You know something is amiss when the French take a harder line on national security than the United States. At the United Nations last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy chided President Obama for his “dream” of ridding the world of nuclear weapons, reminding him that “we live in a real world, not a virtual world.”

Ouch. The French like to sting American presidents, but this is different. It’s not the normal Gallic jab at America for being a “hyper power,” but a French leader reminding an American president of his responsibilities as a world leader. The sting hurts because it rings so true—and because it comes from France, of all places.

Sarkozy is right. We may want a nuclear free world, but we will no more eliminate all nuclear weapons in the world with arms control than we will all tanks, artillery or any other major weapon of war. We can control the spread of nuclear weapons, but it is downright foolish to pretend that we can free the world of all of them by signing agreements.

My guess is that the President knows this, but that he is using the ideal of universal nuclear disarmament to mask what he really wants to do: 1) Appease the Russians who love it when the Americans put arms control at the top of the U.S.-Russian agenda (because it elevates their importance and gives them a shot at cutting the US arsenal); and 2) provide an ideological excuse to restrain the modernization of America’s nuclear weapons.

Why do I say this? Because Obama’s rhetorical fancy about disarmament comes on the heels of three very real and unfortunate decisions. One was to abandon the “third site” of missile defenses in Europe, which no matter what the excuse, was done to appease the Russians. Another was to reject the first draft of the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review—a statement of U.S. nuclear strategy and policy issued by his own Secretary of Defense—because it didn’t go far enough in reducing American nuclear weapons. The third was to seek ratification of the Senate rejected and discredited Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
What will be the likely outcome of these policies and decisions?
• The Russians (and Chinese) will continue to modernize their nuclear weapons while we stop or slow down. We will unilaterally disarm while they continue to build.
• North Korea and Iran will pay all this disarmament rhetoric no heed at all and will continue to work on their missile and nuclear weapons programs. Obama’s dream of a world free of nuclear weapons will end up with two rouge and terrorist nuclear powers.
• Russia will continue to press the United States to give up defensive strategic programs (like the missile defense sites in Europe) in the name of arms control, while we leave ourselves more defenseless against their missiles and those of Iran and North Korea.
• Our European allies will grow ever more nervous that all this disarmament talk implies a diminished U.S. security role in the world, which raises doubts about our security commitments to them, and weakens our position in the world.
• At end of day, if we have the test ban and can’t or won’t modernize our arsenal, we won’t have an effective military force or deterrent.
For a French leader to have to remind an American leader of his responsibilities in dealing with the world is an astonishing thing. Obama can take the sting out of such criticism if he gets the message and starts acting like the leader Americans and the world expect of him.