It's been more than 20 years since Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan stunned the planet by proposing that the U.S. and the Soviet Union embark on a quest to free the world of nuclear weapons.
That deal died when the U.S. declined to put its strategic defense program on the bargaining table, and the superpowers made just modest progress on disarmament at the end of the Cold War. But the dangers of nuclear terrorism and a confluence of other events are breathing life into Reagan's dream as a new administration takes power.
The abolition of nuclear weapons is now the stated policy of Barack Obama's White House. And if that seemingly-utopian goal lies in the distance, the notion that the U.S. and Russia should start that quest is not so far-fetched. Indeed, discussion of the hows and whys and whethers has already begun.
"We're on the front end of a big nuclear debate," says John Hamre, the president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank. "We haven't had one, you know, in Washington for probably 15 years, and we're going to have a rip-roaring one here in the next couple of years."
The debate will be post-partisan, with Republicans joining Democrats on various sides of the issue. It also divides the administration, with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates taking a far more pessimistic stance than his boss.
Obama pledged to abolish nukes during the presidential campaign, and he will fulfill another campaign vow when he appoints a White House nuclear issues coordinator to give special attention to nuclear proliferation and terrorism. During her confirmation process, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Senate that the Obama administration "plans to set a new direction in nuclear weapons."
A new direction is required, Clinton said, because of the December 2009 expiration date of the current strategic arms (START) treaty with Russia, and the requirement by Congress that Obama conduct a rare Nuclear Posture Review by the end of the year. In addition, Clinton said, the administration intends to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and submit the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty to the Senate for ratification.
Like much else in the world, the theology of nuclear weaponry was shattered by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"We are in a different set of circumstances now, and the world hasn't adjusted," said former Sen. Sam Nunn, a Democrat from Georgia who has led efforts to address the dangers of nuclear terrorism. "We've got terrorists who are willing to give up their own lives …, loose nuclear material in large quantities … (and) the know-how is spread all over the world."
Highly enriched uranium and tactical nuclear weapons are imperfectly secured and could be seized by terrorists, Nunn said. Computerized nuclear launch codes may be vulnerable to hackers. Nuclear powers North Korea, Pakistan and Israel are far from stable, and Iran, Syria, Libya and Iraq have all nosed at the door of the nuclear club. Recent Air Force blunders in the transport of nuclear warheads show the risk of devastating accidents.
In 2006, national security experts met at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1986 Reagan-Gorbachev summit. In the wake of the conference, Nunn joined with former Republican secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger and former defense secretary William Perry, a Democratic appointee, to publicly announce that "we endorse setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons."
Though "nuclear weapons were essential to maintaining international security during the Cold War … the end of the Cold War made the doctrine of mutual Soviet-American deterrence obsolete," the four statesmen wrote in The Wall Street Journal. "Reliance on nuclear weapons for this purpose is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective."
At a follow-up conference at Stanford in 2007, participants crafted a blueprint for abolition of the weapons. The U.S. has some 10,000 nuclear weapons now, and Russia 15,000, so the two giants must lead the way. They have currently committed, under the terms of a 2002 Moscow Treaty, to reduce their strategic arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads each by December 2012. The Stanford conferees suggested that the two sides embrace a more ambitious goal of 1,000 warheads each, with 500 on each side deployed and the others warehoused.
At this point, according to the scenario, the world's other nuclear powers (whose arsenals range in size from a few dozen to a few hundred nuclear warheads) and prospective nuclear powers might be persuaded to join in a deliberate, verifiable march toward zero nuclear weapons.
Getting Russia to start the quest may require arduous diplomacy. Because Russia's leaders have forfeited so much of their former conventional military power, they are now reliant on nuclear weaponry, Nunn said. And they are alarmed at NATO plans to bring former Soviet states into the Western military alliance.
"You can't surround Russia by taking everyone into NATO except Russia and expect them to react any way other than hostile," he warned.
The U.S. defense establishment has its own significant qualms.
In a little-noted speech one week before Election Day, Gates told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that the U.S. must cling to its policy of deterrence to ward off potential attackers — and to reassure some two dozen allies who, without the U.S. nuclear umbrella, would rush to build nuclear weapons themselves.
"There is little doubt that some nations will continue to think that possession of nuclear weapons is the best way to preserve their regime or threaten their neighbors," Gates said. He specifically challenged the Nunn-Kissinger-Shultz-Perry campaign.
"We have to know our limitations. We have to acknowledge that the fundamental nature of man hasn't changed," Gates said. "Try as we might and hope as we will, the power of nuclear weapons and their strategic impact is a genie that cannot be put back in the bottle, at least for a very long time."
One of Washington's more interesting dramas in 2009 may be this tension between hope and skepticism, as expressed by the new president and his veteran defense secretary.
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