After two mostly wasted decades since the end of the Cold War, nuclear disarmament is again high on the international agenda.

President Obama has pledged to seek a world free of nuclear weapons – a legal commitment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty – and, as a first step, to negotiate further cuts in nuclear stockpiles with Russia. These two countries combined hold 95 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal.

Former statesmen are getting together to demand the scrapping of all nuclear weapons. After eight years in which arms control was not a priority for the United States, the fog has lifted. The challenge now is how to ensure that this new enthusiasm does not fizzle out.

The change of heart has been motivated not just by idealism but by a sober realization that the risk of nuclear weapons being used is increasing significantly.

Next time, the culprit could well be a terrorist group for whom the concept of deterrence, which helped the world until now to escape a nuclear Armageddon, is irrelevant.

The nonproliferation regime is starting to come apart at the seams. Sensitive technology thought to be the preserve of a few advanced countries has recently been acquired with alarming ease by others. Possession of nuclear weapons is still seen as conferring prestige and providing an insurance policy against attack, as Iraq and North Korea seem to demonstrate.

Nuclear weapon states, which between them have some 27,000 warheads, reinforce this message by modernizing their nuclear arsenals. To make matters worse, countries that master uranium enrichment can have a bomb within months if they so decide.

Fortunately, there is now an emerging consensus on what could and should be done:

  • Bring the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force and ban the development of new nuclear weapons;
  • Initiate negotiations on a verifiable Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty that would ban the production of material for nuclear weapons;
  • Negotiate a successor for the START treaty between Russia and the United States, which expires this year, containing significant, verifiable cuts in their nuclear warheads. An initial target could be to cut to 1,000 or even 500 warheads on each side;
  • Extend the warning time for possible nuclear attack. As an insane relic of the Cold War, Russian and United States leaders may have no more than 30 minutes to respond to an apparent attack that could be the result of computer error or unauthorized use;
  • Develop a mechanism to put all facilities for enriching uranium and reprocessing plutonium under multinational control. This would give countries guaranteed supplies of fuel for peaceful nuclear power but not access to the material needed to build a weapon;
  • Give the International Atomic Energy Agency sufficient legal authority, technological capabilities and resources to credibly verify the disarmament process and to ensure that non-nuclear-weapon states use nuclear energy exclusively for peaceful purposes. The IAEA and the Security Council together must be able to effectively deter, detect and respond to possible proliferation cheats;
  • Radically improve the physical security of nuclear materials.

Recent statements by the Obama administration give us hope that some of these measures can be adopted quickly. However, the deep-rooted causes of the insecurity that have plagued the world for decades need to be addressed simultaneously if durable security is to be attained.

First, poverty and inequality. The links between poverty, repression and injustice, on the one hand, and extremism and violence, on the other, are clear for all to see. We must learn to value all human life equally. Developed countries – quick to react when the lives of their own citizens are at stake – give the clear impression that they do not really care about the lives of the world’s poor.

Second, festering conflicts. The Middle East, home to the world’s most perilous and intractable conflict, will never be at peace until the Palestinian question is resolved. What compounds the problem is that the nuclear nonproliferation regime has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of Arab public opinion because of the perceived double-standards concerning Israel, the only state in the region outside the NPT and known to possess nuclear weapons.

Iraq and Libya are unlikely to be the last countries in the Middle East to be tempted to acquire nuclear weapons. Concerns about current and future nuclear programs in the region will persist until a lasting peace is achieved and all nuclear weapons in the area are eliminated as part of a regional security structure. The Obama administration’s pledge to engage in direct diplomacy with Iran, without preconditions and on the basis of mutual respect, and to seek a grand bargain, is long overdue.

Third, the weakness of international institutions. The most pressing threats facing the world, such as weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, the global financial crisis and climate change, can only be addressed through collaborative global action.

For that we need multilateral institutions. We must overcome the cynicism that has too often characterized government attitudes to the UN. The UN and related agencies must be given adequate authority and funding and put in the hands of leaders who have vision, courage and credibility.

Above all, we need to halt the glaring breach of core principles of international law such as limitations on the unilateral use of force, proportionality in self-defense and the protection of civilians during hostilities in order to avoid a repeat of the civilian carnage in Iraq and, most recently, in Gaza.

A convincing response to these challenges requires a new system of security. The Security Council, often paralyzed and with its authority dwindling due to frequent discord, needs to be reformed to reflect the world of today and not of 1945. It should have a robust and well defined peacekeeping capability to prevent the massacre of innocent millions in places like Congo, Rwanda and Darfur. The Council should be systematically engaged in preventing and resolving conflicts, addressing root causes and not just symptoms.

Nuclear disarmament is key to our very survival. We now have another chance to create a saner, safer world by working to eliminate the nuclear sword of Damocles that hangs over all our heads. Let us not waste this opportunity.


Mohamed ElBaradei is Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency.