Strategic Depth and Obama’s Rejuvenation of Global Arms Control

Steve Clemons in his summation of President Obama’s winning streak on nuclear issues invokes the notion of “strategic depth” (“Obama’s Nuclear Wizardry and the Iran Factor“, Politico, 13 April 2010). It’s not an uncommon term, but one rarely given much by way of explication. Fortunately Mr. Clemons isn’t just breaking it out to conceptually pad his article, in that he calls out an element of this week’s accomplishments that serves as an excellent illustration of the idea:

In a quick succession of deals focused on pre-empting a 21st-century nuclear nightmare, Obama has mended the foundation and infrastructure of a global nonproliferation regime that United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Vice President Dick Cheney and others of the pugnacious nationalist wing of the last administration worked hard to tear down.

And, by bringing together 47 key leaders, Obama is signaling to all stakeholders that a nuclear crisis with Iran and other potential breakout states would undermine the global commons.

Yet he is not vilifying Iran or its leaders. He is not making the same “axis of evil” mistake President George W. Bush did.

Instead, Obama is showing the benign and constructive side of U.S. power to other great states like India, China, Brazil and Russia. He is also inviting Iran to get in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and get back into a club that matters — where Iran could be respected for adopting a sensible course.

The Obama administration is restoring the non-proliferation norm to “a club that matters.” For the previous administration, either a state wanted to adopt a certain policy, or they didn’t; there was no context in which they may have preferred to do one thing over another, so there was no need to apply the nation’s diplomatic energies to construction any particular sort of international régime.

That was a strategically thin diplomacy. If it appears that the future of the international system is the gradual breakdown of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, if the system is lowly regarded, treated with apathy and abandonment on the part of the great powers, if declining compliance and the emergence of a number of new nuclear powers seems the likely future, then there is little to recommend compliance or membership. What incentive is there to join a system one anticipates failing in the near future?

But if the NPT seems the way of the future, if great energies are devoted to shoring up and extending the non-proliferation framework, compliance is the norm among the respectable states, if the nuclear powers are making headway toward their Article VI obligations, if the possibility of new nuclear powers seems increasingly remote, then that’s a strategic context in which an entirely different set of decisions will seem the best means to a country’s objectives of security, prestige, diplomatic latitude and so on.

Further, broadening the circle of compliance and advocacy takes some of the lime light off of the United States. This makes it much more palatable to recalcitrant elements. In the case of Iran, if faced with knuckling under to the hated United States, the answer will certainly be no. If asked to cow to a group of flunkeys subordinate to the United States, the prospects won’t be much improved. But joining the global consensus among nations is something they might do. It allows them to save face among their citizens and their international constituents should they chose to back away from their nuclear program.

By imbuing the present architecture with a sense of a bright future, increasing compliance and broad support, the Obama administration is bringing the weight of a whole international system to bare on Iran. This seems like a program with more potential than just the usual carrots and sticks.

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