A recent conference on “The Challenge of Abolishing Nuclear Weapons” brought together experts from ten countries, including the US, Russia, China, India, Germany and Japan, for two days of intensive discussions. The conference, which was held in San Francisco, was sponsored by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and the Toda Institute for Peace and Policy Research. The participants examined the obstacles in the way of achieving a world free of nuclear weapons.

There was general agreement that the United States, as the world’s most militarily and economically powerful country, needed to lead the way. Many participants noted that the United States is currently leading the way, but in the wrong direction – toward continued reliance upon nuclear weapons rather than toward their elimination. One participant pointed out that the United States is currently using nuclear weapons in a manner analogous to holding a loaded gun to someone’s head, threatening to shoot if they do not do as you instruct them. There was strong agreement that a US attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities would not only be a major crime, but would result in Iran’s withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the likely development of a well-protected program to achieve a nuclear arsenal.

It was acknowledged that, in addition to preventing a US attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities, a series of steps are needed to reduce nuclear dangers and advance prospects for complete nuclear disarmament. These steps need to be taken in the context of a vision of a nuclear weapons free world. Among the steps called for were reductions in nuclear arsenals; de-alerting of nuclear arsenals (taking the weapons off hair-trigger alert status); ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; agreement on a verifiable Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty; the strengthening of international agreements to control the nuclear fuel cycle and prevent nuclear proliferation; and legally binding commitments to No First Use of nuclear weapons.

It has been a long-standing policy of the Chinese government to commit to No First Use, and to orient their nuclear doctrine accordingly. If all states adhered to this policy, and backed it up with their nuclear doctrine, there would be assurance that nuclear weapons states would not initiate a nuclear attack against a non-nuclear weapons state and would be restrained from first-use against another nuclear weapons state. This is currently the policy of only China and India among the nuclear weapons states. The United States continues to frame its nuclear weapons policy in terms of “all options are on the table.”

The Chinese participant, a retired army general, thought that the only legitimate use of nuclear weapons was for deterrence. Other participants questioned whether deterrence, which relies on rationality, was a rational strategy and pointed out the many ways in which deterrence could fail by miscommunication, miscalculation or a failure of rationality in a time of crisis. It was acknowledged that deterrence cannot work against terrorist organizations that would not be locatable.

Participants emphasized the importance of attaining a Nuclear Weapons Convention that would set forth a plan for the phased, verifiable, irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons. A draft Nuclear Weapons Convention has already been created by civil society organizations and has been submitted by Costa Rica to the United Nations.

The Russian participant in the conference, an academic, suggested that many existing treaties between the US and Russia are in jeopardy due to the policies of the United States related to developing new nuclear weapons and moving missile defense components into countries in Eastern Europe. While the US claims these defenses are to protect against Iranian missiles, the Russian political and military leaders do not assess the situation in this way; they conclude US missile defenses have serious security implications for both Russia and China.

The 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty between the US and Russia could be in particular jeopardy. This treaty led to the elimination of a whole class of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Over 4,000 nuclear warheads and 2,692 missiles were eliminated (1,846 by the USSR and 846 by the US). There was support for saving the existing treaties by acting to assure that there were no new nuclear weapons (such as the US is planning with its so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead); no nuclear weapons in space; limitations on deployment of missile defenses; de-alerting; reestablishing the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, extending the START I agreement, which is set to expire in December 2009, and completing ratification of the START II agreement to bring it into force; strengthening the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (Moscow Treaty) by making it verifiable, irreversible and indefinite; agreeing to the elimination of tactical nuclear weapons; and working to achieve expanded Nuclear Weapons Free Zones and a Nuclear Weapons Convention.

The conference was unique in bringing forth the important role of youth in the effort to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. There were suggestions for increasing the education of the post-Cold War generation on nuclear dangers. There were also suggestions for focusing on the moral issues of threatening either first use or retaliatory use of nuclear weapons, and bringing people of faith into the discussion of these issues.

Among the ideas for change emphasized were a Nuclear Threat Convention (outlawing nuclear threats); increased development of transnational coalitions for abolishing nuclear weapons; reaching out to the public explaining the successes that have been achieved and building momentum for a Nuclear Weapons Convention; building support in cities by joining the Mayors for Peace Campaign for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons; de-legitimizing nuclear weapons use; and supporting a UN Decade of Nuclear Disarmament.

One participant, a former president of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, summed up the dilemma of achieving security in the Nuclear Age in this way: “The paradox of the Nuclear Age is that the greater the striving for power and security through nuclear weapons, the more elusive the goal of human security.” He added, “The greatest priority for the future is to ensure that there will be a future.”

David Krieger is the President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org)