Obama Calls for Dramatic Decrease in Nuclear Weapons

President Barack Obama said the U.S. could reduce its stockpile of long-range nuclear weapons by up to a third, and called upon Russia to make similar cuts. Margaret Warner gets reactions to Mr. Obama's call from former State and Defense Department official Eric Edelman and Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund.


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RAY SUAREZ: President Obama announced today the U.S. could reduce its stockpile of long-range nuclear weapons by a third and called upon Russia to make similar cuts.

Margaret Warner has the story.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We may no longer live in fear of global annihilation, but so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe.

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama made his new appeal for further nuclear weapons cuts at the famed Brandenburg Gate, symbol of the city that was a flash point in the Cold War years of nuclear standoff.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons, no matter how distant that dream might be. And so, as president, I have strengthened our efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and reduced the number and role of America's nuclear weapons. Because of the New START treaty, we're on track to cut American and Russian deployed nuclear warheads to their lowest levels since the 1950s.

MARGARET WARNER: In 2010, President Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed New START, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The U.S. Senate ratified it later that year, and it took effect in early 2011.

The pact required each country to reduce its strategic or long-range nuclear stockpiles to 1,550 weapons from 6,000. Today, the president spelled out a new goal.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I have determined that we can ensure the security of America and our allies and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third. And I intend to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Obama, who once laid out a vision for a nuclear-free world, said today he'd also pursue ways to reduce both countries' shorter-range battlefield nukes.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: At the same time, we will work with our NATO allies to seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe, and we can forge a new international framework for peaceful nuclear power.

MARGARET WARNER: He and Russian President Vladimir Putin met privately this week at the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland in a tense session that focused largely on Syria. Aides said Mr. Obama briefed him on his arms cut proposal.

But Putin didn't mention it today. Instead, he again raised objections to a U.S. anti-missile system being deployed in Europe. But Russia's deputy prime minister said Moscow couldn't take the proposal for further cuts in nuclear arms seriously while the U.S. continues building a system to intercept those weapons.

And Putin's foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said any negotiations on arms reductions would have to include other nuclear powers as well. The Federation of American Scientists estimates France, China and Britain have 200 to 300 nuclear weapons each, while Israel, India, and Pakistan have roughly 100 apiece.

The U.S. and other nations are pressing North Korea and Iran to halt their nuclear programs. The North Koreans have carried out three nuclear test explosions, but have not shown they can mount a warhead on a missile. Iran denies its nuclear program is meant to produce weapons.

And for reaction to Mr. Obama's calls for further nuclear arms reductions, we're joined by Eric Edelman, undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration. He's now at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. And Joseph Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a foundation that seeks to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Welcome to you both.

Joe Cirincione, beginning with you, what is the case for and why is the president now calling for these further reductions, coming so soon after the really big, huge reductions of just a couple of years ago?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE, President, Ploughshares Fund: Well, the reductions of a couple of years ago in the New START actually just tweaked the current U.S. arsenals.

You heard the president today, Margaret. He said, as long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe. He's echoing the vision of Ronald Reagan, who wanted to abolish nuclear weapons from the face of the earth, and John F. Kennedy, who said we must abolish the weapons of war before they abolish us.

What the president has done is restart his nuclear policy that actually has been pretty dead in the water for the last couple of years. He's saying that we have to get rid of these nuclear nightmares that still haunt us. One nuclear weapon can destroy a city. A hundred nuclear weapons could destroy human civilization. The United States has 7,000 nuclear weapons. Russia has 8,000 nuclear weapons.

We spend $50 billion to $60 billion dollars a year maintaining these arsenals. It's time to reduce these costs, to reduce these risks. The president took an important step to prevent new nations from getting these weapons, to prevent terrorists from getting these weapons, and to prevent the use of these nuclear weapons anywhere by design or miscalculation. I applaud him for his efforts.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you applaud him, Eric Edelman? And how significant are these cuts, if you still leave 1,000 long-range weapons, rather than 1,500 long-range weapons a side?

ERIC EDELMAN, Former State Department and Defense Department Official: Well, I don't applaud this.

I think the president has embarked on a dangerous and risky course. We're entering a very different and dangerous nuclear era. As in your introduction, you noted we have got nuclear weapons states emerging in Northeast Asia, in Southwest Asia, we still have requirements to deter, although we're not on hair-trigger alert anymore, Russian and to a lesser degree Chinese nuclear forces.

And that's why Gen. Chilton, who was the commander of Strategic Command when the New START treaty was ratified a few years ago, said he wouldn't be comfortable that our deterrence requirements could be met at numbers lower than those in the New START treaty.

