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Examining Obama's Nuclear Legacy


Barack Obama is the first sitting president to visit the Japanese city of Hiroshima since it was destroyed by the U.S. in the world's first attack using nuclear weapons. Obama is a lifelong critic of nuclear weapons. And he came into office vowing to lead the campaign to get rid of them. As he makes the trip to Hiroshima near the end of his presidency, however, disarmament groups are disappointed with the legacy that Obama is leaving. Joining us to talk about this is NPR's national security editor, Phil Ewing. Good morning.

PHIL EWING, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with what Obama said he wanted to accomplish. And it was very ambitious.

EWING: Very ambitious indeed. He was elected and came into office in 2009 with a very big speech in Prague and a very big push by his administration to retake the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. And although the president was realistic at the time, saying it would take, you know, years and involve a lot of steps, he made it one of his biggest achievements that he wanted to accomplish when he came into office.

MONTAGNE: How far did he get?

EWING: I think the administration would claim credit for things like the Iran nuclear deal, which it argues took away the danger of a nuclear armed Iran in the Middle East. And it also was able to get a strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia, which reduced the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons. And it has had regular conferences with powers around the world to reduce the danger of so-called loose nukes, nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. But disarmament groups say he could've done a lot more. And some of it is history, and some of it is, you know, the president's own actions or lack of action from their perspective.

MONTAGNE: Well, break that down just a little bit. How - how much of it would you say was from the president's doing?

EWING: That is a key question. One of the things that administration critics are disappointed by is the president's support for recapitalizing the U.S. military's arsenal. The U.S. is now on course to spend about a trillion dollars over the next 30 years on new ballistic missiles submarines, a new bomber for the Air Force, new cruise missiles - all sorts of new things for the nuclear weapons infrastructure in the U.S. And these nuclear doves say you're not going to do very well in eliminating nuclear weapons if you've committed to all these resources to building up that stockpile.

MONTAGNE: But - but let me be clear. The arsenal is smaller, that is to say, you're talking refurbishing. It's not, like, more weapons.

EWING: Well, it is, and it isn't because with nuclear weapons, a lot of the weapons are the same ones that have been in the arsenals since the '60s and '70s. And so what the president has done is supported a program to spend all this money to build new delivery systems for those same weapons. So there are fewer of them deployed, but they're still the same ones. And they're still just as dangerous and destructive from the perspective of anti-nuclear groups.

MONTAGNE: And what - what, simply put, is beyond his control?

EWING: The relationship with Russia is the major factor. The world needs to have agreement by international powers to reduce the size of these strategic weapons stockpiles. And since the early years of Obama's presidency, Russia has not been an ally. Vladimir Putin has become a very hostile actor on the world stage. He invaded Ukraine. He deployed all these troops to Syria. And so without a partner to negotiate with, there was only so much the president could do on his own.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's national security editor, Phil Ewing. Thanks very much.

EWING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.