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President Obama’s ambition of a nuclear weapons-free world has garnered widespread global attention, even though the president has repeatedly qualified his lofty goal with an admission that it might not happen in his lifetime.

Many nonproliferation experts agree: Obama shouldn’t get his hopes up. But that doesn’t mean his ambition isn’t helpful to the nuke-free cause.

Describing nuclear weapons as “the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War” during a speech in Prague last April, Obama pledged that his administration would work tirelessly to reduce the world’s nuclear weapons footprint.

“Some argue that the spread of these weapons cannot be stopped, cannot be checked — that we are destined to live in a world where more nations and more people possess the ultimate tools of destruction,” Obama said during the now-famous speech in Prague’s historic center.

“Such fatalism is a deadly adversary, for if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.”

Obama pointedly added that the United States — as the only nation to have actually detonated a nuclear bomb in wartime — has a special obligation to work at nuclear disarmament.

“Today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” Obama declared. “I’m not naïve. This goal will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can.’”

Against that backdrop of soaring ambition (some say rhetoric), the United States and Russia have been meeting in Geneva to come up with a successor agreement to the landmark Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) that expires Dec. 5. The goal would be to cut the number of nuclear warheads each side possesses to between 1,500 and 1,675 within seven years, though sharp disagreements remain over a number of issues, including how many so-called delivery vehicles — weapons platforms such as missiles and bombers — each side should have.

Meanwhile, rogue states Iran and North Korea continue to advance their (possibly divergent) nuclear aims, while over the years the world has largely accepted that certain nations flouted the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and now possess established nuclear arsenals, namely India, Pakistan and Israel. Moreover, recent reports that in 1982 China gave Pakistan enough enriched uranium to make two nuclear bombs certainly haven’t eased ongoing fears about the illegal transfer of nuclear technology to rogue states. Today, China boasts as many as 300 warheads of its own, leading some of Obama’s more hawkish domestic critics to question just how much disarmament is responsible in terms of America’s own national security.

Of course, no one expects Russia and the United States to use the latest START round to completely dismantle their nuclear programs, but Obama certainly views the widely watched negotiation as a high-profile platform to advance his nuke-free ideal.

Speaking at a conference in Washington in September, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the START talks could send an important message to the rest of the world.

“Clinging to nuclear weapons in excess of our security needs does not make the United States safer,” she said. “And the nuclear status quo is neither desirable nor sustainable. It gives other countries the motivation or the excuse to pursue their own nuclear options.”

But is total disarmament — zero nukes — possible? Does it even make sense in today’s unpredictable security environment?

Closing Pandora’s Box? Experts interviewed by The Washington Diplomat — even staunch nuclear weapons opponents — agree that getting rid of all nuclear bombs would be very, very difficult to achieve.

The logic long cited by skeptics is that nuclear technology has been invented — and used — and can’t be un-invented. Moreover, there is simply too much distrust in the world for any one nuclear power to make the bold leap and completely forsake their ultimate line of deterrence.

On that note, many credit the threat of nuclear weapons with preventing massive bloodshed, such as during the Cold War. In “Want Peace? Give a Nuke the Nobel,” David Von Drehle of Time magazine writes that, “As long as a nukeless world remains wishful thinking and pastoral rhetoric, we’ll be all right.” He points out that, “During the 31 years leading up to the first atomic bomb, the world without nuclear weapons engaged in two global wars resulting in the deaths of an estimated 78 million to 95 million people, uniformed and civilian.”

“Over three decades of industrialized war, the planet averaged about 3 million dead per year. Why did that stop happening?” Drehle asks. “Major powers find ways to get along because the cost of armed conflict between them has become unthinkably high.”

Yet others point out that conflict has hardly ceased to exist since the advent of nuclear weapons, citing wars from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. Ohio State University’s John Mueller, author of the recent book “Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda,” argues that the concerns over nuclear weapons isn’t commiserate with the impracticality of their use.

“In fact, a major reason so few technologically capable countries have actually sought to build the weapons, contrary to decades of hand-wringing prognostication, is that most have found them, on examination, to be a substantial and even ridiculous misdirection of funds, effort, and scientific talent,” he wrote in Foreign Policy. “We have also endured decades of hysteria over the potential for nuclear proliferation, even though the proliferation that has actually taken place has been both modest and substantially inconsequential,” he added, citing fears that never materialized over China acquiring nukes or Iraq’s nonexistent program.

Nevertheless, both Drehle and Mueller agree that reducing the amount of nukes remains a smart and worthwhile endeavor — Mueller because he finds them a waste of money and Drehle because it would limit the chances of the bombs falling into the wrong hands.

Indeed, many say that simply setting out the goal of a nuclear-free world begins to remove the passive cynicism that has dominated the debate for so long.

As Hans Blix, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, pointed out, “so much can happen in 50 years” — so why is total disarmament often derided as a “utopian fantasy” when seismic events regularly change accepted thinking that the world once viewed as unchangeable (just consider the demise of the Soviet Union two decades ago)?

“The world of 2050 is a long time off, and I think interdependence will have accelerated to a much greater degree than it has now,” the Swedish diplomat told the World Policy Journal in a recent interview. “Mutual interdependence will give states so many more non-military leverages against each other that it may help us do away with weapons of mass destruction entirely.”

Mountain of Cynicism Kingston Reif, deputy director of nuclear nonproliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, told The Diplomat that the challenge of global nuclear disarmament is “incredibly daunting.” But he also said “a world free of nuclear weapons is both feasible and desirable.”

