News and Features

Cutting Nukes? Easier Said than Done – Literally

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In the afternoon of the 19th of June 2013, United States President Barack Obama delivered a speech at the symbolic Brandenburg Gate, where once stood the wall that divided Germany into East and West, speaking of ideals of freedom and equality, calling to cut down nuclear weapons for both U.S. and Russia by a third. The rationale is that as long as nuclear weapons exist, as Obama stated, “we are not truly safe.”

Similar with his campaign speeches, he reiterated his ideals of equal opportunity, freedom, tolerance, and democracy in his Brandenburg speech. It makes sense that the propagation of ideals domestically has eventually led the establishment of the ‘friendly’ and ‘role-model image’ of the U.S. in the international scene. Such ideals, which were ‘shared’ by Germany and U.S., would work well in facing the challenges of the modern world, such as environmental protection, disaster preparedness, and humanitarian assistance, just as they helped in bringing down the Berlin Wall. After all, the speech sought to strengthen the unity between the two countries as post-Cold War allies. Suffice to say, economically and geopolitically speaking, U.S. is interested in Europe. True enough, Obama said, “because millions across this continent now breathe the fresh air of freedom, we can say here in Berlin, here in Europe: Our values won. Openness won. Tolerance won. And freedom won. [Italics added]”

What does the above discussion have to do with cutting down nuclear arms? The simple answer: cutting down nukes is no easy business. This is why Obama spoke of ideals such as ‘peace’ and ‘equality’ – implying the benefits of lowering and controlling the accumulation of nuclear weapons. Or perhaps because of the pressure by non-nuclear weapons states and the rise of ‘terrorist’ groups and ‘rogue’ states wielding nuclear weapons, some effort must be done to keep tensions down. Secondly, this is why the U.S. rallies allies like Germany to shift the world’s focus away from Cold War postures and on to the more vital issues and global problems facing the modern world of the 21st century.

The fact that U.S. and Russia, and other nuclear weapons states, still have their arsenals kept intact is telling that these countries are still stuck in the Cold War. That aside, U.S. and Russia throughout the decades have agreed nuclear arms control treaties. But the problem is obvious – why are there still nuclear weapons? Jonathan Schell (2000) had his share of critique on nuclear arms control. For one, Schell points out the irony of U.S. policy on deterrence that it does not actually contribute to lessening the possession nuclear weapons. “The clear lesson of history,” as Schell explains, “is that nuclear arsenals breed nuclear arsenals” (p. 33). Hence, deterrence does not stop proliferation. Secondly, Obama’s words indicate a policy that seeks to marry possession (for deterrence) with nonproliferation, which, for Schell, “lacks coherence – in the first place morally, but also militarily, diplomatically, and legally. . . its deeds rise up to knock down its words” (p. 41). And thirdly, by keeping with its policy of nuclear deterrence along with negotiated reductions, U.S. is denying that it has removed itself from its Cold War posture. This is aside from the fact that Obama’s speech shows U.S. interest in its European allies and extending its regional influence in Europe – probably to reconfigure the balance of power between U.S., its allies, and Russia.

Let us say that, perhaps, a significant development for both states was the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) signed in 2010. Initial implementation imposes a limit of 1,550 nuclear warheads by 2018, and full implementation can further reduction to 1,000 warheads, which is reduction by another one-third as what Obama called for. But after this treaty, the White House had made an ‘internal analysis’ of U.S. nuclear needs, to know what it would take to deter other countries from attacking. And then Obama would still consider the use of nuclear weapons to defend the vital interests of his country and its allies. Then what is the point of cutting nuclear arms? In the final analysis, Obama’s request is futile. This inconsistency reveals that, firstly, U.S. definitely cannot afford to get rid of all of its nuclear arsenal, and so does Russia. Secondly, U.S. aims to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and not of their possession. Thirdly, there is no telling of a ‘safe’ number of nukes. We may be aware of the real power of a single nuclear explosion, but we will never know the real number of nuclear weapons each country has – talk about classified information.

It appears, therefore, that a world with nuclear weapons is more plausible than a world without nukes. But again, for U.S. and Russia to fulfill their promise to reduce their nuclear arsenal, they need to be consistent, direct, sincere, and transparent in their negotiations while avoiding employing lip-service, indirectness, and ambiguity. Also, both nations need to hold talks regularly, though this remains bleak while having other problems such as the Syrian crisis, and ‘rogue’ states like North Korea and Iran with their ‘research and development’ of nuclear weapons. The tempting drive to pursue nuclear weapons will not end soon – unless someone introduces a new and more powerful weapon of mass destruction.

Read: Obama’s Speech at the Brandenburg Gate <;


Cohen, Tom. (2013). “Obama calls for reducing U.S., Russian nukes.” Cable News Network. Retrieved from:

Schell, Jonathan. (2000). “The Folly of Arms Control.” Foreign Affairs, 79(5), pp. 22-46

Alphonse Samson is currently taking his undergraduate degree in Political Science in UP Diliman. He is also a member of the UP Political Society. His research interest, among others, is focused on media and politics especially in the Philippines.