Obama in Prague: Four Things He'll Have to Accomplish

You might call April a nuclear month for President Obama. After announcing the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review this week, the president will travel to Prague tonight to sign a treaty with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev—an overture to a nuclear-arms summit hosted at the White House next week that is expected to include more than 30 heads of state.

Prague was chosen to kick off the proceedings because of a speech Obama gave there last year in which he called for a nuclear-free world. A year later, he hasn’t accomplished that vision, and likely never will. But his plans do move nuclear nonproliferation forward in a significant way by emphasizing that if the world won’t reduce its nuclear stockpiles, then at least leaders should commit to not developing new weapons and not using them against non-nuclear states. Obama faces the steep battle of convincing the rest of the world he's serious, while at the same time stunting the nuclear aspirations of rogue states or terrorist groups hoping to access weapons. As he heads to Prague, a look at Obama’s to-do list:

1) Make good on that “reset” Obama has been pursuing with Russia. Both countries have a burdensome past with one another, but Obama has tried to open the lines of communication. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty update that Obama and Medvedev will sign is a step toward mutually assured safety, but in some ways the politics is more important than the security. Keep an eye on the joint press conference both will host after the signing. Beyond touting their accomplishment in signing the treaty, seeing what kind of collective stance they’ll take on other nuclear aspirants will indicate just how closely both intend to work together.

2) Put states with ambitious terrorists on notice. It's unlikely that Obama—or anyone, really—can get nuclear states that haven't signed the nonproliferation treaty (Pakistan, India, and Israel) to commit to the NPT guidelines. Instead, Obama's concern is to make sure countries in terrorism-heavy areas like the Middle East protect their arsenals from the hands of terrorists. Obama would have to "tell these other countries that if we detect a nuclear weapon that came from your arsenal, we will hold you accountable," says Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow in nuclear proliferation at the Brookings Institution. And then, using the threat of advanced nuclear forensics that can detect the origin of a weapon, encourage states where terrorists live to beef up their security.

3) Ramp up pressure on “outlier” states. Even without a written agreement, the world has been mostly on the same page for almost a decade regarding nuclear proliferation. Except, of course, for Iran and North Korea, which the White House strategically labels “outliers” rather than rogue states. Both have defiantly pursued nukes without offering any promise not to use them. “He needs to isolate the Iranians,” says Miles Pomper of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Speaking out, Obama can frame the debate as the whole world versus both defiant states. Doing so would force both to come to the bargaining table—and frame it as their own fault if they don’t.

4) Show an earnestness to actually cut stockpiles. As with the world’s crises, the U.S. is often just as much a part of the problem as it is the solution. As nuclear arsenals go, no one has more than the U.S. (about 10,000), and if Obama doesn’t take the initiative to confront nonproliferation aggressively, other countries (including Iran) can reasonably hijack the U.N. Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference next month in New York by arguing that the reason it needs nukes is to protect itself from crazy Uncle Sam, which has too many. “He needs to show the rest of the world that we’re serious about nonproliferation issues,” says Pomper. The administration’s Posture Review showed a willingness to ramp down future development, but he’ll have to make a convincing case that it’s the world’s safety, and not just the United States’, that’s his top priority.