The presidents of the United States and Russia have signed a new arms reduction agreement in Prague signalling a willingness to rid the world of nuclear weapons. But experts on the whole are largely disappointed.
Some believe arms reduction is leading to a non-nuclear world
President Barack Obama has taken a further step toward his goal of a world without atomic weapons after he and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a landmark treaty in Prague which will commit the two former Cold War foes to new reductions in their nuclear arsenals.
Almost a year ago, Obama stood in the Czech capital vowing to seek "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." The goal of a nuclear-free world became a signature foreign policy issue for Obama after last year's Prague speech, a vision which contributed to him winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
On Thursday, two days after Obama unveiled a new US policy which would reduce America's nuclear arsenal, halt its nuclear tests and ban its use of nuclear weapons against countries that do not have them, the US president returned to Prague and moved closer to his objective of eradicating the world's 23,000 nuclear weapons.
The signing concludes almost a year of negotiations on arms reduction between the world's two largest nuclear powers and will bring into effect a successor to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), limiting operationally deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550.
Obama has been pursuing a raft of policies on nuclear weaponry since taking office. As well as targeting his own country's stockpile, the US president has vowed to strengthen the Proliferation Security Initiative which includes more than 90 countries who cooperate in intercepting illicit shipments of nuclear technology and other dangerous items, as well as launching a number of new international initiatives to build a more comprehensive global approach toward addressing proliferation.
A good first step but nuke-free world is still some way off
Obama has been pursuing a radical anti-nuclear policy
The Prague signing this week is being sold by Washington spin doctors as further evidence of Obama's courageous commitment to reducing nuclear weapons and his desire to "reset" relations with Russia but experts are skeptical of how historic the agreement will turn out to be and whether Obama's vision is anything other than a utopian pipe dream.
"It is certainly a positive step but it's a lot less significant than the hype suggests," Nick Witney, a transatlantic and defence expert at the European Centre for Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle.
"Obama is enjoying a popularity bounce right now and this agreement is being sold as a big foreign policy success on the back of the health reform at home."
"However, you have to wonder why it took so long to come to this agreement and how different it is to previous ones. In fact, we're not seeing that much new progress and Obama's nuclear posture review doesn't differ that much from the one undertaken by the Clinton administration some 10 years before."
"Obama is taking modest steps toward reducing nuclear weapons and deemphasising their threat but it would take decades or even centuries before we could see the kind of change he envisages."
Witney also believes that the US sees terrorism and proliferation to be its biggest threats and that by engaging Russia in negotiations and reducing tensions, the Obama administration can approach Russia as a partner in tackling its most pressing issues such as Iran and Afghanistan.
Prague agreement may lead to cooperation on Iran, North Korea
Anthony Seaboyer, a security expert with the German Council on Foreign Relations, believes the fact that the US and Russia are announcing a joint agreement should be praised and that the knock-on effect from the improved relations may lead to further cooperation on other issues.
Russia has been suspicious of the US but could cooperate
"It's a great achievement to have this agreement in place," Seaboyer told Deutsche Welle, "and while it is a small pragmatic step toward disarmament, this joint announcement could have a positive impact on future negotiations. It could even lead to Russia considering the US proposal for increased sanctions on Iran."
"These developments are certainly adding extra pressure on Iran and North Korea, as is Obama's nuclear posture excluding Iran and North Korea from protection from attack."
Regardless of what could be behind the current desire for arms reduction, any amount of scaling down of nuclear weapons will be welcomed, especially by Europe. Once the potential atomic battlefield of any outbreak of war between the two superpowers during the Cold War, Europe remains strategically and politically important to both nations.
Chance for Europe as post-Cold War world thaws further
Reducing the threat, however minute in this day and age, of a nuclear exchange between the two former foes and the state of improving relations is surely good news for the Europeans, especially since the Prague agreement suggests the US is considering withdrawing its last tactical nuclear weapons - 200 B61 gravity bombs - from Europe which are based in Belgium, Turkey, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands.
The US promise to Europe will remain even if its nukes don't
However, Nick Witney believes that this part of the agreement suggests the US focus is moving away from Europe and that this could have repercussions for European defense.
"The US is no longer worried about defending Europe from those land invasion scenarios of the Cold War, although protecting Europe as part of the US nuclear posture remains," he said.
"That US nuclear promise will remain even if their missiles leave. What will happen is that the Europeans will be forced to look more at their own defense strategies and spending, and will have to reorganise these structures within NATO."
No need for nerves over missile defense say experts
The issue of taking more responsibility for defense aside, some eastern European nations are nervous at the growing détente between the US and Russia for other reasons, particularly the possibility of President Obama acquiescing should Moscow demand an end to plans for a US missile shield in Europe in return for full disarmament cooperation in future agreements.
Anthony Seaboyer believes that this is unlikely to happen and that eastern European states - and the EU as a whole - have no reason to be concerned about closer ties between the US and Russia.
"Obama has said that the new plans for the missile shield includes all of Europe and he has said, as echoed by NATO chief Rasmussen, that there can be no shield without cooperation with Russia," he said.
"So there is no reason to feel threatened. Europe can only benefit from better relations between the US and Russia."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge