The role of nuclear weapons in US security policy has always divided policymakers and strategic analysts. In the post-Cold War era, a general consensus prevailed that the US no longer needed to retain large stockpiles of nuclear weapons originally intended to deter the Soviet Union.

In fact, many believed that maintaining the existing quantitative level of several thousand warheads could increase the odds of nuclear weapons technology proliferating to other hostile states or non-state actors. However, this shift in security thinking could not translate directly into a coherent policy towards nuclear reductions for almost two decades after the end of the Cold War.

When President Obama took office in January 2009, there remained an estimated 23,000 nuclear arms held by nine countries, of which about 95 percent belonged to the US and Russia. Three months later, in the famous Prague speech, President Obama announced his intentions to make radical changes in US nuclear weapons thinking to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons.

After 2010, President Obama pronounced a three-pronged strategy to take his vision of nuclear disarmament forward. The first prong consisted of concerted efforts with other nations to reduce deployed strategic nuclear warheads. The second element was a drive to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the US’ national security strategy and the third aspect involved preventing the spread of nuclear technology through a fresh approach to nuclear security internationally.

The first logical step towards the reduction of nuclear arms was the negotiation of a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, which was signed in 2010 and formally entered into force in February 2010. New START replaced START I, which had expired in December 2009. According to a recent article published by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, as of October 2013, the US nuclear stockpile included an estimated 2,130 warheads, of which about 1,620 strategic warheads were deployed on ballistic missiles – 1,150 on submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and 470 on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Almost 2,530 warheads are in storage and another 2,700 retired but still intact warheads await dismantlement. Under the New START agreement, the Obama administration committed to reduce its strategic nuclear weapons. However, even today, the US has a significant number of non-deployed strategic nuclear weapons not constrained by the arms control agreements. Furthermore, the US intends to spend approximately one trillion dollars on modernising its nuclear triad over the next three decades.

Hoping to reconfigure US national security thinking to changing threat perceptions in the 21st century, President Obama wants to decrease the centrality of nuclear weapons to US security policy. In the post-9/11 world, the presence of thousands of nuclear weapons worldwide has suddenly increased the likelihood of terrorist groups stealing nuclear materials or rogue states buying critical weapons from the nuclear black market.

It is understandable that the US cannot give up its own nuclear capability as long as other countries do not take significant steps in this direction. However, the Obama administration has successfully taken commendable steps to further the agenda of complete nuclear disarmament.

In the April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the US committed for the first time not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states. Many analysts in Washington enthusiastically welcomed this development as a precursor to a ‘no-first-use policy’ against all countries at some point in the future.

The new threats could not be managed through conventional nuclear deterrence and the only option available was to ensure maximum security of nuclear weaponry and material across the globe. In this regard, President Obama undertook a bold initiative and convened the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in April 2010 in order to draw attention to the issue of nuclear terrorism at the highest possible level. Through this endeavour, Obama sought to strengthen international nuclear non-proliferation norms on the one hand and make it harder for states to acquire nuclear technology on the other.

Obama has reiterated his commitment to work for the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) but domestic pressures have thus far prevented him from attaining this goal. Although the NSS initiative has met with mixed success due to the selfish national interests of some countries, global nuclear safety and security regimes have gained increased political attention over the past few years.

His vision of a world without nuclear weapons is a lofty goal that is not likely to be accomplished soon. However, in this ‘age of nuclear terrorism’, his efforts will go a long way to bolster his country’s credibility as it seeks to build up international pressure against the nuclear ambitions of North Korea, Iran and other states.

Hea has sought to bring positive changes in the US nuclear posture, making the prevention of nuclear proliferation and terrorism a strategic priority of his administration. He has also taken certain concrete steps to improve the safety and security of the US’s nuclear stockpiles, spending hundreds of billions of dollars to improve safety and security standards.