PRAGUE, Czech Republic — During a speech at Prague Castle last year, U.S. President Barack Obama announced an audacious idea to eventually rid the world of nuclear weapons. It was a goal, he said, not likely to be achieved in his lifetime.
A treaty signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in Prague on Thursday, almost a year to the day, would trim the two power’s strategic nuclear arsenals to their lowest levels in half a century.
The latest Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, calls for both sides to reduce their deployed nuclear weapons by 30 percent.
In a statement released Tuesday, Obama called the agreement “a significant step forward" that fulfills his pledge to "focus on reducing the nuclear dangers of the 21st century, while sustaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent for the United States and our allies and partners as long as nuclear weapons exist.”
The bilateral treaty not only substantially reduces the deployed nuclear arsenals of the world's two biggest nuclear powers, but is also intended to provide incentive for non-nuclear states — Iran and North Korea, in particular — to eschew the pursuit of nuclear weapons altogether.
While nuclear arms reduction is almost universally regarded as a positive development, right-wing pundits here, and across the former Soviet bloc, remain leery of the U.S. forming close ties with Russia. The president's visit has given him an opportunity to reassure America's allies in central and eastern Europe that the United States remains committed to the region's security.
And so Obama has invited the leaders of 11 central and east European countries (Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia) to dinner Thursday to reassure them of America's commitment to regional security.
Right-wing Czech Senator Alexandr Vondra — who was a strident supporter of former President George W. Bush's missile defense plan for Europe, which included a radar base here, along with 10 interceptors in Poland — was furious when Obama announced last year that he would shelve the Bush plan.
What Obama says at dinner is less important than how NATO redefines its security strategy over the next eight months, according to Vondra.
“The real response will come later this year with the New Strategic Concept of NATO, and the reassurance of the alliance in Europe that NATO will remain strong and the U.S. will remain committed,” Vondra said.
Tomas Weiss, a defense expert at the Europeum Institute here, said the former Soviet bloc countries that have joined NATO over the past 11 years were taken aback after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, and the U.S. refusal to invoke the all-important article 5 of the NATO charter in response to the attack.
Article 5 says that an attack against one member-state is an attack against all, and Weiss said the new member states took that as the ultimate security guarantee.
But a closer reading of the article shows alliance members have some wiggle room in how they respond. Member states have the right to take “... action as [they deem] necessary, including the use of armed force ...” but do not guarantee the use of an armed response to a military invasion.
Weiss said the previous right-wing government pursued the bilateral missile defense treaty with the United States because it would have included a limited number of U.S. troops on the ground here.
“Politics isn't real [tangible], it's just a construction,” he said. “But American troops on your soil — that's tangible.”
Thus if the country were attacked and U.S. troops were already on the ground, in the line of fire, the U.S. would be compelled to defend its soldiers by all means available.
In scrapping the Bush missile defense plan, Obama cited a system that performed poorly when tested, and a threat — a long-range, nuclear missile strike from Iran — that remained far-off and uncertain.
While many believe Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapons capability it is thought to be years away from such a development, and even more removed from developing a long-range missile that could potentially strike Europe. Yet, its short- and medium-range missile capabilities have advanced more significantly in recent years, and Obama's missile defense system is geared toward thwarting that threat.
Some here are so wary of Russia's ambitions in the region that they objected to the summit being hosted in the Czech Republic at all, saying that historically such treaties have been signed on neutral territory.
But even the hawkish senator Vondra acknowledged that Prague was a logical choice for the ceremony.
“President Obama was interested in signing this in Prague, mostly as a symbolic reason,” he said. After “he made the announcement one year ago in Prague castle.”
But many people — like Milos Calda, who heads the American studies department at the Institute of International Studies at Charles University in Prague — who are otherwise wary of Russia, recognize the value of good relations between the two big nuclear powers.
“Of course, who wants war and great tensions?” he asked. “I'm glad this sort of detente takes place and I think this country will benefit from that.”