Speaking from Prague on Sunday, President Barack Obama declared his intention to start ridding the world of nuclear weapons. The President is not alone in his belief that nuclear stockpiles have outlived their usefulness; former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz have argued that it is high time for nuclear disarmament. It certainly sounds like a great idea – free the nations of Earth from the nuclear threat. Whether absolute disarmament is actually possible is another matter. Some argue that it isn't even a good idea to try.
"We will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same," Obama told a cheering crowd at Hradcanske Square outside Prague Castle in the Czech Republic. "To reduce our warheads and stockpiles, we will negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians this year."
"This goal will not be reached quickly -- perhaps not in my lifetime," he said. "[We] must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, 'Yes, we can.'"
Ronald Reagan pushed for nuclear disarmament during his presidency, and every president since has worked to reduce the number of warheads in Russian and American stockpiles. Obama wants to go beyond reduction; he envisions a world completely free of nuclear weapons and has made it a centerpiece of his foreign policy.
There are many reasons for pushing for a nuclear-free world. Nine countries have successfully detonated nuclear weapons, and a number of others are seriously interested. Disarming now would discourage other countries from jumping on the bandwagon. Fewer weapons in existence also mean a lower chance those weapons and weapons materials will fall into the wrong hands. If America leads the way in disarmament, advocates argue, that will encourage others to do the same. As an added incentive, Obama said, all countries that renounce nuclear weapons would have access to peaceful nuclear power through an international nuclear fuel bank (eliminating the need to enrich uranium themselves.)
Former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn spoke at the American Academy in Berlin in June 2008, urging for disarmament, saying, "[W]e believe [that, with a U.S. commitment to disarmament,] it would become more likely that many more nations will join us in a firm approach to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials and prevent catastrophic terrorism.... We cannot take these steps without the cooperation of other nations. We cannot get the cooperation of other nations without the vision and hope of a world that will someday end these weapons as a threat to mankind."
In the short-term, Obama plans to:
- Reduce nuclear stockpiles along with Russia;
- Detect radioactive materials as they are smuggled through borders. For instance, the US and New Zealand signed an agreement Tuesday in which New Zealand would donate US$600,000 to set up radiation detection equipment on the borders of Kazakhstan.
- End production of weapons-grade nuclear materials;
- Add teeth to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, including consequences for nations that break their agreements under the treaty;
- Host a global summit on nuclear security;
- Press the US Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (the US has not tested a nuclear weapon since 1993, but has not ratified the treaty);
- Secure nuclear material to keep it from being acquired by dangerous groups.
The International Security Advisory Board (ISAB) to the State Department claims, "There is clear evidence in diplomatic channels that U.S. assurances to include the nuclear umbrella have been, and continue to be, the single most important reason many allies have forsworn nuclear weapons."
Obama still wants to build a missile shield based in the Czech Republic and Poland, to the consternation of Russia. The world will not be nuke-free tomorrow, after all. Obama said, "Make no mistake: as long as these weapons exist, we will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies."
Former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton acknowledges that most people want a nuclear-free world. But, Bolton said, "I don't think it's realistic to think nuclear weapons will disappear for a long, long time, not until the lion lays down with the lamb."
Obama Pledges to Lead World Into Nuclear-Free Future - Fox News
Systematic Analysis: U.S. Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Proliferation - Arms Control Association
Toward a Nuclear-Free World - The Wall Street Journal
McCully and Clinton Sign Kazakhstan Nuclear Deal - The New Zealand Herald
Obama's Nuclear Nonproliferation Plan Heralds Changes For DOE Labs - The New York Times
Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance - Arms Control Association
Gingrich Decries Obama's Nuclear Policy - UPI
Can Obama Persuade World On Nuclear Arms? - Reuters
Strategic Trends: Weapons Proliferation - Koinonia House