Nonetheless, North Korea’s third nuclear test since 2006 must be seen as a major embarrassment for Obama, coming on the eve of his biggest speech of the year (after his second Inaugural Address, of course). From the earliest days of his presidency, Obama has made nuclear nonproliferation a key goal, and his advisers have said he had wanted to revive this as a major “legacy” item in his second term. But North Korea’s act of open defiance only illustrates how little progress there has been on several fronts.
The administration’s early policy of “strategic patience”–refusing to negotiate until Pyongyang unilaterally agreed to suspend its program—appeared to provoke only more defiance from North Korea. Last week, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rebuffed a U.S. offer to negotiate directly over its covert nuclear program, despite multilateral agreement to impose the harshest sanctions yet on Tehran. And last fall, Russia abruptly announced it was dropping out of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which since 1991 has helped Moscow destroy or safely store nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons left over after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It’s not a pretty picture to present to the world at the start of Obama’s second term. Vietor, asked about the apparent failure to halt either Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs, replied: “How is that different than four years ago?” On the broader issue of nonproliferation, Vietor also noted that the U.S. and Russia had signed a New START pact in 2010. Yet Republicans in Congress have resisted further cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, suggesting this effort signals U.S. weakness, especially after Obama was heard telling Russia’s then-president, Dmitry Medvedev, over an open microphone that “after my election I have more flexibility” in making concessions on America’s missile-defense program. The North Korean test is likely to only stiffen GOP resistance.