The president said today that he wants to negotiate these preferably with Russia, but as a former diplomat, I don't know why you would declare your bottom line before going into a negotiation.

MARGARET WARNER: Joe Cirincione, are there dangers, is there a downside to going below some level, at a time when, as Eric Edelman says, you have a rising number of countries either nuclear or trying to go nuclear?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Well, Margaret, it's hard to imagine any military mission today that requires us to use one nuclear weapon. We haven't in over 68 years.

But perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe you have some missions that would require 10. Maybe you need 500. We have 7,000. So it's hard to believe that you can't trim this force by the few hundred that the president is suggesting and somehow that would risk U.S. national security. Quite the opposite.

There is a broad bipartisan consensus in the American security establishment today that whatever benefits these weapons may have had during the Cold War, they are now a liability. They threaten us. They do not protect us. So the president took a very cautious step today. He's saying, let's go down to 1,000 deployed strategic forces. Let's take them off the hair-trigger alert.

I beg to differ, Eric. They are still ready to launch. We still have over 1,000 weapons ready to launch in 15 minutes or less. Why? Why? Why do we maintain this posture with all those risks? We see the morale problems we're having with the ICBM officers in the Air Force, who know they're in dead-end jobs, who know they're stuck in silos in Montana and Wyoming and North Dakota waiting to push a button that will never be pushed.

It's time to get rid of this Cold War arsenal and reorient our forces for the real threats of the 21st century, terrorism, the spread of these weapons to other countries. That's where we should concentrate our efforts.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Eric Edelman back in this.

Respond to that, but also let's jump ahead to Russia's reaction? What did you make of Russia's reaction from the deputy foreign minister and the adviser, one linking it to missile defense and one saying we're not going to talk about further cuts unless all these other countries are in it?

ERIC EDELMAN: Well, I think, first of all, the purpose of nuclear weapons is not to use them, of course, on the battlefield. It's to deter their use.

And one of the requirements we have is not just to deter an attack on the United States, but we have responsibilities to deter attack on our treaty allies in Asia and in Europe. And an arbitrary slashing of our nuclear force posture is very likely to trigger concerns among those allies about whether we're prepared to defend them with a nuclear umbrella anymore or not, and perhaps spark some to think about developing nuclear weapons programs of their own.

MARGARET WARNER: Even with 1,000 long-range and thousands of ...

ERIC EDELMAN: Even at 1,000.

And with regard to the Russian reaction, I think the Russians on the one hand have wanted to have treaty-binding legal limits on U.S. missile defenses and on advanced conventional long-range strike capability. What we didn't hear from the president today is what he is willing to give up in order to get an agreement from the Russians on that score.

But on the other hand, I think the Russians reacted quite sensibly to the proposal, saying that others have to be involved. When we had 6,000 warheads active in the force, the idea of China becoming a nuclear peer would have been a bit fanciful. But now, going down to 1,000, you make that a realistic possibility, I think the Russians understandably don't want to give China an incentive to build up.

MARGARET WARNER: We have just a minute left, so I want to get you both quickly on this point. The president kept using the words "talk about" or "negotiate," but he never talked about a treaty.

Do you think he's headed to doing what George H.W. Bush did on one agreement, Joe Cirincione, first to you, and that is try to negotiate something without a binding treaty that has to go to the Senate?

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Right. Right.

You can make agreements with other countries without actually having a treaty. George H.W. Bush got rid of 13,000 U.S. nuclear weapons unilaterally, just saying he was going to get rid of them. Gorbachev just matched this.

The president clearly indicated his preferences for negotiations, but any president would be foolish to give up the right to size the U.S. nuclear forces the way he sees fit. We cannot let Russia dictate what weapons we deploy or how much we spend. That's our prerogative, not theirs.

ERIC EDELMAN: I think there's going to be a lot of concern in the Congress and particularly the Senate about this, not for the least of the reasons being that the Russians, as the Strategic Force Posture Commission recognized, have been in violation of the unilateral undertakings they made with regard to the George H.W. Bush reductions that Joe just talked about.

MARGARET WARNER: But is there anything the Senate could do to prevent this, or the Congress?

ERIC EDELMAN: Well, the Congress -- in the current version of the National Defense Authorization Act passed by the House, there are requirements not to fund New START reductions until the administration has ratified -- or it suggested that the agreement be sent to them as a treaty.

MARGARET WARNER: That's right. We forget it costs money to actually build down.

Eric Edelman, thank you.

Joe Cirincione.

Thank you both.

JOSEPH CIRINCIONE: Thank you, Margaret.

ERIC EDELMAN: Thank you.