Article appeared in the Guardian’s Comment is Free site on March 31, 2008.

Humans love to suppress abstract dangers. They react only after they get their fingers burned. In handling nuclear risks, however, we can hardly get away with such childlike behaviour.

To begin with, the old system of nuclear deterrence, which has survived particularly in the US and Russia since the cold war’s end, still involves lots of risks and dangers. While the international public largely ignores this fact, the risks remain.

To be sure, in the 1990’s the US and Russia reduced their nuclear arsenals from 65,000 to approximately 26,000 weapons. But this number is still almost unimaginable and beyond any rational level needed for deterrence. Moreover, there are another 1,000 nuclear weapons in the hands of other nuclear states.

A second cause for worry is that the world is poised to enter a new nuclear age that threatens to be even more dangerous and expensive than the cold war era of mutually assured destruction. Indeed, the outlines of this new nuclear age are already visible: the connection between terrorism and nuclear weapons; a nuclear-armed North Korea; the risk of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East triggered by Iran’s nuclear program; a new definition of state sovereignty as “nuclear sovereignty”, accompanied by a massive increase in the number of small and medium-sized nuclear states; possible collapse of public order in nuclear Pakistan; the illegal proliferation of military nuclear technology; the legal proliferation of civilian nuclear technology and an increase in the number of “civilian” nuclear states; the nuclearisation of space, triggering an arms race among large nuclear powers.

Important political leaders, especially in the two biggest nuclear powers, the US and Russia, know today’s existing risks and tomorrow’s emerging ones all too well. Yet nothing is being done to control, contain, or eliminate them. On the contrary, the situation is worsening.

Vital pillars of the old arms-control and anti-proliferation regime have either been destroyed – as was the case with the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty – or substantially weakened, as with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Responsibility for this lies largely with the Bush administration, which, by terminating the ABM treaty, not only weakened the international control systems for nuclear weapons, but also sat on its hands when confronted with the NPT’s imminent collapse.

At the beginning of the 21st century, proliferation of military nuclear technology is one of the major threats to humanity, particularly if this technology falls into terrorists’ hands. The use of nuclear weapons by terrorists would not only result in a major humanitarian tragedy, but also would most likely move the world beyond the threshold for actually waging a nuclear war. The consequences would be horrific.

Nearly equally worrisome is the nuclear redefinition of state sovereignty because it will not only lead to a large number of small, politically unstable nuclear powers, but will also increase the risk of proliferation at the hands of terrorists. Pakistan would, most likely, no longer be an isolated case.

An international initiative for the renewal and improvement of the international control regime, led by both big nuclear powers, is urgently needed to meet these and all other risks of the new nuclear age. For, if disarmament is to become effective, the signal must come from the top – the US and Russia. Here the commitment to disarmament, as agreed in the NPT, is of prime importance.

The NPT – a bedrock of peace for more than three decades – is based on a political agreement between nuclear and non-nuclear states: the latter abstain from obtaining nuclear weapons while the former destroy their arsenals. Unfortunately, only the first part of this agreement was realised (though not completely), while the second part still awaits fulfilment.

The NPT remains indispensable and needs urgent revision. However, this central pillar of international proliferation control is on the brink of collapse. The most recent review conference in New York, in May 2005, ended virtually without any result.

The essential defect of the NPT is now visible in the nuclear dispute between Iran and the United Nations Security Council: the treaty permits the development of all nuclear components indispensable for military use – particularly uranium enrichment – so long as there is no outright nuclear weapons program. This means that in emerging nuclear countries only one single political decision is required to “weaponise” a nuclear program. This kind of “security” is not sufficient.

Another controversial issue also has also come to the fore in connection with the current nuclear conflict with Iran: discrimination-free access to nuclear technology. Solving this problem will require the internationalisation of access to civilian nuclear technology, along with filling the security gap under the existing NPT and substantially more far-reaching monitoring of all states that want to be part of such a system.

Leaders around the world know the dangers of a new nuclear age; they also know how to minimise them. But the political will to act decisively is not there, because the public does not regard nuclear disarmament and arms control as a political priority.

This must change. Nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation are not questions of the past. They need to be addressed today if they are not to become the most dangerous threats tomorrow.

Joschka Fischer, a leader of the Green Party for nearly 20 years, was Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005. A leader in the Green Party for nearly 20 years, he is now a visiting professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.