Article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on March 8, 2008

We are in a period of dramatic political transition. The U.S. presidential election is just one part of an unusual simultaneous change in global leadership. Combined with two other political developments, they could lead to sweeping change in policies governing the 26,000 nuclear weapons in the world today.

By early 2009, four of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (France, Britain, the United States and Russia) will have new leaders. Other key states, including Iran and Israel, may also. Several already have made the switch – South Korea, Japan, Australia, Germany, France, Britain and Italy.

The rise of so many new leaders less wed to past policies brings the possibility that some, perhaps many, could adopt new policies to dramatically reduce many of the nuclear dangers that have tormented governments for decades. They would not need new policies if the old ones were working. But they are not.

The second big development is the collapse of current U.S. nuclear policy. Bush administration officials were openly contemptuous of their predecessors who had negotiated security arrangements that treated all nations equally. In their view, there were good proliferators, like India, and bad proliferators, like Iraq. The former got trade deals, the latter would be eliminated. The Iraq War was the first implementation of this radical regime change strategy. It proved fatally flawed. The Iraq threat was inflated. Saddam Hussein did not have nuclear weapons, and Iran and North Korea, the two other states targeted as the “axis of evil,” accelerated their nuclear programs after the invasion. Efforts to coerce them into surrender or collapse failed.

Globally, terrorist threats grew while programs to secure loose nuclear weapons languished. The rejection and neglect of international treaties weakened U.S. security and legitimacy. Today, most of the proliferation problems the administration inherited have grown worse.

The emergence of new policies is the third critical development, and they come from an unlikely source: veteran cold warriors who helped build the vast U.S. nuclear weapons complex. With two prominent op-eds in The Wall Street Journal in the past 14 months, former Democratic defense secretary William Perry, former Democratic senator Sam Nunn, and former Republican secretaries of state George Schulz and Henry Kissinger have laid out a plan for “a world free of nuclear weapons.”

It is not just words. They have started a policy movement including seminars, in-depth studies and, just this month, an international conference in Oslo, Norway. Their efforts have garnered the backing of 70% of the living former national security advisors and secretaries of state and defense, including James Baker, Colin Powell, Melvin Laird and Frank Carlucci.

The political world is responding. The new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown pledged last month, “We will be at the forefront of the international campaign to accelerate disarmament amongst possessor states, to prevent proliferation . . . and to ultimately achieve a world that is free from nuclear weapons.”

While Sen. John McCain has not addressed this issue in any detail, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama says “we need to change our nuclear policy and our posture.” He embraces the vision of a nuclear weapon-free world and marries it to practical proposals to negotiate deep reductions in arsenals and ban long-range missiles like those Iran and others want to build. He pledges to virtually eliminate nuclear terrorism by leading “a global effort to secure all nuclear weapons and material at vulnerable sites within four years,” something the Bush or Clinton administrations did not.

Together, these developments indicate that a rare policy window is opening. Nothing is guaranteed, and much work will be required of many. But with new leaders, a new vision and a new activism, this might be a moment when changes seem not just possible but probable.

Joseph Cirincione is president of the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation focused on nuclear weapons policy. He is the author of “Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons.”