This article was originally published by The Hill.
Twenty-five years ago, on October 11-12, 1986, Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev met in Reykjavík, Iceland and came close to agreeing to eliminate their nuclear arsenals within 10 years. The main sticking point was the US “Star Wars” missile defense technology. Reagan wouldn’t give up its development and future deployment, and Gorbachev wouldn’t accept that.
The two men had the vision and the passion to achieve a world without nuclear weapons, but a difference of views about the role of missile defenses that kept them from concluding an agreement. For Reagan, these defenses were seen as protective and helpful. For Gorbachev, these defenses upset the strategic balance between the two countries by making the possibility of US offensive attacks more likely.
The summit at Reykjavik was a stunning moment in Cold War history. It was a moment when two men, leaders of their respective nuclear-armed countries, almost agreed to rid the world of its gravest danger. Both were ready to take a major leap from arms control negotiations to a commitment to nuclear disarmament. Rather than seeking only to manage the nuclear arms race, they were ready to end it. Their readiness to eliminate these weapons of annihilation caught their aides and the world by surprise. Unfortunately, their passion for the goal of abolition could not be converted to taking the action that was necessary.
When the two leaders met in Reykjavik, there were over 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world, nearly all in the arsenals of the US and Soviet Union. Today there is no Soviet Union, but there remain over 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world, with over 95 percent in the arsenals of the US and Russia. In 1986, there were six nuclear weapon states: the US, Russia, UK, France, China and Israel. Today, three more countries have been added to this list: India, Pakistan and North Korea.
In 1986, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty was in force and had been since 1972. An important element of the Soviet position was that this treaty should remain in force, preventing a defensive arms race that would feed an offensive arms race, and maintaining treaty provisions that would prevent an arms race in outer space. In 2002, George W. Bush unilaterally abrogated the ABM Treaty, and this has remained a strong element of contention between the US and Russia.
At the time of the summit in Reykjavik, there was a strong anti-nuclear movement in the US, the Nuclear Freeze Movement, but its goals were modest: a freeze in the size of nuclear arsenals. Today, many people have lost interest in nuclear disarmament and it has largely slipped off the public agenda. Public concern faded rapidly after the end of the Cold War in 1991, although serious nuclear dangers still plagued humanity then and continue to do so. These include nuclear proliferation, nuclear accidents, nuclear terrorism, and new nuclear arms races (for example, between India and Pakistan). As long as the weapons exist, the possibility will exist that they will be used by accident, miscalculation or design, all with tragic consequences for the target cities and for humanity.
There were other differences in the positions of the two sides at Reykjavik that would have needed to be worked out, even had they gotten through the stumbling block of missile defenses. While both side’s proposals called for a 50 percent reduction in strategic nuclear forces in the first five years, the proposals differed on the next five years. The Soviet proposal called for the elimination of all remaining strategic offensive arms of the two countries by the end of the next five years. The US proposal called for the elimination of all offensive ballistic missiles in the next five years, thus not including the elimination of strategic nuclear weapons carried on bomber aircraft. This was not an insignificant detail.
What is important to focus on is that these two leaders came close to achieving a goal that has eluded humanity since the violent onset of the Nuclear Age. They demonstrated that with vision and goodwill great acts of peace are within our collective reach. These two leaders didn’t reach quite far enough, but they paved the way for others to follow. In the last 25 years, there has been some progress toward eliminating nuclear weapons, but not nearly enough.
The people of the world cannot wait another 25 years for leaders like Reagan and Gorbachev to come along again. They must raise their voices clearly and collectively for a world free of nuclear threat. It is long past time to stop wasting our resources on these immensely destructive and outdated weapons that could be used again only at terrible cost to our common humanity.
Five important steps, supported by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, that would move the world closer to the goal are: first, make binding pledges of No First Use of nuclear weapons to reduce concerns about surprise attacks; second, lower the alert levels of all existing nuclear weapons to prevent accidental launches; third, negotiate a Middle East Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone; fourth, bring the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty into force with the required ratifications of the treaty; and fifth, begin negotiations on a Nuclear Weapons Convention for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons.