in America’s nuclear weapons arsenal, and a North Korea and Pakistan upgrading their stockpiles and technology, Obama quickly learned how difficult it would be to succeed in that ambitious goal. And yet to his credit, Obama has succeeded in part by tasking his national security team to take non-proliferation as a top strategic priority. The completion of the New START accord with the Russians, the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, and agreements to lock up loose nuclear material around the world are three accomplishments that wouldn’t have happened without a chief executive dedicated to making nuclear bombs illegitimate weapons of war.
With the clock ticking down on his presidency, Obama is reportedly preparing another bold move, and it could be a lot more controversial than the New START agreement with Moscow: asking the UN Security Council to shore up the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
CTBT on its face is not necessarily the issue, although there are certainly those within the defense establishment in Washington that consider prohibiting nuclear explosive tests a bad idea. What makes this potential action from the White House so controversial is that members of Congress are left out of the discussion. As Commander-in-Chief, President Obama can approach the Security Council and attempt to get a resolution passed without congressional ascent as long as the resolution is non-binding.
President Bill Clinton tried to ratify the CTBT during his second term, but the GOP-majority Senate voted to oppose it. Seventeen years later, the votes for ratification are still not there. With the vast majority of Senate Republicans resistant to any treaty that they believe would tie the hands of the United States on nuclear weapons policy, President Obama would lose were he to submit the test ban treaty to the Senate at the last minute. Ratifying the CTBT, something that Obama has always wanted to do, is not in the cards during the remaining four months of his tenure.
What is possible, however, is improving the prospects of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty passing at some point in the future. A non-binding resolution at the Security Council that would encourage nuclear and non-nuclear states to either sign on or voluntary abide by its terms would provide arms control proponents in the U.S. with more ammunition to press the case at a later date. In Obama’s mind, it also doesn’t hurt getting the Security Council on record as supportive of further non-proliferation efforts, particularly when the permanent members of that council are all nuclear weapons states themselves.
Senate Republicans are understandably frustrated that the Obama administration is ready to once again bypass Congress in favor of a multilateral institution like the United Nations. Sen. Bob Corker, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, wrote President Obama directly with his displeasure of the news, referring to any campaign at the U.N. as a violation of the “constitutional division of powers” and an unwise move that would unnecessarily place an obstacle in front of America’s “ability to make decisions” on its own best interests.
Unfortunately for Corker and the rest of his Senate colleagues, they don’t have much power to stop President Obama from working with the Security Council. The White House will be doing what it can, using the constitutional power that it possesses, in order to build upon its non-proliferation agenda before their term expires–whether Sen. Corker likes it or not.