Change and Inertia in US Nuclear Weapons Policy: the Case of the Obama Administration

Date: 31 January 2019

Venue: Stadscampus, de Meerminne, M.103 - St-Jacobsstraat 2 - 2000 Antwerpen (route: UAntwerpen, Stadscampus)

Time: 10:00 AM

PhD candidate: Navid Hassibi

Principal investigator: Prof Tom Sauer

Short description: PhD defence Navid Hassibi - Department of Political Science


When the Cold War came to an end in 1991, there were expectations that the large nuclear weapons stockpiles and their associated policies would adjust accordingly. Despite the decrease in the number of nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War, U.S. nuclear weapons policy remained largely unchanged. When the Obama administration entered office, thousands of deployed weapons still remained on “hair trigger” alert, enough to destroy the world many times over. Unlike the previous post-Cold War U.S. administrations, President Barack Obama had arguably dedicated significant personal attention into shifting U.S. nuclear weapons policy upon taking the oath of office, as notably highlighted through his first major foreign policy speech as president in Prague in 2009. It seemed as if President Obama was willing to adapt U.S. nuclear weapons policy to changed circumstances away from what can be described as a policy of maximum deterrence during the Cold War toward the direction of minimum deterrence, leading to the following research question: Did the Cold War era nuclear weapons policy of the United States fundamentally shift from maximum deterrence toward minimum deterrence under the Obama administration? If so, how and why did it change? If there were no changes, resulting in inertia, what were the contributing factors?

This research project adopts a two-pronged approach in examining the change and inertia in U.S. nuclear weapons policy under the Obama administration. In Part I of this project, the concepts of minimum and maximum deterrence are introduced, reviewed and employed as a framework to explain the “how?”. The other half of the two-pronged approach employed in this project will be the focus of Part II, which aims to answer the “why”. In doing so, John Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Approach (MSA) to policy change is reviewed and employed.

In conclusion, the final analysis explains the Obama administration’s inertia in changing the Cold War-era “business as usual” approach to nuclear weapons being due to a lack of presidential leadership in surmounting the following obstacles in the following order of obstructionist impact:

  • Parochial interests pursued by the Departments of Defense and Energy as well as relevant members of Cabinet and the National Security Council;
  • Domestic politics, including competing policy priorities and hyper political partisanship between the president’s Democratic Party and the Republican Party; and,
  • A changing geopolitical landscape which revived Cold War-like competition with Russia.

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