This article was originally published on Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
It is never clear to us why and how certain critical events reach a tipping point — that is how they fundamentally depart from the status quo. In the case of six decades of nuclear armament, that may be particularly true. But an argument can be made that we are at or near such a tipping point, a tipping point away from expanding nuclear arsenals and toward the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
Two events in the United States bolster this argument. One was a proposal put forward by four moderate-to-conservative leaders — former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, former Senator Sam Nunn, and former Defense Secretary William Perry — a year ago urging not just a reduction in the number of nuclear weapons, but their elimination as a class. This was seen by many at the time, particularly those familiar with the support these figures had given to new strategic weapons systems in the past, as a shift of historic importance.
More recently, an international organization of public and private figures — once again including a number of Americans and others who had never been identified with disarmament causes in the past — called Global Zero announced its intention to press nuclear-armed nations to reduce, and then eliminate, their arsenals.
The political landscape clearly is shifting in meaningful ways.
The reasons for this shift are many and, in the case of particular individuals, probably unknowable. These may include matters of personal legacy, how one’s public career and values are viewed by history. They may include pragmatic considerations, that the longer existing nuclear powers maintain large stockpiles of warheads and delivery systems (missiles), the more likely it will be that less stable or even unstable nations, such as Iran and North Korea, develop their own capabilities. They may include military considerations: only doomsday scenarios include the use of nuclear weapons as a viable option. They may include the new reality of the changing nature of conflict and the transformation of war, that nation-state wars are declining sharply in probability and unconventional conflict involving stateless nations against whom nuclear weapons represent no deterrent are increasing.
The reasons for the tipping point in opinion may ultimately get down to that most basic of human motives: the desire to leave a safer world for one’s children and future generations now overrides the often casual discussion of the political power once thought to be derived from weapons of ultimate mass destruction.
Now faced with frightening economic consequences of unregulated market collapse and the prospects of a very long international economic recovery, a new Obama administration in Washington could well be looking at initiatives that bring increased security at little or no cost, or indeed that produce cost savings. Nuclear zero, elimination of nuclear arsenals, must be at the top of this list. It may be argued that the president must fix the economy first before anything else gains attention. This false argument assumes intelligent people can do only one thing, even one complex thing, at a time or that some talented economic people cannot carry out their project while other talented diplomatic people carry out quite another.
Reasons and motives are incidental to opportunity. And now the opportunity exists, an opportunity not known for more than 60 years, to rid the world of its greatest menace. Eliminating all nuclear weapons will not be easy. It will require skilled and patient multinational diplomacy. It will require breakthroughs in verification. It will require a tolerable sacrifice of national sovereignty. It will most of all require an enormous amount of international purpose and good will. But it can be done. The principal requirement is political will and visionary political leadership. And it must be done. If not now, when?