Obama and administration officials, however, argue that the new policy sends exactly the right signal to Iran and North Korea, that by not complying with the Non-Proliferation Treaty and pursuing nuclear weapons, they are less safe.
"I actually think that the NPR [Nuclear Posture Review] has a very strong message for both Iran and North Korea," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Tuesday. "We essentially carve out states like Iran and North Korea that are not in compliance with NPT."
The message to these countries, Gates said, "is that if you're going to play by the rules, if you're going to join the international community, then we will undertake certain obligations to you, and that's covered in the NPR. But if you're not going to play by the rules, if you're going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you."
Nicholas Burns, who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Bush administration, agreed, saying that the new policy should be welcomed and that it maintains "a very tough line" on Iran.
"The president is clearly signaling that we are really decades away now from the end of the Cold War," he said. "That the real threats are no longer just those nuclear weapons states that bedeviled us in the past but they're the terrorist groups, and they're the renegade states like Iran and North Korea that are truly disruptive and a threat to the world.
"It seems to me that this new nuclear policy review by the Obama Administration strengthens the ability to the United States to counter that threat and safeguard American interests."
The president made it clear at the onset of his administration that he would work to reduce nuclear arsenals around the world, a promise he reaffirmed in Prague last year.
Obama hailed the new policy Tuesday as a "significant step forward" in fulfilling his pledge and reaffirmed his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.
"To stop the spread of nuclear weapons, prevent nuclear terrorism and pursue the day when these weapons do not exist, we will work aggressively to advance every element of our comprehensive agenda, to reduce arsenals, to secure vulnerable nuclear materials and to strengthen the NPT," he said in a statement. "These are the steps toward the more secure future that America seeks, and this is the work that we are advancing today."
Critics don't see it that way.
"Proliferation is actually increasing at a time when the president believes that if he takes unilateral action to diminish our options, others will follow," Turner said. "And I don't think we've ever seen any emphasis where the United States has diminished its arsenal and resulted in other countries being motivated to not seek nuclear weapons."
Tuesday's announcement came at the beginning of a week and a half devoted to nuclear talks. Obama will sign the new U.S.-Russian arms control treaty with Medvedev in Prague Thursday and the United States will host a nuclear summit next week in Washington, D.C., attended by delegates from 47 countries.
ABC News' Huma Khan contributed to this report.