Think of Niagara Falls. Think of the onrushing current as the river pours itself toward the massive cascade. Imagine a lone swimmer a hundred yards or so upstream, desperately stroking against the current to keep from being swept over the precipice. That swimmer is President Obama, the river is the world, and the falls is the threat of unchecked nuclear weapons.
Henry James used the image of Niagara to describe the rush into World War I: ". . .the tide that bore us along.'' Hannah Arendt defined the wars of the 20th century as events "cascading like a Niagara Falls of history.'' Jonathan Schell used Niagara as an organizing metaphor for his indispensable critique of war, "The Unconquerable World.''
But now the image has entered the lexicon of strategic experts who warn of a coming "cascade of proliferation,'' one nation following another into the deadly chasm of nuclear weapons unless present nuclear powers find a way to reverse the current. The main burden is on Russia and the United States, which together possess the vast majority of the world's nuclear weapons, but President Obama deliberately made himself central to the challenge when he said in Prague, "I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.''
Now the Niagara current is taking him the other way. Here are the landmarks that define the swimmer's momentum.
■The US-Russia Treaty. Negotiators in Geneva are late in reaching agreement on a nuclear arms treaty to replace START, which expired last December. Obama is threading a needle, having to meet Russian requirements (for example, on missile defense) while anticipating Republican objections in the US Senate (for example, on missile defense). Warning: Bill Clinton was humiliated when the Senate rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999. Republicans' recalcitrance on health care is peanuts compared to the damage their rejection of a new START treaty would do.
■The Nuclear Posture Review, the Congress-mandated report on how the administration defines nuclear needs today. This, too, is overdue, probably because the White House has been pushing back against the Pentagon on numerous issues. Are nukes for deterrence only? Will the United States renounce first use? Having stopped the Bush-era program to build a new nuclear weapon, will Obama allow further research and development? What nations will be named as potential nuclear threats? Warning: The 1994 Nuclear Posture Review was Clinton's Pentagon Waterloo. It affirmed the Cold War status quo, killing serious arms reduction until now.
■Although usually considered apart, the broader US defense posture has turned into a key motivator for other nations to go nuclear. The current Pentagon budget ($5 trillion for 2010-2017) is so far beyond any other country, and the conventional military capacity it buys is so dominant, as to reinforce the nuclear option abroad as the sole protection against potential US attack. This is new.
■In April, a world leaders nuclear summit will be held in Washington, but both nuclear haves and have-nots will be taking positions based on the US-Russia Treaty (and its prospects for ratification) and the Nuclear Posture Review. Warning: if China sees US missile defense as potentially aimed its way, a new nuclear arms race is on.
■In May, the signatories to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty will hold their eighth regular review session in New York. Since the nations that agreed to forego nuclear weapons did so on the condition that the nuclear nations work steadily toward abolition, the key question will be whether Obama has in fact begun to deliver on his declared intention. If not, get ready for the cascade.
In truth, the current rushing toward Niagara cannot be resisted. Not seven nuclear nations, therefore, but 17, or, ultimately, 70. But beware an analysis like this. The falls are an analogy, not a fact. Obama warned of such fatalism, calling it in Prague, "a deadly adversary, for if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.'' Therefore, reject the analogy. Obama is not a lone swimmer, but a voice of all humanity. The nuclear future is not pre-determined. Human choices are being made right now to define it anew.