For all of the foreign policy challenges that the Obama Administration is attempting to manage and resolve, none seems as important to the president personally than the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. Nuclear nonproliferation continues to be the backbone of Barack Obama’s security policy, and an issue that the president himself has worked extensively hard on over his first eighteen months in office.
Two months ago, the United States hosted the very first “Nuclear Security Summit” which was designed to find and lock up loose nuclear material around the world before international terrorists could get a hold of these dangerous components. The summit was a great illustration of the president’s appeal across the world at that point in time. Forty-seven national leaders chose to make the journey to Washington DC to participate in the discussions. And when all was said and done, all 47 produced a collective communiqué outlining the urgent need to find and secure nuclear material for the sake of global security. Nuclear nonproliferation was once again an issue on the world stage.
But the summit was only the start of the administration’s campaign. Around the same time, the White House shocked the Washington establishment by diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in American foreign policy. The United States would no longer point its nuclear arsenal toward the direction of nonnuclear weapons states, even if American interests were directly threatened (although the actual wording of the National Security Strategy excluded Iran and North Korea from this promise). In an extreme transformation from the Cold War era, the National Security Strategy (NSS) prohibited the offensive use of nuclear weapons in an armed confrontation. Last but not least, the NSS stressed that America’s large and powerful nuclear stockpile was to be used only for defensive purposes. Or as Washingtonians like to say, for deterrence purposes.
But perhaps more important than the actual directives of the NSS was the way the strategy itself portrayed nuclear weapons: outdated, expensive, dangerous, and useless for the twenty-first century.
The central aim of both events was to demonstrate to the world the extent of Washington’s sincerity. The NSS and the summit were also political moves which administration officials hoped would convince other states to back America’s stance on the Iranian nuclear program.
That was then. The world has changed markedly over the past few months, and as a consequence, the United States has changed its stance on the nuclear issue.
In the latest case of American knee buckling, Washington recently signed a nuclear cooperation deal with Vietnam that would in effect spread nuclear technology to East Asia. To be fair, the deal is not entirely unprecedented. Under President George W. Bush’s administration, the United States enacted a similar agreement with India. President Obama largely followed the Bush blueprint by approving a nuclear sharing pact with the United Arab Emirates in 2009 (which Congress later signed into law). Like previous agreements, the American-Vietnamese deal focuses solely on the peaceful development of nuclear energy, which officials hope will show other states that nuclear transparency is the better option.
However, there is one vital difference that could damage President Obama’s entire nuclear nonproliferation policy. As the American-Vietnamese nuclear agreement currently stands, the Vietnamese government would still be allowed to enrich its own uranium, rather than importing it from the world market.
To some in the administration, the clause may not seem to be such a big deal, particularly given Vietnam’s quick transformation as a responsible actor in the international system. But the omission of a “gold standard” in the Vietnam deal is in fact significant in a number of respects.
First off, the gold standard omission portrays to the world an America that is both unsure of its own nuclear policy and a nation that is all too willing to make exceptions to those labeled pragmatic or strategic. In essence, Washington is saying one thing and doing another. “If your country is in an unstable environment or is a reluctant partner, then don’t expect the United States to support your right to domestic enrichment.” Iran clearly fits in this camp, as do Jordan and Saudi Arabia, albeit at a much smaller scale. “If, however, your leaders comply with American demands, then Washington will drop its objections.”
Is this the type of message that the United States want to send to the developing world? If the Obama Administration truly wants to improve American credibility in areas that are traditionally hostile to American objectives, then the answer would appear to be no. A “my way or the highway” mentality can hardly be labeled constructive within the broader campaign of international outreach.
Why the Obama Administration decided against following the India-UAE example with Vietnam is anyone’s guess. Perhaps this was the only way the United States could finalize a very profitable business contract. Perhaps the Vietnamese were unrelenting during negotiations. Or perhaps Washington is not concerned about the Vietnamese getting the Bomb.
Whatever the reason, the American-Vietnamese agreement is not going to sit well with the Iranians. Tehran has been trying to exert the very same nuclear enrichment rights that the Vietnamese were privileged enough to squeeze out of Washington.
What is more, the United States may have also established a dangerous precedent in future nuclear negotiations. Countries like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt may now insist that they be granted the same nuclear enrichment rights. This not only puts the United States in a tough position with members of the developing world, but also ruins Obama’s strategy of an eventual “world without nuclear weapons.”
No one said the foreign policy business was going to be easy. But it may be a lot easier if the United States exerted some consistency on a major security issue.