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Two Cheers for Multilateralism

Why the nuclear review conference was a minor triumph for Obama.

Let us now praise modest achievements. The U.N. review conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty concluded at the end of May with a 28-page document (pdf)  that contained no new commitments by the nuclear-weapons states to move toward the abolition of such weapons. Nor did the non-weapons states bind themselves to accept more intrusive inspections of their nuclear facilities. The parties made few other substantive new commitments. Rebecca Johnson, a one-woman nuclear conscience who runs a British advocacy group puckishly named the Acronym Institute and who wrote an indispensable blog from the conference, describes the final document as "mostly smoke and mirrors."

That probably explains why the agreement has been largely greeted with a yawn. But Johnson, as well as other anti-nuclear advocates, believe that the agreement constitutes a historic breakthrough for which the Obama administration -- though not only the Obama administration -- deserves profound credit. I think they're right.

Until recently, the nuclear threat waxed and waned according to relations between the United States and Russia. That's history; the nightmare scenario of the post-Cold War world is not World War III but a nuclear strike by a rogue state or terrorist group. The U.S. cannot counter this threat without the active cooperation of many other states, and that is why both as candidate and as president, Obama has vowed to revitalize the non-proliferation treaty.

At the core of the NPT is a bargain in which the five states that had the bomb in 1968 when the treaty took effect -- the five permanent members of the Security Council, as it happened -- agreed to move toward disarmament while the other signatories agreed to work to prevent new states from acquiring a weapons capacity. In exchange, all states would be granted the right of access to peaceful nuclear technology. That bargain is often generously described as "frayed," as Israel, India and Pakistan have since developed a bomb without ever signing the treaty, while North Korea and Iran threaten to add to the list. The five official weapons states have mostly honored their disarmament pledge in the breach. And yet a dozen or more states that could have developed a weapons capacity have chosen not to do so. Many states have voluntarily accepted the intrusive inspections, known as "additional protocols."

Obama believed that other states would make good on their nonproliferation commitments if the U.S. took the disarmament side of the bargain seriously; the Bush administration, which sought to build new weapons even as it reduced the overall size of the arsenal, did not. The NPT is reviewed every five years, and the 2005 conference during Bush's presidency was an unmitigated fiasco. In 2004, John Bolton, then the assistant secretary of state responsible for arms control, had announced that the administration would not be bound by agreements that had been painstakingly reached in previous review conferences, infuriating many of the non-weapons states and licensing would-be spoilers to throw their own spanners in the works. Signatories spent the first half of the month-long review conference fighting over an agenda, and the second half blaming each other for a failure that felt foreordained.

By contrast, Johnson notes, "the Obama administration put people in place a year ahead of time, especially Susan Burk" -- the president's special representative for nuclear nonproliferation -- "to really work the whole field." The single greatest impediment to an agreement was Egypt's longstanding campaign to establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East -- a zone that would, of course, include Israel, the only nuclear state in the region. A 1995 agreement to advance the concept was the chief target of Bolton's sweeping 2004 edict. This year, Egypt would come into the review conference as the president of the Non-Alignment Movement, giving it far more leverage over other states than it had in the past. Cairo, and the NAM, insisted that the conference would be stalemated once again absent real progress on the Middle East, but Egyptian diplomats quietly stipulated that they would be open to a compromise outcome. Washington began negotiating in earnest months before the meeting began. And on the final day of the conference, all sides agreed on a non-binding conference to be held under the auspices of the U.N. secretary-general in 2012.

Because NPT conferences operate by consensus, which any one state can block, a final report requires the threading of many needles. Only two previous conferences, in 1985 and 2000, even concluded with such documents. This year, Iran came to play the spoiler, starting with a defiant opening speech by President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. The Iranian delegation made a last-minute bid to forestall consensus by asking Egypt to convene a meeting of the NAM countries the day before the conference ended; Egypt, refused. Unwilling to be isolated, Iran signed the final agreement. Tehran made no concessions on its apparently inexorable march toward nuclear-weapons capacity; an NPT review conference is not the setting for such high-stakes diplomacy. Nevertheless, the Obama team, always searching for evidence, however tenuous, that its engagement policy has helped realign global opinion on Iran, can cite the non-aligned countries' pragmatism in the face of Iranian intransigence as a new data point.

There is, it's true, much less than meets the eye in the 64 "action" points of the final document. France and Russia adamantly opposed the idea of a new treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons and requiring their abolition by a specific date (and Britain and the U.S. weren't enthusiastic either). Instead, the report said, the conference "notes" a suggestion by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that "proposes ... consideration" of such a treaty. The conference also recognized "the legitimate interests of non-nuclear-weapons States" in having the weapons states agree to things they wouldn't, in fact, agree to, like lowering the "alert status" of weapons to allow more time for a decision in the midst of a crisis. In his nuclear posture review, released in April, Obama also refused to make this concession.

But that's how consensus documents sound: You slice the salami finer and finer until you've reached a razor-thin point of agreement. The specific commitments matter less than the fact of commitment.

Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, puts the case negatively: "Given all the stresses and strains on the treaty at the moment, what would the effect be on our ability to deal with these challenges if these countries could not come to agreement on a final document?"

John Duncan, Britain's ambassador for multilateral arms control and disarmament, states the positive case: "What is described in this document is a political process," rather than a set of outcomes. Recognizing the "legitimate interests" of others is not an eloquent dodge, Duncan says, but a pledge to be held accountable. And that, he asserts, is something genuinely new.

In the recent past, of course, states have asked to be held accountable on fully funding development assistance, or reducing their carbon output, or stopping atrocities abroad, and haven't so much as blushed when they failed to make good. That's the limitation of the contractual approach to international affairs that Obama holds dear. But consider the alternative: the truculent John Bolton was not about to win concessions on nonproliferation, or anything else for that matter, from developing nations. Thanks to Obama's expressions of good faith -- in the New Start treaty with Russia; in his nuclear posture review, however compromised; in his speeches at home and abroad -- those states were willing to make pledges on nonproliferation they had never made before. Bolton and others of his ilk, whom I described in my column last week as Hobbesians, would say that such pledges aren't worth paying for. A Lockean like Obama would say, at the very least, that you cannot know until you try.

Modest achievements are just about the only kind multilateral diplomacy offers. And because such agreements require innumerable compromises, they're easier to attack than to defend. Obama's commitment to "the international order," so prominent in the recently released National Security Strategy, requires a measure of trust, but it also rests upon a willingness to accept small, incremental improvements, and thus, at least at its best, upon a prudent sense of how much you can hope to move the world beyond your borders. There is more "realism" in the slow and often frustrating effort to promote international norms than there is in the self-defeating battle cry of "you're with us or you're against us."

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Terms of Engagement

The World According to Barack Obama

The U.S. president's new National Security Strategy says more about the views of the man in whose name it was written than it does about what America must do next.

I was not as disappointed by the National Security Strategy the White House released last week as were a great many critics on the right and in the center. But I was dismayed to see that the document was larded with quotations from Chairman Obama. The report is obviously intended as a repudiation of George W. Bush's alarmist and bellicose 2002 National Security Strategy, but it was the Bush administration that first adopted this boosterish and hero-worshiping format. ("We fight, as we always fight, for a just peace" -President Bush, West Point. "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense." -President Obama, Inaugural Address.)

These quadrennial documents now come surrounded with such a dense carapace of hokum that the reader can barely discern an actual meaning. They are, after all, public documents, and therefore occupy the realm of public relations rather than analysis. Compare either Bush 2002 or Obama 2010 to NSC-68, written in 1950 by a team of State and Defense department officials working under the Cold War intellectual Paul Nitze (and kept secret for the next 25 years). NSC-68 advanced a specific geopolitical claim: Given Soviet ambitions for world domination, "a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere." It constituted a rebuff to George Kennan's proposal for a more modest and less costly form of containment, as first outlined in his famous "Long Telegram" of 1947. And NSC-68 laid out a strategy to achieve the desired goals: a major increase in spending on defense and diplomacy enabled by a government-sponsored boost to economic capacity. NSC-68 may have been too sweeping -- President Eisenhower ultimately abandoned its costly prescriptions -- but the authors presented their case with great force and clarity. Them were the days.

In the category of wrong-headed-but-forceful, we should probably give Bush 2002 some credit, since in the course of arguing for a new set of criteria for pre-emptive attack, the authors explain that new adversaries and new capacities have rendered the old criteria irrelevant.  In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, of course, potential critics of an aggressive policy had been largely cowed into silence, thus granting the Bush administration all the political latitude it needed. Obama does not have this luxury, and his strategy report, chiefly written by Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, is careful not to needlessly alienate the not-already-convinced. The rejected dogmas of the past are alluded to rather than openly refuted, as when the Obama NSS notes that "over the years, some methods employed in pursuit of our security have compromised our fidelity to the values that we promote, and our leadership on their behalf." No points awarded for guessing the methods, or who employed them.

The Obama National Security Strategy reads, in short, like an Obama speech. It summons us to put aside zero-sum choices and leaves everyone feeling that their concerns have been heard and addressed. Its tone is hortatory, its sentiments lofty, its directions vague. The NSS does not tell the reader what the administration will do in this or that part of the world, or under this or that set of circumstances. Rather, it seeks to explain why the president is doing what he's doing. Its great strength and virtue is that, like an Obama speech, it offers an alternative way of understanding the world -- a worldview.

The author Robert Kagan has said that Americans understand -- as Europeans do not -- that we live in a Hobbesian world in which chaos must be held in check by power -- albeit power shaped and limited by principle. For all the tough-minded invocation of "the world as it is" as opposed to the way we would wish it to be, Obama's National Security Strategy owes far more to John Locke, with his faith in the power of contract, and of contracting parties, than to Thomas Hobbes; it wishes to be read as an alternative to the ominous Hobbesian vision of Bush 2002. One section even bears the heading: "Resist Fear and Overreaction." The single-minded emphasis on danger itself endangers us. And Hobbesian methods employed in pursuit of U.S. security -- whether torture or rhetorical saber-rattling -- have made the world less secure rather than more so. (It's worth noting that by 2006 the Bush administration had been sufficiently chastened by failures in Iraq and elsewhere that its second NSS dwells more on political than on military responses to the problems of tyranny and extremism. Still, the Bush folks could never shake the image established by the 2002 report.)

What's more, the Obama document argues, the United States has focused too exclusively on the one threat that requires a military response. The effort to defeat "violent extremists," including al Qaeda, is "only one ele­ment of our strategic environment and cannot define America's engagement with the world." The others -- nuclear proliferation, "dependence upon fossil fuels," climate change, pandemic states, failing states -- compel the United States to use a much wider array of instruments, including diplomacy and development. The central phenomenon of our world is not the struggle between freedom and the forces of terror and authoritarianism, as Bush 2002 often implies, but the dynamic of globalization, which creates new threats but also new opportunities: technical innovation, human mobility, the rise of new powers. We live with too much awareness of threat, and too little of opportunity.

The strategy, as both critics and admirers have said, dwells at great length on the home front. "What takes place within our borders," the document states, "will determine our strength and influence beyond them." But this also implies that Americans' security is far more within their own power, and far less subject to Hobbesian forces, than previously thought. Rebuilding the economy will rebuild American strength. So will behaving better: While Obama has expressed far more skepticism than Bush did about America's capacity to forge democracy abroad -- a deep reservation about "the world as it is" -- the NSS asserts that "the most effective way for the United States of America to promote our values is to live them."

The Obama National Security Strategy expresses a faith in rules that is quite alien to the spirit of Bush 2002. The Obama team does stipulate, as Bush had, that "the United States must reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend our nation and our inter­ests." But the document goes on to state that "we will also seek to adhere to standards that govern the use of force" -- because "[d]oing so strengthens those who act in line with international standards, while isolating and weakening those who do not." The premise is that the limitations imposed by accepting rules, and the international order that lays down such rules, is offset by the legitimacy that comes of such restraint. In its most overtly "Wilsonian" passage, the document describes the international order not only as a source of added legitimacy for American goals but as "an end that we seek in its own right." The president calls for a new era of global institution-building "to modernize the infrastructure for international cooperation in the 21st century."

Of course you can find a lot of Bush 2002 in Obama 2010, and not just the gauzy quotes from Our Leader. The document asserts that the United States "must continue to underwrite global security" and must "maintain our military's conventional superiority." Obama does not propose that the U.S. retreat from its position of global leadership. But you really have to be deaf to tone and texture to conclude, as the current issue of Newsweek does, that "there are far more similarities than differences between the two National Security Strategies." Bush 2002 was a response to 9/11; Obama 2010 is a response to the failure of that response.

This president is as idealistic about a rule-based international order as his predecessor was about promoting democracy. One may be from Locke and the other from Hobbes; but they are both, in their way, from Wilson. Events may prove Obama as naïve in his faith -- as blind to the world as it is -- as they did Bush in his. Those of us who hold out hope for Obama's foreign policy would say that at least he is erring in the right direction.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images