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The Obama Doctrine: Deciphering Obama’s Nuclear Policy and What it bodes for India

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  • March 19, 2010
    Fellows' Seminar

    In his paper “The Obama Doctrine: Deciphering Obama’s Nuclear Policy and What it bodes for India,” A. Vinod Kumar examined President Obama’s nuclear policies and critically assessed its implications for India. By addressing Obama’s “nuclear policy” as Obama’s “nuclear doctrine”, the paper attempted to show how America’s nuclear policies achieve a consistent doctrinal character even when successive Presidents promise paradigmatic change. In this light, the paper was divided into four main sections. First, the evolution of Obama’s thinking on nuclear weapons was elucidated. Secondly, the paper detailed how Obama’s nuclear policy was in fact a doctrine in the making. In the next section the paper critically probed where the doctrine could fall apart. And in the final section, the implications of Obama’s nuclear policy for India were examined.

    From the beginning the paper showed how the purported nuclear policies of Obama were a continuation of Bush’s doctrine. While analysing the genesis of Obama’s thinking about nuclear weapons, the paper showed how Obama was buffeted between forces of pragmatism in national security issues and those favouring elimination of nuclear weapons. The four statesmen – Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn – emphasized nuclear disarmament but paradoxically they also encouraged nuclear modernization. In this context, the paper argued that though Obama’s nuclear policy favours traditional non-proliferation goals he was also forced to consider aspects of Bush’s dogmatic policies as well. Article IV of the NPT was reemphasized by Obama in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1887; but even here issues like the need for a credible nuclear deterrent; the absence of prioritization of punitive action on NPT defectors and the absence of practical steps towards complete elimination of nuclear weapons, according to the paper, has not created anything new beyond the Bush doctrine.

    But the need for a credible nuclear deterrent, the absence of prioritization of punitive actions on NPT defectors and the absence of practical steps towards complete elimination of nuclear weapons all meant that the Obama nuclear doctrine could not go beyond the Bush doctrine. The author also showed how the revival of traditional instruments of the non-proliferation regime, central to Obama’s vision, could not escape his predecessor’s doctrinal style. For example, on the NPT, the paper asserted that the problems of non-compliance, constraints on nuclear commerce, threats from non-state actors, nuclear test ban, FMCT, strengthening safeguards and restrictions on enrichment and reprocessing technologies are all issues that need immediate redressal for the treaty to be strengthened; and these were the issues on which Bush was not decisive. Between merely setting an agenda for the 2010 Review Conference and formulating a grand 21st century version of the NPT, the paper argued that reviving the NPT could be a long haul. Similarly, on CTBT, the paper showed that securing support within the Senate for its ratification would be a difficult task. Most importantly, it stressed that Obama’s strategies to combat nuclear security and terrorism were a copy from the Bush administration. The paper however suggested that a new framework could be derived through the UNSCR 1540 to ensure that non-state actors do not access sensitive nuclear technology. Alongside, it also suggested that “the summit could also formalize counter-proliferation instruments like PSI within the non-proliferation edifice so as to generate global templates for prevention and responses.” Therefore, even in counter-proliferation, Obama might not devalue Bush’s initiatives. Finally on Ballistic Missile Defences (BMD) and promoting nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, the paper showed that Obama’s nuclear policies were inadequately grounded. While Obama voted for major cuts in BMD programmes and was non-committal on Bush’s deployment plans, upon assuming office Obama favoured limited deployment plans to provide minimum protection to the United States and its allies. He cancelled the Kinetic Kill Vehicle programme but remains apprehensive of Iranian, North Korean, Chinese and Russian missile modernization. The paper predicts that this could “force Obama to open funding for both missile defence as well as space weapons.” The same ambiguity was reflected in promoting nuclear energy for peaceful purposes; while Obama favoured international nuclear fuel-cycle centres he also felt that over-emphasis on nuclear energy is unwarranted. To conclude, the paper asserted the continuities of doctrines regardless of the paradigmatic change promised.

    In the next section, the paper laid out two important issue areas where Obama’s doctrine might fail. First, it questioned whether Obama’s nuclear disarmament is at best a utopian dream. The reason for such scepticism according to the author is that (a) total elimination cannot happen at one stroke as this will not be a consensual or sequential movement among the nuclear weapon states; (b) incremental steps towards elimination, involving test-ban and fissile material cut-off, would be a long haul; and, (c) new weapon states that might emerge could reverse the reduction process. The failure to move from non-proliferation to disarmament, and ever lingering security dilemmas have created more questions about prospective nuclear disarmament ambitions of the President. Second, reducing the salience of nuclear weapons and maintaining a robust deterrent is a problem. Maintaining extended nuclear deterrence, sentiments of the armed forces on modernizing the ageing nuclear forces along with demands for RRW and Stockpile stewardship program has created disagreements over Obama’s policies. Therefore, the paper, while arguing how Obama’s doctrine could fall apart, also stressed that reductions and total elimination of nuclear weapons would also imperil CTBT and FMCT operationalisation.

    Finally, the paper assessed the implication of Obama’s nuclear policy for India. On a broader platform of integrating India into the non-proliferation regime, NPT, CTBT and FMCT options were discussed. On NPT, notwithstanding India’s apprehensions to join the club as a NNWS, the paper stated that Obama might not initiate sweeping reforms by opening up the NWS club. Therefore India’s call for a new non-proliferation bargain transcending the NPT centric regime might not fructify. Similarly, on CTBT, the paper stated that India cannot accept the treaty without a disarmament roadmap; the possibility of offering sophisticated weapons design data and simulation capabilities by United States to woo India was discussed with a caveat that Obama would not offer such capabilities as it would undermine his larger disarmament objectives. Finally on FMCT, the paper stated that since India has committed itself to the treaty’s early conclusion without resolving all its contentions, it might hope for a third party spoilsport if Obama couldn’t rectify the problem areas including verification and the EIF clause.

    Secondly, discussing the divergent perceptions on disarmament for understanding the implications of Obama’s nuclear policy on India, the paper drew attention to three factors. One, the paper stated that India disowns the NPT and believes it could only retain a non-proliferation edifice without conditioning disarmament and therefore India has reservations on the traditional NPT route of Obama to achieve total elimination; two, the paper argued that Rajiv Gandhi’s Action Plan of June 1988 could be a solution to Obama’s scepticism of not achieving disarmament in his lifetime; and finally, the paper stated that de-legitimisation of nuclear weapons could be a right step towards total elimination with a universal agreement on no-first use and reduction of the salience of nuclear weapons in security doctrines. The paper was sceptical of the Obama administration taking such paradigmatic steps in the near future to achieve total elimination.

    Last but not the least, the paper discussed counter-proliferation policy and its implications for India. It noted that the main stumbling block in India’s participation in Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) is the reference to IAEA comprehensive safeguards in the 2005 Protocol to the SUA Convention (Suppression of Unlawful Activities at Sea). India’s apprehension is that PSI is being targeted at non-NPT states. On missile defence the paper reiterated that with Obama’s own reservations India might have fewer worries of his policies impinging on Indian interests. Finally, however, the paper noted that Obama is likely to push for India’s participation in counter-proliferation initiatives which is in consonance with the Hyde Act but such pressures would also require India’s commitment to support US action against Iran which could prove problematic.


    • Obama has limited options in seeking an alternative to Bush policies. Therefore, the study is not presumptuous in giving Obama’s policies a doctrinal character.
    • Nuclear terrorism is a very serious problem which the paper could consider in more detail.
    • Though a pragmatic disarmament timeline is absent there is some hope of progress; therefore the paper could explore how Obama could carry forward this agenda.
    • On Rajiv Gandhi’s Action plan, the paper could also highlight similarities with Obama’s larger disarmament objectives rather than merely pointing out dissimilarities.
    • The paper could consider the implications of Obama’s policy on the forthcoming NPT RevCon and how it would impact on India.
    • The paper could discuss in more detail the proposed Nuclear Weapons Convention, the key differences between NWC and NPT obligations, and how India can cooperate in ensuring its successful implementation.
    • While the paper initially stated that India might need to adopt a wait and watch policy, during the discussion the author acknowledged the need for India to be proactive.

    Report prepared by Shanmugasundaram Sasikumar, Research Assistant.