Barry O. is going to talk about nuclear weapons again. Someone sober up the Nobel Peace Prize committee.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference -- think of it as Davos for people who love armored formations -- Vice President Joe Biden indicated that the president would use the forthcoming State of the Union address to advance "a comprehensive nuclear agenda to strengthen the nonproliferation regime, reduce global stockpiles, and secure nuclear materials."
The trope of Joe Biden indulging in all manner of low-class pleasures is now firmly established thanks to the tireless efforts of the Onion. I couldn't read that passage of his speech without imagining Biden riling up the crowd before some especially awful hair metal band takes the stage: ARE YOU READY FOR SOME BARACK OBAMA? I CAN'T HEAR YOU!
Obama will say all the right things, of course. He'll probably declare victory on his campaign promise to secure all vulnerable fissile material during his first term. He may call on the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. If he's feeling it, he may threaten to take negotiations on a treaty banning the production of fissile material out of the deadlocked Conference on Disarmament. Finally, he might also say a few words about the administration's increasingly poorly named 90-day Nuclear Posture Review Implementation Study, which the administration started in the summer of 2011.
As the president surveys the landscape of all things nuclear, it would be nice -- well, I would appreciate it, at any rate -- if he said a few words about what may turn out to be the most consequential decision he makes in his second term: How he plans to respond to nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran.
Oh, he'll say something, of course. Obama will surely express the normal platitudes about not "accepting" nuclear weapons in either country, offering an outstretched hand if they would only unclench their fists, yada, yada, yada. But there is one subject that no one in his administration is willing to touch, unless they stumble into it sideways before apologizing and moving on. The interesting question isn't how to stop North Korea or Iran, but how we manage the inevitable pressures from our friends and partners to seek their own nuclear weapons capabilities in response.
One of the oldest problems in the book on nuclear weapons is the so-called "Nth country" problem -- the simple idea that each new nuclear state inspires or terrifies yet more to join the club. It's worth taking a moment to reflect on U.S. nonproliferation policy and how we've dealt with this problem throughout the nuclear age.
One of the simplest questions I get asked when I give talks to a general audience is this: Why is it OK for the United States to have nuclear weapons, but not Iran or North Korea? It's a good question and the answer matters a great deal.
The initial U.S. position on the spread of nuclear weapons was basically, "It's good when our friends do it, but bad when our enemies try." The early history of U.S. approaches was a mixture of efforts to preserve a nuclear monopoly and, when that failed, proliferate selectively to our friends. The United States helped the United Kingdom build nuclear weapons, it stationed its own nuclear weapons overseas as an advertisement for the wonders of nuclear deterrence, and it pushed NATO towards accepting something called the Multilateral Force whereby U.S. nuclear weapons would be stationed on NATO ships with multinational crews. If you've ever seen Cédric Klapisch's L'auberge Espagnole, it would be like that -- but with nuclear weapons. The Italians even outfitted a cruiser with launch tubes.
The real problem in the early nuclear age was encouraging states to get into this ghastly business in the first place. One of the clearest statements of this line of thinking was offered by a Harvard professor named Henry Kissinger: "One of the chief tasks of United States policy in NATO, therefore, is to overcome the trauma which attaches to the use of nuclear weapons and to decentralize the possession of nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible." And you thought Ken Waltz was the only person who thought like that!