Eradicating Nukes Should Still Be Our Goal

Fresh from signing a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia, President Obama hosts a mini-U.N. in Washington next week as more than 40 heads of state convene for a nuclear summit to explore ways to limit the spread of unsecured nuclear material, commonly known as loose nukes.

A group called Global Zero, which, like Obama, is dedicated to the goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons, is lobbying around the summit. Valerie Plame, the CIA officer whose outing in 2003 became a national scandal, is among the notables in that group, which assembled at the National Press Club Thursday morning to promote what Plame colloquially calls "making sure the bad guys don't get the bomb."

The group boasts star power along with intellectual heft. Queen Noor of Jordan recalled her American childhood growing up in the shadow of the Cold War, pointing out that the generations born since then haven't experienced the terrifying implications of a nuclear attack. Making young people aware of the danger and mobilizing them to act is what Global Zero is all about, with events on college campuses building toward the July 9 release of the documentary Countdown to Zero, which, if all goes according to producer Lawrence Bender's plan, will raise the visibility of the nuclear issue much the way his previous film An Inconvenient Truth dramatized climate change and prodded policymakers to take action.

Unlike Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick's tragicomic 1964 spoof of nuclear war, subtitled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," Bender's film is all too real as it describes how hundreds of cities could be destroyed in seconds, recounts close calls of near nuclear accidents, and reveals the thriving black market in nuclear material. Harvard professor Graham Allison, author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, says in the film that the goal of terrorists is to kill 4 million people, and they can't achieve that level of death and destruction flying planes into buildings, so they're trying to buy, build, or steal what nuclear material they can in a race that daily becomes more urgent.

Seated between Plame and Noor and moderating the press conference was former ambassador Richard Burt, who, during the Reagan administration, served as the chief negotiator on the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the then–Soviet Union. He said there was a role for nuclear weapons during the Cold War, when we lived in a bipolar world with two nuclear powers and you could make the argument that MAD (mutually assured deterrence) brought stability. "That world has gone," he said, noting that even his colleague in the Reagan administration, hardliner Richard Perle, an outspoken opponent of arms control, has said on the record that the likelihood of Russia and the U.S. going to war is nil.

Asked to assess the likelihood that Obama can get the 67 votes needed in the Senate to ratify the new START treaty, Burt responded that as a former political appointee of two Republican administrations he thinks it will be "very difficult for anybody to come up with a very strong set of coherent arguments against this treaty," in part because the pact does not take sweeping steps to reduce either the U.S. or Russian arsenal. The importance of the treaty in his view extends to the greater goal of putting U.S.-Russian relations back on track. Arms-control treaties have traditionally won substantial bipartisan support in the Senate, and Burt expressed confidence that Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations committee, will be able to bring enough Republicans on board to gain ratification.

Before flying to Prague to sign START, Obama held a screening at the White House of Nuclear Tipping Point,  a documentary narrated by Michael Douglas that recounts the conversion of four prominent Cold War–era officials, including Henry Kissinger, to actively promoting less reliance on nuclear weapons. What accounts for this nuclear summer of love? "The real reason is Barack Obama," Burt said without hesitation. He credited Obama with carefully laying the groundwork: first talking about a nuclear-weapons-free world in his campaign, then after he was elected meeting with Russian President Medvedev in Moscow to get his support, then chairing a U.N. Security Council meeting last fall that agreed to a resolution banning nuclear weapons, and finally, this week's signing ceremony in Prague and next week's first-ever nuclear summit hosted by an American president. There are a lot of obstacles ahead, Burt cautioned, but "this is an example where one man with a vision can make a difference."

Eleanor Clift is also the author of Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment.