Speaking in Prague last week, U. S. President Barack Obama pledged the United States to a "world without nuclear weapons." That is an impossible and probably dangerous goal. The right goal is a world safe from the horror of nuclear war. President Obama's condemnation of nuclear weapons themselves may actually increase the threat from the most ominous weapons and the most reckless regimes.
For half a century, America's nuclear arsenal deterred an invasion of western Europe by a much larger Soviet army. Since the Soviet collapse, the United States has radically reduced its nuclear forces, from an estimated peak of 30,000 warheads deployed to a current roster of 5,700.
The Bush administration planned further reduction. Many nuclear experts believe that the United States could safely eliminate all of its existing inventory and replace it with just 300 modern, reliable warheads. These new weapons, on a new generation of missiles, could overwhelmingly deter any potential nuclear aggressor, while all but eliminating the risk of nuclear accident. Unlike current weapons, they do not need frequent refreshment of their nuclear core. They present near-zero risk of a radioactive leak. And they cannot be detonated by accident: According to one expert, these next-generation weapons could be loaded into a cannon and fired at a wall at four times the speed of sound without risk of unintended explosion.
Sounds good. Yet in Prague, President Obama made himself the main obstacle to this 95% nuclear cut. Before replacing its existing nuclear arsenal, the United States would have to make absolutely sure that the new weapons worked as designed. That would require a live test of one of these devices. But the United States has not tested a nuclear weapon since 1992, and President Obama's words in Prague seemed to rule out any such test in the future:
"To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U. S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned."
President Obama did not exactly say that he would never test one of the new warheads. But he sure raised some fierce political difficulties for himself if he ever did want to test.
Can President Obama seriously imagine that a U.S. testing moratorium will inspire equal restraint in North Korea and Iran? It's impossible that he can he be that naive. More likely, Obama is chasing a face-saving excuse for allowing Iran to go nuclear and ignoring North Korea altogether.
Here's the deal President Obama may be seeking with Iran:
Iran continues to run its centrifuges until it has all the nuclear material it feels it needs. The material is stockpiled and secured, and all the elements of nuclear bombs are assembled. For all practical purposes, Iran has become a nuclear-weapons state. In return, Iran agrees to refrain from testing its all-but-finished weapons.
In other words: Iran gets the bomb--the Obama administration gets to pretend that Iran has been stopped. That pretense opens the way to "engagement" with Iran. In the ensuing flurry of diplomacy (it is hoped) Iran is somehow enticed to act like a more normal state and rejoin the community of nations. The Iranian nuclear problem is not solved, but it is massaged to a lower level of urgency.
With North Korea, the new Obama plan may be the same as the old Clinton plan: Pay the North Koreans to halt their nuclear program. Bribes bought a few years of quiet in Korea in the mid-1990s, maybe more bribes can buy more quiet in the years ahead.
Please note: I didn't say that either of these was a good plan. Only that these were the plans that seemed to be taking form post-Prague.
These are, in fact, disastrous plans. President Obama has changed the subject from Iran's and North Korea's misconduct to America's conduct. He has set a goal that substitutes the illusion of nuclear disarmament for the reality of nuclear security. He may end by forswearing the modernization of a nuclear arsenal that has helped keep the peace--leaving the United States with an inventory of ageing weapons that are unnecessarily costly, unnecessarily numerous and unnecessarily environmentally hazardous.
That's an excessive price to pay for moral leadership, especially when nobody else is following.
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.