By Paul J. Magnarella

The costs of developing and maintaining nuclear weapons and delivery systems have been enormous.  The U.S. alone has spent over $5.8 trillion on nuclear weapons programs. Now that the Cold War is long over, rational humans support the drastic reduction and elimination of these horribly destructive weapons.

 In his 2009 speech in Prague, President Barak Obama expressed America’s commitment to seek peace and security in a world without nuclear weapons.  Here’s what he has done so far.




The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between Russia and the U.S. came into force on February 5, 2011. President Obama, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell, together with almost every former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, supported it. The treaty limits each side’s deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 and strategic delivery systems (ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers) to 800. These reductions are significantly lower than those permitted in earlier treaties. The agreement’s verification regime includes on-site inspections, data exchanges and notifications.


Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty


The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1996, provides for a worldwide ban on all nuclear test explosions, establishes a global system to enforce the ban, and sets up an international structure to investigate and punish countries that violate the ban.  It has yet to enter into force. President Bill Clinton signed the CTBT in 1996, but the Republican-dominated Senate refused to provide its consent. President George W. Bush never asked the Senate to approve it. More recently, President Obama stated that he intends to pursue Senate ratification of the treaty aggressively.  Four former chairs of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have called for Senate ratification.


U.S. Negative Security Assurances


In its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the U.S. declared that it would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that are members in good standing of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Previously, successive administrations had maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” by refusing to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in response to biological or chemical weapons attacks on the U.S. or its allies.


This negative security assurance by the U.S. applies to the vast majority of states in the world today. Presently there are 189 state parties to the 1970 NPT.  Five parties (China, France, Russia, U.K. and U.S.) agree to reduce and eventually eliminate their nuclear weapons, while the remaining 184 states agree not to develop or possess them.  India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea are not parties to the treaty.


President Obama further assures the world that the U.S. is not a nuclear threat to others by submitting to the U.S. Senate his recommendation that it consent to treaties with the countries comprising the African and South Pacific Nuclear Weapon Free Zones. These treaties, or Protocols to each area’s nuclear weapon free zone treaty, commit the U.S. not to use or threaten use of nuclear weapons against regional zone countries that are in good standing with their non-proliferation obligations. China, France, Russia, and the U.K. have already ratified these Protocols.  President Obama said he will soon ask the Senate to approve ratification of similar Protocols to the Southeast Asia and Central Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaties, as well.


How realistic is Obama’s vision of reaching a nuclear weapon-free world? Leading defense figures, such as former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former defense secretary William J. Perry, and former senator Sam Nunn (D-GA) have written editorials in major newspapers, arguing that such a goal is realistic with the latest advances in verification technologies.


Obama cautioned in his Prague speech that a world without nuclear weapons may not be reached in his lifetime. His stated goal is “to put an end to Cold War thinking, …reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same.”


Fortunately, U.S. and world opinion are on his side. A 2008 poll of 21 countries found that people everywhere disfavor nuclear weapons. In the five states with large nuclear arsenals, big majorities favored the goal of totally eliminating nuclear weapons: U.S. (77%), Russia (69%), China (83%), France (86%), and U.K. (81%).


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Paul J. Magnarella is Director, Peace and Justice Studies, Warren Wilson College, Asheville, North Carolina. This commentary

was distributed by PeaceVoice, a program of the Oregon Peace Institute