Reviving the Non-proliferation Agenda

MADRID – US President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Hiroshima was no typical diplomatic stop. Not only did it mark the first visit by a sitting US president to that city, which was destroyed by an American nuclear bomb in 1945; it also drew attention to Obama’s record on non-proliferation.

In a 2009 speech in Prague, Obama identified nuclear weapons as “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security,” owing to their potential to fall into the hands of terrorists or other rogue elements, and committed to reducing their role in America’s national security strategy. In his moving Hiroshima address, Obama again emphasized the need to pursue a world without nuclear weapons. He described the “moral revolution” that must accompany technological progress, with societies resisting the “logic of fear” that compels them to cling to their nuclear arsenals.

But, though both speeches expressed similar ideas, they were delivered against very different policy backdrops. Indeed, the Obama administration’s nuclear policy has changed substantially since 2009, when containing nuclear proliferation was among its central foreign-policy concerns.

In 2010, Obama brought world leaders together for the first-ever Nuclear Security Summit, which focused on keeping nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists – a focus that has since proved to be justified. Though the initial aim of freezing stocks of plutonium and highly enriched uranium was not achieved, the four summits held since then have brought about a reduction in other sources of radioactive material, and safety measures have been improved.