Interview with Stanford professor Scott Sagan on Obama speech in Berlin on nuclear arms

by Yumi Kanazaki, Editorial Writer

In June, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke in Berlin and restated his aspiration to see “a world without nuclear weapons.” The Chugoku Shimbun asked Scott Sagan, a professor at Stanford University, for his thoughts on Mr. Obama’s speech. Professor Sagan was visiting Hiroshima as a member of the promotion committee for the “Hiroshima for Global Peace” plan, an effort being pursued by the Hiroshima prefectural government.

Mr. Obama’s speech in Berlin appeared to lack the impact of his address in Prague four years ago. What do you think?
I think the president clearly indicated his intention to make the issues of nuclear disarmament, nuclear nonproliferation, and nuclear security an important part of his second term. The thrust of his speech in Berlin is his recognition that nuclear weapons remain a threat. I commend the president’s speech.

His speech called for a further reduction in the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons from the level set by the United States and Russia in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START Treaty).
The president didn’t provide details, though he mentioned that this will depend on “negotiations with Russia.” I imagine that he’ll seek an informal agreement as a first step.

When it comes to concluding a treaty, two-thirds of the U.S. Senate must approve it. This means that cooperation from the Republican Party is needed, and yet the party has been categorically opposed to the security measures sought by the Obama administration. Realistically speaking, getting their cooperation will be difficult. To conclude the New START Treaty, the administration was forced to swallow a series of concessions.

Under an informal agreement, concrete measures to verify whether the other side is in compliance cannot be put in place. So, eventually, a formal treaty is required. The fact that ties between the U.S. and Russia have cooled is a source of concern, but there remains room for negotiation. If the U.S. and Russia act, this would put pressure on China to reduce its nuclear arsenal, too.

Should the U.S. take the lead by making unilateral reductions?
It may be possible for the U.S. to do this, to some extent. But if it were to reduce the size of its nuclear arsenal substantially, and yet receive no concessions from Russia, there would be an outcry, politically, in the U.S.

Nuclear disarmament doesn’t simply mean reducing the number of nuclear weapons, which is hard enough. It’s vital, as well, to reduce their “role.” The Bush administration took the position that the U.S. could respond with nuclear arms to threats posed by chemical, biological, and even conventional weapons. Obama’s speech in Berlin referred to a limited role for nuclear weapons. In this sense, too, the speech is different from others and I hope people will respond positively to it.

This isn’t the first time that the U.S. has referred to a “limited role” for its nuclear weapons, is it?
In its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) of 2010, which articulates the long-term principles for the nation’s nuclear policy, the U.S. first stated that it would not attack non-nuclear weapon states with nuclear arms if they were abiding by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). This means that Iran and North Korea would not be protected by this provision. In Berlin, the president reaffirmed this point when he said that such nations would enjoy greater security if they did not seek to possess nuclear weapons.

Some former Japanese government officials, among others, have informally expressed concern that limiting the role of nuclear weapons would lead to an erosion of the “nuclear umbrella.”
This is a short-sighted view. The U.S. can respond fully to North Korea with its conventional forces.

The obligation to pursue nuclear disarmament, which is stipulated in the 6th article of the NPT, is also the duty of non-nuclear weapon states. In this respect, Japan, too, is responsible for reducing its reliance on nuclear arms. This stance could then prompt the United States to make greater efforts for nuclear disarmament. Of course, it would be important for Japan to discuss, realistically, how it could maintain its security with its own conventional forces.

President Obama also proposed holding a nuclear security summit in 2016. What is the significance of this proposal?
Nuclear materials that are not under adequate control, and could become a target for terrorists, are on the rise. The closer we approach a world without nuclear weapons, the more serious the challenge when it comes to securing the nuclear materials that would result from the dismantling of nuclear weapons. Strengthening nuclear security is a challenge we can’t avoid.


Scott Sagan
Born in 1955, Professor Sagan earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University. He became a professor at Stanford University in 2001, after serving as a lecturer at Harvard University and an associate professor at Stanford University. In addition to drafting nuclear policy at the U.S Department of Defense, he has been a member of the Commission on Strategic Posture, a bipartisan body composed of experts that was established by the U.S. Congress to review U.S. mid-term nuclear policy from 2008 to 2009.

(Originally published on July 6, 2013)