Nuke-free world: Easier said than done

President Barack Obama has moved to address another presidential campaign promise by urging the worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons. He made the point with notable drama as well as attention in Prague in the Czech Republic earlier this month.

The President explicitly linked this very positive proposal to support for new efforts to negotiate nuclear stability with Iran. That radical Islamic regime is engaging in very substantial long-term nuclear development, while denying that any weapons efforts are part of their program.

The European location for the announcement provided a dramatic and also calculated strategic backdrop. The United States is developing an antimissile defense system to be deployed in the Czech Republic as well as Poland. During the Cold War, Czechoslovakia challenged Moscow’s regional rule, leading to a brutal crackdown in 1968. In 1938, the nation was also an early victim of Nazi aggression.

During the 1986 Soviet-U.S. summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev surprised their own staffs as well as the world at large by pledging themselves to the abolition of all nuclear weapons. In fact, throughout the Cold War each American President made efforts to stabilize the nuclear arms race.

Later, President Clinton supported the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which has been ratified by a number of our allies and other nations. We have not tested nuclear weapons since 1992.

Professor Lawrence S. Wittner of the State University of New York, author of a forthcoming study of disarmament, argues that Obama’s timing may be very good in terms of both public and leadership opinion in the U.S. and abroad. Years after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia still control approximately 95 percent of the existing nuclear weapons of the world. In consequence, bilateral negotiations could have a major impact on the global nuclear weapons profile.

Wittner also cautions that difficult negotiations lay ahead, just in the context of Washington. A two-thirds majority is required in the Senate to approve a treaty, and the CTBT was sidelined in 1999 by a determined Republican minority. Declared White House interest in bipartisanship may be sorely tested by a renewed effort regarding this treaty, but is required if Obama’s rhetoric is to become reality.

More generally, there is a fundamental flaw in the desire to outlaw all nuclear weapons. Destroying all known nuclear weapons would provide a decisive advantage to any power which decided — openly or secretly — to hold back even a few. Verification remains vexing.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, which ended when Moscow acceded to Washington’s demand that strategic missiles be removed from the island, President John F. Kennedy’s political standing rose considerably. During the following holiday season, he held an expansive informal television interview with representatives of the networks. JFK, reflecting informed opinion of those years, referred to a world that would soon be populated with a number of nuclear powers.

In fact, and very fortunately, such proliferation has moved much more slowly than anticipated. Many nations, including close ally Canada, have decided that any benefits are simply not worth the effort and risks.

Additionally, the International Atomic Energy Agency, an Eisenhower initiative, has facilitated peaceful uses of nuclear power, providing a long-term drag on military pressures to get the Bomb. As in managing the global economic crisis, the UN emerges as vital for the ultimate success of any one nation.

(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of ‘After the Cold War'(NYU Press and Macmillan/Palgrave). E-mail him at acyr(at)