In early January 2007, a surprising commentary appeared in the Wall Street Journal pleading for US leadership to move toward a world free of nuclear weapons. The surprise emanated from the identity of the writers: four prominent former high-level US foreign and defense policy officials, a bipartisan group with impeccable hawkish credentials – George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn.
In their welcome if belated statement of concern about nuclear dangers, they harkened back to the 1986 summit at Reykjavik, where Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev came close to an agreement to rid the world of nuclear weapons. “Reassertion of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons,” they wrote, “and practical measures toward achieving that goal would be, and would be perceived as, a bold initiative consistent with America’s moral heritage. The effort could have a profoundly positive impact on the security of future generations.”
The four men who signed this commentary might have harkened back even further. In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy likened nuclear weapons to a nuclear sword of Damocles, “hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness.” Kennedy concluded, as have the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who experienced the devastatingly destructive nuclear attacks at the end of World War II, that nuclear weapons “must be abolished before they abolish us.”
It should be of deep concern to all Americans that more than a decade and a half after the end of the Cold War, the danger of the spread and use of nuclear weapons has not substantially diminished and has quite possibly increased. Moreover, it has become increasingly apparent that nuclear weapons may give far more leverage to relatively weak actors, such as terrorist groups, than they do to even the most powerful nations.
In one of his last speeches at the conclusion of his ten-year tenure as Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan pointedly directed his remarks to the extreme dangers humanity faces due to the failure to eliminate nuclear weapons. He argued, “The one area where there is a total lack of any common strategy is the one that may well present the greatest danger of all: the area of nuclear weapons,” and he cited many reasons necessitating a concerted effort to both prevent proliferation and achieve nuclear disarmament.
The lynchpin of Annan’s proposal, however, was the specific need for the nuclear weapons states to take action on their nuclear disarmament commitments. “I call on all the States with nuclear weapons,” he said, “to develop concrete plans -– with specific timetables -– for implementing their disarmament commitments. And I urge them to make a joint declaration of intent to achieve the progressive elimination of all nuclear weapons, under strict and effective international control.”
There can be no doubt that a plan to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons is critically needed and should animate a national, indeed a global, dialogue. Nuclear weapons endanger our nation and the world. These weapons are capable of destroying cities and countries, including our own, and could put an end to civilization. They are tools of our own making that place a dark cloud over the human future. The continued reliance upon these weapons by the United States and other nuclear weapons states is a provocation to other countries to do the same and could lead to a breakdown of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and other efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.
Terrorists cannot be deterred by nuclear weapons because they cannot be located, and if terrorists gain possession of nuclear weapons they cannot be prevented from using them by threat of retaliation. The security of even a military superpower such as the United States could be dramatically undercut by a single terrorist group with just one nuclear weapon. Such is the leverage of nuclear weapons: they favor the weak over the strong.
A consensus is finally building behind the conviction that the abolition of nuclear weapons is necessary and that US leadership is urgently needed to achieve this goal. Now we need increased momentum to achieve an action plan so that over the next decade nuclear weapons can be eliminated globally in a process that is transparent, verifiable and irreversible. To succeed in reaching this goal will require a new way of thinking that involves increased reliance on international cooperation and diplomacy to achieve security, and adherence by all nations, even the most powerful, to a strengthened body of international law.
We are facing a challenge that will determine our common future. As Kofi Annan pleaded to the young people at Princeton who he was addressing in his speech, “Help us to seize control of the rogue aircraft on which humanity has embarked, and bring it to a safe landing before it is too late.”