IF Barack Obama sent the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty to congress for ratification early in the new session, that would be an excellent start. Since it was signed in 1996, 148 other countries have ratified it, but it cannot come into effect until the United States does, too. And then he could get on with banning the nuclear weapons themselves, not just the tests.
Thereâ€™s a new initiative, launched in Paris on December 9 under the title global zero, in which more than a hundred world leaders endorse the goal of abolishing nuclear weapons completely.
That may have a slightly antique ring to it â€” donâ€™t these people know that the cold war ended ages ago? â€” but in fact the nuclear weapons are still there.
Some 20 000 of them, in fact. And last July, at a rally in Berlin, Obama publicly adopted the same goal: â€œThis is the moment to begin the work of seeking the peace of a world without nuclear weapons.â€
Admittedly, the hundred â€œworld leadersâ€ are mostly ex-world leaders, and they may be suffering from â€œretired general syndromeâ€.
All through their careers, generals loyally support the reigning orthodoxy about nuclear weapons, and are amply rewarded for it.
Then they retire, the rewards and the status vanish, and some of them begin to wonder out loud if they ever really believed all that.
Some people in the peace movement sarcastically call them â€œgenerals for peaceâ€, and suggest that they would have been more useful if they had seen the light when they still had some power.
Most of the hundred-plus notables who signed the Global Zero declaration were not generals, but they are almost all former something-or-others: former US President Jimmy Carter, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard.
Not to mention former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, former British Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, former Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, Ehsan Ul-Haq, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Pakistan, and Brajesh Mishra, former Indian National Security Advisor. But for once, the â€œformersâ€ are not the only ones talking sense.
What makes Global Zero more than the usual empty talk is the fact that this time all the leaders of the major powers seem to be on the same page.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in March that the United Kingdom is ready toÂ work for â€œa world that is free from nuclear weaponsâ€. On December 8 French President Nicolas Sarkozy also gave his support to the goal of general nuclear disarmament.
Last June Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh backed the same goal, saying that â€œthe only effective form of nuclear disarmament and elimination of nuclear weapons is global disarmament.â€ Pakistan and China have said explicitly that they support Global Zero. In fact, the only countries that actually own nuclear weazpons that have stayed silent are North Korea and Israel.
North Korea is less of a problem than it seems, because it could probably be persuaded to give up its one or two nuclear weapons in return for strong security guarantees and lots of foreign aid, especially if the United States were getting out of the nuclear weapons business too.
Israel is a knottier problem, because it doesnâ€™t even admit that it has nuclear weapons (several hundred of them, in fact), but for the first time it could find itself facing pressure from the one country that really has leverage over Israeli policy, the United States.
One of the most striking aspects of the Global Zero meeting in Paris was the remark by Richard Burt, the man who handled the press conference, that Israelâ€™s undeclared nuclear arsenal would have to be part of the process.Â
This will have caused consternation in Israel, because while Burt currently holds no official position in the US government, he was the chief US negotiator in the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) with the former Soviet Union, and he probably wouldnâ€™t have said it if US policy were not moving in that direction.
But thatâ€™s the real question: is the United States really ready to give up its nuclear weapons? It was the first country to have them, and it has built its grand strategy around them for the past 64 years.
But if it were willing to do that, and if the Russians were really willing to follow suit, then that would account for 96 percent of all the worldâ€™s nuclear weapons, and it wouldnâ€™t be all that hard to cajole or pressure all the rest of the worldâ€™s nuclear powers into doing the same.
It would take at least a decade to get to zero from here. First, ratify the test ban treaty. Then, in the forthcoming talks to renew or replace the START treaty between the US and Russia (which expires next year), agree on really radical reductions in American and Russian nuclear weapons. Then bring in the rest of the world for the final negotiations to outlaw nuclear weapons entirely.
It still sounds like a pipe dream, but in fact the conditions have never been as promising as they are now. If Obama takes the lead, it could actually happen â€” and even in the depths of a recession, it wouldnâ€™t cost anything.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.
World View By Gwynne Dyer