There are two things that scare Austin Powers. The first are “circus folk” because of their “small hands” and the fact that they “smell like cabbage.” And while this may just be an idiosyncrasy of a fictional, time traveling secret agent, his second fear is all too real: nuclear war.
It may seem that in today’s world of stateless terrorists, roadside bombs, a worldwide economic recession and the frightening possibility of virulent pathogens jumping over borders and oceans, the singular concern of the Cold War seems almost quaint. Although the U.S. and Russia have large nuclear arsenals, there is very little fear of an actual nuclear conflict. In some ways, this makes sense. Since the end of the Cold War, steps have been taken to reduce the possibility of nuclear war, from the U.S. agreeing to de-target missiles with nuclear warheads pointed at Russia to a de facto ban on American nuclear testing since 1992.
Considering that our collective finger is no longer on the nuclear trigger, did it make sense for President Obama to publicly pledge steps towards nuclear abolition in his recent speech in Prague? After all, there are surely more immediate issues. Also, how on earth could Obama ever convince the governments of Russia, Iran, India and Pakistan that they should get rid of their own nuclear arsenals, let alone the American public that we should get rid of ours?
In light of all these barriers to any real success, why even try? It’s actually pretty simple: not only does the combined nuclear arsenal of the world have the capacity to, if used, kill hundreds of millions of people, there is a huge danger in just one weapon getting away. Even if Russia, the U.S. or other nuclear nations never reduce their arsenals to zero, every nuclear weapon around is one that could be stolen or accidentally deployed. While we’d like to think that the U.S. Air Force, which is responsible for most of our nuclear arsenal, can keep track of their deadly charges, recent history is hardly reassuring. And if the U.S. is slacking on nuclear safety, then Russia or Pakistan can’t be doing much better. If just one nuclear weapon were detonated by a terrorist group in the United States, not only would the immediate death toll be incredibly high, but the resulting deaths from American retaliation would probably dwarf the initial impact. And you could forget about any protections for civil liberties if one of our cities were to become a 21st century Hiroshima.
Aside from the benefits gained by actually reducing the number of nuclear weapons, there are diplomatic and political reasons to make a commitment to nuclear abolition. According to international law, we have to.
The U.S., along with the four other nations that are “allowed” to possess nuclear arsenals under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), have pledged, under Article VI of the treaty, to pursue disarmament and eventually eliminate their nuclear arsenals.
The set-up under the NPT has always struck many other countries as very unfair. Why should China, Russia, France, Britain and the U.S. be allowed to maintain their nuclear arsenals, while every other country has to agree not to develop weapons if they want access to the technology and material for civilian nuclear power generation? This is why a good faith, effort and commitment to disarm is so important; otherwise, the United States cannot credibly enforce the rest of the NPT and, more generally, convince countries that feel threatened by the U.S. or by a hostile neighbor that they should not develop their own weapons.
Although Obama’s commitment to nuclear reduction and eventual abolition stands in stark contrast to President Bush’s more expansive and isolationist nuclear policies, it’s not exactly novel. Ronald Reagan, who greatly feared the use of nuclear weapons, was the only president to actually propose total disarmament to a Soviet leader, as he did with premier Gorbachev at the Reykjavik summit in 1986. In that same tradition, four stalwart members of the foreign policy establishment, former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn have authored a statement calling for eventual nuclear abolition along with a whole host of other steps to reduce nuclear proliferation.
So Obama’s call for a world free of nuclear weapons is both realistic and idealistic and a little bit cold-eyed and strategic, all while being optimistic and hopeful. And if Kissinger, Perry, Shultz and Nunn are any indication, Obama may be a dreamer, but he’s not the only one.