WASHINGTON -- President Obama on Wednesday delivered in Berlin a modified replay of his 2009 Prague speech on the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, featuring a similar brand of soaring oratory about high ideals that his European fans and critics alike have come to expect.
It is four years later, though, and Europeans, like their U.S. counterparts, have had plenty of time to glimpse the human foibles and political battles that have come to dog virtually every American commander in chief.
This president, though freshly reelected last fall, specifically faces a hostile Republican-dominated House bent on increasing nuclear arms expenditures and a strong enough GOP minority in the Senate that Obama's hopes of atomic arms-related treaty ratification in the next three and a half years seem thin.
Though the president's prose at the Brandenburg Gate appealed listeners to care about "the lives of people we will never meet," his scaled-back expectations seemed to symbolize more broadly trimmed political sails. Obama laid out his nuclear policies before an invited audience of 4,000 -- small by comparison to the 200,000 who greeted presidential candidate Obama in 2008.
The address held a few small surprises: One is that the White House will host another international Nuclear Security Summit in 2016. The summits are a signature Obama initiative to discuss securing loose atomic materials from would-be terrorists, but until now it was uncertain whether there would be another after the next such gathering in 2014 in the Netherlands.
And, according to a White House fact sheet released just after the Berlin address, the president has already issued new guidance to the Defense Department that will lay the groundwork for a new nuclear reductions agreement -- to be negotiated with Russia -- that would cut deployed warhead ceilings by one-third.
Under the 2011 New START agreement, each side is to reduce to 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 fielded delivery vehicles -- bomber aircraft, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and ICBMs -- by 2018. A new pact, which sources said might be less formal so that Senate ratification is not needed, would bring the new warhead cap down to roughly 1,000 weapons, assuming Moscow accepts the idea.
However, Obama could only reiterate some of the Prague speech themes rather than offer a fresh political blueprint for making them happen, thus far lacking some crucial congressional mandates or international collective will.
These include his objective of U.S. Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which the Clinton administration failed to obtain in 1999; launching international negotiations on an end to the production of fissile material -- which growing nuclear-arms power Pakistan has effectively blocked for years in a consensus-only Geneva forum; convincing Russia to pull back its tactical-range nuclear arms from locations where they are believed to be vulnerable to theft or unauthorized use; and resolving international concerns about the militarization of nuclear energy in North Korea and Iran.
Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Secretary of State John Kerry had assured him on Tuesday that any new U.S. nuclear reductions agreement with Russia would go before the Senate for advice and consent. The State Department did not reply to a request for clarification on the matter by press time.
The new Pentagon guidance on nuclear-weapon targeting that is to now form the basis for additional arms reductions is actually somewhat dated. According to the White House fact sheet, the policies that allow for the presidential guidance were laid out in the Pentagon's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review and do not appear to take a further step beyond that.
"The president announced today an 18-month-old guidance implementing a three-year-old Nuclear Posture Review," said Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund. "Even under the Bush 2002 guidance, which [affected] our forces until yesterday, the [Joint Chiefs of Staff] were ready to go down to 1,300 operationally deployed strategic weapons. So whatever change was made, it wasn't much."
Obama's nuclear targeting directive -- the precise details of which remain highly secret -- tells Defense target-planners "to align U.S. defense guidance and military plans with the policies of the [Nuclear Posture Review], including that the United States will only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners," according to the June 19 White House statement.
"In the real world, an American president would only resort to the use of nuclear weapons in situations of extreme danger and destruction," said Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center. "The president's guidance reflects this reality."
Some administration insiders -- pushed along by a vocal arms control and nonproliferation community -- unsuccessfully urged the president to go further. They asked for a declaration that the "sole purpose" of U.S. arms is to deter nuclear attack. This has been seen as key in making more significant headway toward Obama's stated goal of stigmatizing nuclear arms by example, and ultimately moving toward their global elimination.
The posture review mentioned the idea as a future goal but did not embrace it in current policy. As things stand, the U.S. president retains the option of threatening nuclear retaliation for virtually any type of attack -- to include conventional or cyber strikes, for example -- even if the chances of such a scenario playing out in the real world seem remote.
It appears that those inside the Obama national security team pressing for a policy of retaining all options won the day, at least for now.
"That 2010 review said that the 'fundamental role' of nuclear weapons was to deter nuclear attack, but it did not say the 'sole purpose' of nuclear weapons was to deter a nuclear attack," Cirincione told Global Security Newswire. "Those who wanted 'sole purpose' lost internally."
He said the Berlin speech could still be important, though, as a signal to Defense bureaucrats and the nuclear complex that the Prague to-do list has not been forgotten, despite Obama's sparse mention of these themes over the past four years of grappling with the domestic economy and multiple armed conflicts abroad, among other challenges.
"Everything the president said today had been expected for some time," Cirincione said. "It was important for him to say it, and to say it in Berlin, and to signal to his own bureaucracy that this agenda is still one of his top priorities."
In fact, the speech also appears to have broken new ground in terms of symbolically linking a reduction in weapons of mass destruction to democracy issues now at the geopolitical forefront in places like Turkey, Syria and Iran.
"Our values call upon us to care about the lives of people we will never meet," Obama told the audience in Berlin's Pariser Platz square. "I'd suggest that peace with justice begins with the example we set here at home."
He said the world "cannot shrink from our role of advancing the values we believe in" and that "peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons, no matter how distant that dream may be."
"I believe that this is the first time a U.S. president has discussed nuclear weapons in the context of peace and justice," Krepon told GSN. "Since the use of nuclear weapons would be a profound threat to peace and justice, this is not only appropriate, but long overdue."