Any great and important goal requires boldness to be achieved. Leadership itself requires boldness and persistence. Shortly after assuming office in 2009, President Obama demonstrated this boldness in a widely acclaimed speech in Prague. To rousing applause, he said, “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Unfortunately, in the next breath, he reversed direction, offering a familiar reassurance to the military-industrial-governmental complex: “I’m not naÃ¯ve,” he said. “This goal will not be reached quickly – perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence.” Before finishing this coded message to the security establishment back home, he reversed direction once again, declaring, “But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can.’ “
In a matter of seconds, less time than it would take to launch America’s civilization-destroying (or omnicidal) nuclear arsenal, the new President seemed to engage in a debate with himself. America has a commitment to zero nuclear weapons. However, it won’t happen quickly. But, on the other hand, the world can change and it can happen. It was perhaps an unintended glimpse of the incoherence that results from trying to blend Obama the visionary with Obama the realist.
The principal missing elements for realizing the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons are political will and clarity of intention. In President Obama’s first term, the realist side of his geopolitical bipolarity clearly emerged as dominant. We can only hope that in his second term the visionary side will gain ascendancy, which also happens to coincide with what will best contribute to American security and world peace. President Obama has an unparalleled opportunity to realize his vision to move the world boldly toward nuclear zero.
Why should he do so? Nuclear weapons should not really be viewed as weapons at all. They are insanely destructive devices of annihilation: not only immoral, but irrational. They cannot be used without the most flagrant violations of the laws of warfare: killing indiscriminately and causing unnecessary suffering. Their effects cannot be contained in time or space. They harm not only present generations; they threaten to foreclose the future altogether. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the great moral leaders of our time, regards nuclear weapons as an “obscenity.” They are also extraordinarily expensive, having cost the United States alone more than $7.5 trillion since the onset of the Nuclear Age, and they invite others to mimic our irresponsible behavior.
Further, President Obama should act because there has never been a time in world politics more supportive of major moves toward zero nuclear weapons. None of the leading states in the world is locked in strategic or ideological struggle. This unprecedented calm on the global stage offers a rare opportunity to rid the world of nuclear weapons. It will not last forever and should be seized upon by every government on the planet, including our own.
What should President Obama do to demonstrate the requisite political will to move forward? First, he needs to explain his goal and raise the awareness of the American people and the people of the world, letting them know why a world without nuclear weapons will make them safer. He needs to explain that nuclear deterrence is only a theory, one that relies upon human rationality and infallibility, even in times of stress, and thus is subject to failure at any time, as well as irrelevant to the nature of current security threats.
Second, Obama needs to make bold proposals for fulfilling the Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations of the United States and other nuclear weapon states to engage in good faith negotiations for an immediate end of the nuclear arms race, for total nuclear disarmament and for a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control. Most important, he needs to convene the countries of the world, including the nine nuclear weapon states, to begin negotiations for a new treaty, a Nuclear Weapons Convention, based on a detailed proposal for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons.
Third, he could signal the US commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons by pledging never to use nuclear weapons first and taking steps to adapt US nuclear policy to this pledge. Lowering the alert status of the US nuclear arsenal and ending the policy of launch on warning would demonstrate his seriousness of purpose. These steps would also make the US more secure by reducing the possibilities of accidental nuclear war.
It must be presumed that President Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 on the basis of promise, not performance. His second term offers a golden opportunity to show the world that the people in Oslo knew what they were doing, but he has little time to waste!