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Zero Nuclear Weapons is the New Benchmark

April 7, 2009

The leaders of the world’s two largest nuclear powers have committed themselves and their countries to achieving a nuclear-weapons-free world. That pledge, made by presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev at their April 1 meeting in London—and elaborated by President Obama in a policy-transforming speech in Prague on April 5— must be the benchmark against which all progress to reduce the threat of nuclear destruction is now measured.

Presidents Medvedev and Obama have outlined a course of near term actions that, if negotiated successfully, will bring us closer to the goal of global nuclear disarmament than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Over the next few months, we will find out how high they plan to set the bar.

For example, arms control experts have suggested that the goal of negotiations on a new treaty to replace the expiring START 1 could be a reduction to no more than 1,000 warheads on each side. This would be undeniable progress. A reduction to 500 warheads, however, would be an eye-catching demonstration of the intention to reach zero. It could also stand as a good faith challenge to the other nuclear weapon states, whose arsenals already number in the hundreds or fewer, to commence negotiations on a comprehensive agreement to rid the world of all nuclear weapons.

The US and Russian leaders also promised “to work together to fulfill our obligations under Article VI” of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). For most of the near-40-year history of the NPT, the nuclear weapon states have paid lip service to their nuclear disarmament commitment under Article VI, while doing everything possible to avoid compliance. As a result, the patience of the non-nuclear-weapon states—and their willingness to comply with their own non-proliferation obligations—has been strained to the breaking point. With a crucial five-year review of the NPT scheduled for 2010 and a final preparatory meeting coming up in New York next month, solid evidence of this fresh intent to comply with Article VI will be essential.

The joint statement contained a familiar but important list of measures to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons and to make their spread less likely. Among these are entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the negotiation of a ban on production of fissile materials, and stepped-up efforts to prevent terrorists and other non-state actors from acquiring nuclear weapons. An unambiguous decision to end the development of all new US and Russian nuclear weapons—both warhead designs and delivery systems—would send a clear signal to the rest of the world that eliminating these instruments of mass extermination is not just a goal, but a plan.

For several years, Russian anger at the prospect of US missile defense deployments in Europe and the rapid expansion of NATO, matched by US objections that Russia has not done more to hold Iran accountable to its non-proliferation obligations, had all but derailed progress in bilateral relations, and had threatened to escalate into a new arms race. That both leaders seem willing to step back from confrontation on these issues, to consider each other’s perspectives, and to seek mutually acceptable solutions comes as a breath of fresh air. The long-overdue removal of US nuclear weapons from European bases, a moratorium on the installation of missile defense components, and assurances from Moscow that it will not modernize its missile delivery systems would go a long way toward rebuilding eroded trust.

The lesson of the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was that a single nuclear weapon could destroy an entire city. During the Cold War, we came face-to-face with the horrifying realization that the explosion of thousands of nuclear weapons in a war between the US and the former Soviet Union would have destroyed humanity itself. That threat has not gone away. New scientific research has shown that even 100 Hiroshima-size warheads, exploded over major cities, would cause a sudden global cooling, the disruption of agriculture worldwide, and could lead to the deaths of a billion people who already live on the margins of starvation.

The stakes are far too high to risk the use of these weapons by accident or miscalculation. For this reason, the US and Russia should take all their missiles off high alert. That step could be taken immediately, with a simple presidential directive.

Presidents Obama and Medvedev concluded their first meeting by stating that “Now it is time to get down to business and translate our warms words into actual achievements of benefit to Russia, the United States, and all those around the world interested in peace and prosperity.”

To resounding and well-deserved applause in Prague, President Obama acknowledged that the US, “as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon…has a moral responsibility to act.” Making sure he and the leaders of the other nuclear weapon states act together to make this new vision a reality is both a responsibility and an opportunity that may not come our way again.

The large majorities who have said they want to live in a world without nuclear weapons will support Presidents Medvedev and Obama as they “get down to business.” At the same time, we should make clear our expectation that their pledge to free the world from the threat of annihilation by the most destructive weapons ever created will soon take the form of a comprehensive plan for getting to zero.

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