Shadow Government

Two cheers for Obama’s nuclear summit

A friend of mine likes to observe that in the area of national security, politicians have a real difficulty in distinguishing between "what's new, and what's new to you." President Obama's nuclear security summit seems to be a textbook example of this.

The administration has patted itself on the back for identifying nuclear terrorism as a major threat and Obama went so far as to claim that the risk of a nuclear terror attack "has gone up." As a straining-to-be sympathetic reporter put it: "Coming from Dick Cheney, words like that had a way of sounding like a scare tactic. Coming from Obama, they are genuinely scary." What the reporter didn't say, is that for nearly eight years critics have complained that the Bush-Cheney administration took the threat of nuclear terrorism too seriously (see the One Percent Doctrine). There is even a cottage industry devoted to pooh-poohing (see here and here) the entire matter as hype. Perhaps that industry will now direct its fire at Obama or perhaps it will find itself suddenly able to split the hair between a "scare tactic" and "genuinely scary."  

The administration has also described its initiatives as the first serious effort to get U.S. nuclear policy out of a Cold War mentality on the U.S.-Soviet/Russia nuclear balance and on to the more-pressing concerns of nuclear proliferation and "loose nukes." As my former colleague Will Tobey shows, this is not quite fair to the last three administrations, all three of which deserve credit for taking serious and consequential steps to confront the "loose nukes" problem. Indeed, if anything, it is the administration's own U.S.-Russian nuclear arms treaty "New START" that has the feel of an 80's Hot Tub Time Machine, not the combined records of Bush 41, Clinton, and Bush 43.

The inability to distinguish between what's new and what's new to you is revealing but, in the final analysis, we should not let it completely detract from the overall effect of the summit which, I believe, is basically a positive one for the United States and for the Obama administration. The United States got renewed attention on a security priority that has been a central pillar of U.S. grand strategy for two decades now. If the promises made and aspirations expressed at the summit result in tangible action, this will be all to the good.

The Obama administration, for its part, gets credit for pulling off a very complex staff operation -- from a national security staff point of view, this summit has to be  the most ambitious venture the administration has attempted -- and for show-casing the president in a very favorable setting.

There may have been only marginal progress on the most urgent and important nuclear security issue -- dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions -- but there was progress overall. That is something that folks in the bleachers can cheer.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Suspension of disbelief in IR

My Shadow Government colleague Peter Feaver had a very nice essay in Friday's New York Times. He argued that the Obama administration's shifts in nuclear policy are neither as momentous nor as objectionable as critics fear. One parenthetical comment particularly caught my eye:

Paradoxically, the more our adversaries buy into the administration's spin that this is a drastic change, the stronger the critics' point. If adversaries stick to a lawyerly reading of the text, the critique loses force."

He raises an intriguing point about which matters more -- the broad understanding of what an agreement says or the actual text. Fortunately, in the world of nuclear deterrence, we do not frequently put such questions to the test. The issue is more general, however, and we had an important example of the distinction between perception and text not long ago in the world of international trade.

A key component of any administration's trade toolkit is the authority to negotiate agreements. This delegation is both necessary and complicated, since the U.S. Constitution grants Congress authority over trade. A vast majority of trade experts, prior to 2008, would have said that "fast track" or "trade promotion authority" (TPA) meant that a suitably-negotiated trade agreement had to be submitted to a timely up-down vote in Congress.

Decades of trade negotiations proceeded on the basis of this understanding. Interlocutor governments risked putting forward sensitive market access concessions under the assurance that the resulting bargain would be immune from Congressional amendments and would receive a prompt vote. Economics professors at major universities taught this in their trade courses (I toss this last one in as an apology to my former students).

In fact, the common understanding was wrong. Congress had not tied its own hands, as almost everyone thought they had. The constitutional obstacle to delegation was even more difficult than had been thought. The cognoscenti who understood the workings of the House of Representatives knew better. The House Rules committee has remarkable power to do whatever it likes; TPA was a House rule and could be modified at any point.

The gap between perception and reality was revealed at a critical moment, when President Bush tried to use his perceived authority to get a vote on the Colombia free trade agreement in 2008. He submitted it to Congress according to the rules of TPA, at which point Speaker Pelosi changed the rules. (This was trade's version of the "nuclear option." No one has yet come forward with a way to put trade negotiating authority back together again. President Obama has not even requested such authority.) 

There are at least two morals to this story. First, misperceptions can be powerful. The ironclad guarantee of a vote was a useful fiction all along, but it drove our trade policy for decades. Second, misperceptions may be debunked at awkward moments. The promise of a clean and timely vote on trade agreements offered reassurance, right up until the moment it was really needed.

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images