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Gates And Chu--will They Sink Obama's Nuclear Policy?

As Mike Crowley points out, Barack Obama has been conspicuously sluggish in appointing a nonproliferation team--something that's giving nuclear policy experts jitters. In addition, two of Obama's other decisions are unsettling from a nonproliferation perspective.

One is the appointment of Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy. While telegenic, brilliant, and exciting for the environmental lobby, Chu is untutored in nuclear-weapons policy--a conspicuous lacuna given that 80 percent of the Energy Department's funding is used to manage the U.S. nuclear-weapons complex. (Indeed, that is the department's core mission.) During his confirmation hearings, Chu focused on renewable energy and subsidies for nuclear power-the Lawrence Berkeley lab, which he ran, does not deal with nuclear arms--and a search of his past statements reveals little engagement with nuclear-weapons issues, save passive support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999.

Chu's inexperience is particularly disturbing because he will be tasked with implementing the recommendations of the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review--a document scheduled for release in 2009 that will outline the role and structure of U.S. nuclear forces well into the twenty-first century. Chu's unfamiliarity with the debates around the Nuclear Posture Review is even more problematic because the man administering it will be Robert Gates. While Gates has generally toed the Obama administration's line on Iraq and Afghanistan, he has recently voiced strong opinions about the role of U.S. nuclear weapons that are at odds with the policies preferred by both Obama and the nonproliferation community. Since Chu is unschooled in the ways of nuclear policy and bureaucratic infighting, it stands to reason that the experienced Gates will steamroll him when it comes time to implement a nuclear agenda.

And Gates's agenda seems increasingly archaic. A remarkably bipartisan consensus among nuclear proliferation experts has, since 2007, emphasized the need to revitalize our commitment to the beleaguered Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty lest it collapse altogether. Serious nonproliferation gurus like Sam Nunn, conservatives like George Shultz, and realists like Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger have all agreed that the United States needs to de-emphasize the salience of nuclear weapons in its arsenal and convince other states that we remain committed to Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, in which we promised to eventually eliminate our nuclear arms. (This will not, of course, directly prevent countries like Iran and North Korea from seeking nuclear arms, but it will give us additional leverage with which to isolate and pressure those states.)

Gates, however, has blasted this vision as na