Likewise, William Potter, director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, cited a landmark roadmap published in the Wall Street Journal in January 2008 that marked a major turning point in the debate.

“Toward a Nuclear-Free World” — authored by former Sen. Sam Nunn, former Secretaries of State George P. Shultz and Henry Kissinger, and former Defense Secretary William Perry — was a widely hailed approach toward global disarmament, with the top goal of reaching a new agreement on START.

The article said the United States and Russia can and should lead, but can’t do it all. “The U.S. and Russia, which possess close to 95 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads, have a special responsibility, obligation and experience to demonstrate leadership, but other nations must join,” the former government officials wrote.

The authors also compared the goal of global nuclear disarmament to a towering mountaintop. “From the vantage point of our troubled world today, we can’t even see the top of the mountain, and it is tempting and easy to say we can’t get there from here,” the men wrote in their conclusion. “But the risks from continuing to go down the mountain or standing pat are too real to ignore. We must chart a course to higher ground where the mountaintop becomes more visible.”

Potter said the op-ed sparked a renaissance of belief among some who had grown cynical about the prospects of a nuke-free world.

“These former Cold Warriors with very good security credentials — nobody would accuse them of being soft on defense — kind of opened up what I would call the respectable center stage of debate in the United States about disarmament,” Potter told The Diplomat. “President Obama is trying to move that agenda forward now that he is in office.”

Like the authors of the Wall Street op-ed, Potter said the United States obviously can’t do it alone.

“It’s a question that has to be asked not only of the U.S. but the other nuclear weapons states and possessors,” he said. “It’s not sufficient for the U.S. to take this initiative seriously. It may be a necessary condition for significant progress … but you really have to have similar commitments taken by other nuclear weapons states.”

Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington and a former nonproliferation official at the Pentagon during President George W. Bush’s administration, told The Diplomat that a nuclear-free world is highly unlikely. However, he acknowledged the argument that simply stating the goal helps reduce overall nuke numbers.

“Some people are convinced that that zero as a rhetorical starting point tends to pull the range toward the lower end,” Sokolski said, though he noted that questions quickly arise — especially from hawks in Congress — when a presidential administration starts talking about drastic cutbacks in the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal. “Not everybody is convinced we should all come down,” he said.

Sokolski argues that even pushing for ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty — a goal of the Obama administration — could backfire.

“India, whose last nuclear test series was followed by a Pakistani nuclear test, is again debating whether or not to resume nuclear testing; this to beat what they fear is an approaching nuclear test ban deadline,” Sokolski wrote in a recent white paper.

“Meanwhile, American test ban treaty opponents have urged the U.S. Senate to tie the treaty’s test limits to what other states, like Russia, say the treaty might allow,” Sokolski continued. “Pegging the treaty to this view, however, could end up allowing some forms of low-yield nuclear testing under the treaty.”

Potter said some have accused Obama of rhetorical flourishes, but he senses there are more than words at play with respect to his nuclear ideas. “What really is very refreshing about President Obama is that he not only appears to truly believe in the goal,” Potter said, “but also moving forward with practical steps toward that goal.”

‘Who Else Should Do It, If Not Us?’ The nuclear nonproliferation experts mentioned four things to watch for as Obama’s presidency matures: the content of the upcoming U.S. nuclear posture review; whether a START replacement treaty is negotiated in a timely fashion; whether new treaties are sought to tackle tactical or sub-strategic nuclear weapons; and the substance on nuclear issues at the upcoming NATO strategic conference.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told the German newspaper Spiegel in mid-November that his government was encouraged by Obama’s ambitious nuclear disarmament goals.

“Who else should do it, if not us?” Medvedev asked. “The greatest nuclear potential is currently in the hands of Russia and the U.S. If we don’t address this, there will be no disarmament.

“We have recently moved at quite a brisk pace,” he added. “The new administration in Washington has made this issue a top priority — in contrast to its predecessor, which appeared to be totally uninterested in strategic disarmament. Now we have every opportunity to agree on lower thresholds and define monitoring measures. At the end of the year, we could sign a legally binding document.”

However, if signals coming out of the talks in late November were any indication, reaching a new agreement by the Dec. 5 expiration date of the old one won’t be easy.

As a precursor to the latest START round, Obama and Medvedev last summer agreed to slash each country’s strategic nuclear arsenals to between 1,500 and 1,675 deployed warheads. The number marks a significant reduction from the 2,200-warhead limit each must adhere to by 2012 according to the Moscow Treaty, signed in 2002.

The two leaders also promised last summer that as part of their new agreement in Geneva, they would limit strategic delivery vehicles on each side to between 500 and 1,100. But early indications were that the Kremlin opposed a plan put forward by Washington that would allow U.S. inspectors to continue overseeing Russia’s mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) under the new agreement.

Reif, of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said START is an excellent, well, starting point for a new emphasis on ridding the planet of nuclear weapons. Ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty is another. But he said much more will ultimately be needed.

“Taking these steps will be easy compared to what will be required to surmount the many difficult obstacles that lie ahead,” he said. “As numerous experts who have thought very seriously about the challenges of abolition point out, it will require states to re-conceptualize the way in which they go about safeguarding their vital national interests.”

Reif suggested that “dialogue and diplomacy” must play a much greater role, and geopolitical disputes that have prompted and continue to prompt states to seek nuclear weapons in South Asia, East Asia and the Middle East will have to be resolved.

“These are all incredibly daunting challenges,” he said, “but I don’t think they’re unrealistic.”

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 2, 2014