At a recent international conference, a colleague asked, somewhat irreverently (but not irrelevantly), “Now that Obama has been re-elected, will he finally earn his Nobel Prize?”

It’s a fair question. Hopes were high in the international disarmament community after President Barack Obama’s 2009 Prague speech when he pledged to move toward a nuclear weapons-free world. But those who cheered the loudest then are among the most disappointed now, frustrated over the slow progress toward this goal.

To be fair, some important steps forward were taken. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) focused on “Reducing the Role of U.S. Nuclear Weapons” while stating the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack “the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.” While this fell far short of a “no first use” pledge, it was a significant step in that direction. The NPR also states unequivocally that the United States will not develop new nuclear warheads. Obama also achieved ratification of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (“New START”) with Russia, which reduced both nations’ nuclear weapons inventories.

The administration’s willingness to “immediately and aggressively” seek ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) proved in vain, as did efforts to conclude a fissile material cut-off treaty. The Obama-initiated Nuclear Security Summit’s goal to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials in four years has not materialized; at home the administration stepped back from the spent fuel repository at Yucca Mountain without any alternative in sight and the North Korean and Iranian nuclear crises remain unresolved.

While it would be unfair to blame Obama for failing to find solutions to all these problems, it is important to reflect on what we can realistically expect him to accomplish over the next four years.

In the Asia-Pacific, the major power agenda consists of two sets of relationships: one among the U.S., Russia and China, the other among China, India, and Pakistan. The U.S., Russia, and China essentially deter one another. While Washington (and Moscow) may worry that deeper reductions may tempt Beijing to “sprint to parity,” China’s “minimal deterrence” strategy already provides strategic stability.

China, for its part, worries not only about the U.S. (and Russia?), but also increasingly about India, while Pakistan has been rapidly building up its own arsenal in response to India’s military capabilities. Attempts by New Delhi to counter Pakistan’s moves would likely drive China to respond, which would in turn impact the U.S. and Russia. The future of this agenda will be determined mainly by decisions made in Beijing, New Delhi and Islamabad.

Similarly, America’s ability to strengthen deterrence and reassure its Asian allies is increasingly under stress. China’s slow but steady military modernization and North Korea’s nuclear weapon development are transforming the Asian security environment and raised concerns about the reliability of the U.S. extended deterrent. Despite the U.S. “rebalancing” toward Asia, regional partners question the role the U.S. intends to play in the region and if it is sustainable in a fiscally constrained environment.

Significantly, despite Tokyo and Seoul’s proclaimed continued faith in U.S. security assurances, a growing number of voices in both countries (especially South Korea) have argued for the development of independent nuclear weapon capabilities. And while Canberra has continued to stress the centrality of the U.S. alliance (and accepted additional U.S. forces on Australian territory), a growing number of Australians have begun to contemplate a reduced U.S. presence in the region: Some support the U.S. strategic presence but reject the nuclear dimension of that presence; a minority is ambivalent about whether the alliance is good for Australia.

Finally, the U.S. ability to combat the proliferation-terrorism nexus has proved limited. Although U.S. endorsement of nuclear disarmament has improved the atmospherics, little tangible progress has been achieved on the nonproliferation and nuclear security fronts. Many Non-Aligned Movement members in Asia (and beyond) continue to argue that the “baby steps” undertaken thus far do not justify more efforts from them on nonproliferation and nuclear security. This seems remarkably shortsighted since proliferation and especially acts of nuclear terrorism will have a much greater impact on their societies and economies than most seem willing to acknowledge. But the quid pro quo mentality remains nonetheless.

Be it to address the major power agenda, to reassure its allies and partners, or to combat nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation, U.S. power and influence to respond to these challenges is much more modest than is often assumed.

Let us be clear, however: The U.S. remains a critical player for generating the forces of change and setting the broader example. This was illustrated during Obama’s landmark visit to Myanmar when President Thein Sein announced that his country would sign the IEA’s Additional Protocol and allow nuclear inspectors on its territory. This policy shift is not only a measure of how much (and how quickly) Myanmar wants to change, but also how much it felt Obama’s visit needed to be acknowledged in a tangible way.

Likewise, however apprehensive they may be about the U.S. commitment, our Asian allies and partners continue to actively seek protection from Washington. And it would be foolish to think that the evolution of major power relations in the Asia-Pacific will not depend in large part on U.S. policy choices.

As his final four years begin, it is important to have realistic expectations about what Obama can achieve in the nuclear domain. One hopes that at a minimum, we will see a resumption of bilateral U.S.-Russia discussions aimed at further reductions in nuclear arsenals and that the P-5 process initiated three years ago will begin to bear fruit in a more tangible way and, hopefully, be expanded to include all nuclear-armed states to help stabilize the arms buildup in China and South Asia. An earnest effort to bring the CTBT into force would also be a major step, as would the opening of meaningful dialogues with Iran and North Korea.

Finally, U.S. allies need to better understand and embrace the nonnuclear dimension of extended deterrence and the nonaligned world needs to throw its weight behind efforts to combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and enhance the security of sensitive materials and technologies.

If Obama can help move the world in this direction, he will have earned his Nobel.

Ralph Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu. David Santoro is a senior fellow for nonproliferation and disarmament at the Forum.

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