The leaders of the nuclear weapon states, led by President Barack Obama, are promising to abolish nuclear weapons. It is a good sign. But we have been here before. This time the world needs more than promises. To demonstrate that they are serious, nuclear weapon states should announce clear policies to move irreversibly and quickly toward nuclear weapons elimination.

In his now famous Prague speech in April, President Obama said:

“As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act… So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Obama is not the first American president to offer a vision of nuclear disarmament. Many now recall that Ronald Reagan agreed with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 to abolish nuclear weapons.

More powerful still was the call by President John F. Kennedy. In a famous September 1961 address to the United Nations, President Kennedy described the profound nuclear danger that hung over mankind and called for the abolition of nuclear weapons:

“Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”

Nothing came from these earlier efforts. Instead of nuclear disarmament, Kennedy and his successors presided over a nuclear arms race. Today, almost 50 years after Kennedy’s speech, the United States has an estimated 5,200 nuclear warheads, of which about 2,700 are operational warheads, with another 2,500 warheads in reserve and yet another 4,200 warheads in the queue to be dismantled over the next decade or two.

The Long and Winding Road

While presidents have made promises, for over 60 years civil society groups around the world have worked toward abolishing nuclear weapons. The hibakusha, the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, gave witness to the horrors of nuclear weapons. Scientists and physicians warned of the dangers of arms races and nuclear war. Artists and writers, film-makers, and poets gave expression to collective fears and hopes. Countless citizens petitioned leaders, marched, and protested. It was perhaps the first truly global social movement. Its story is being recovered by the historian Lawrence Wittner.

This has been a difficult struggle in the face of determined opposition from nuclear weapons states and their allies and supporters. Time and again, those who hoped for a world without nuclear weapons were forced to justify themselves. But this campaigning has worked. Global opinion polls now show that overwhelming majorities of people around the world support the abolition of nuclear weapons.

From the start, some states chose not to pursue nuclear weapons. The United Nations has shown the commitment of the majority of states to nuclear disarmament since the General Assembly passed its very first resolution in 1946. In the shadow of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the UN called for plans “for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.”

But the United States sought to keep its monopoly and the Soviet Union sought parity. In 1949, the Soviet Union carried out its first nuclear test. The United States and the Soviet Union then developed thermonuclear weapons (hydrogen bombs). Britain, France, and then China made and tested nuclear weapons. By 1968, Israel may have had nuclear weapons but did not test them.

Fearing that the further spread of nuclear weapons would limit their ability to intervene in other parts of the world, the United States and Soviet Union agreed on a nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It came into force in 1970. As part of the NPT, the nuclear armed states who signed the treaty promised good faith talks leading to nuclear disarmament.

In the almost 40 years since then, those promised talks on nuclear disarmament have never materialized. No NPT nuclear weapon state has given up its arsenal. Instead, for many years, arsenals grew. India, Pakistan, and North Korea made and tested nuclear weapons.

South Africa remains the only state to have made nuclear weapons and then given them up. If it had not been for the success of the freedom struggle led by the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela, South Africa today could still have nuclear weapons.

The UN General Assembly has sought to intervene. It asked the International Court of Justice for a legal opinion about nuclear weapons. In 1996, the court issued an advisory opinion, which included the unanimous judgment that the signatories of the NPT had “an obligation to pursue and bring to a conclusion negotiations on nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”

This means that along with the “moral responsibility to act” on nuclear disarmament that President Obama recognized, there is an international legal obligation.

The Nuclear Test

While promising in his Prague speech to work for nuclear disarmament, President Obama also said, “Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies.” The contradiction between the two policy goals remained unexamined in his speech.

There is a simple test of the direction of policy: follow the money. In 2008, the United States spent at least an estimated $52 billion on its nuclear weapons program. The budgets of other nuclear armed states are more opaque.

Nuclear weapons states can only prove that they are serious about the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons if they stop investing in modernizing and improving their nuclear weapons capabilities. The United States has a chance to signal such intent in the coming year by the debate over U.S. Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has already made his opinion clear. “To be blunt, there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program,” he has said. If this approach becomes policy and the United States ratifies the CTBT — but ties that to new investments in capabilities for maintaining the capacity to design, develop, and produce new warheads or to modify existing warhead types — then it is fair to question their commitment to getting rid of nuclear weapons. It also poses a profound question about the value of the test ban treaty.

Where the United States leads, others will follow. It is easy to imagine nuclear policy makers in Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and yes, even North Korea, talking about the need to maintain and modernize their weapons. Once new nuclear weapons facilities are built, new nuclear weapon scientists hired and trained, there will be yet greater resistance to letting go.

To prove to each other and to the world that they are serious about nuclear disarmament, all the nuclear armed states must stop modernizing their nuclear weapons research and production complexes and stop investing in new delivery systems for nuclear weapons.

The Real Challenge

The challenge of nuclear weapons is fundamentally political. Nuclear weapons, first and foremost, are weapons. They are instruments of violence and the threat of violence. The strategies and policies for their development, deployment, and use are not contained within them. Nuclear weapons are given meaning and purpose by the politics of nuclear weapons states.

The nuclear weapon states, and the international community as a whole, need to change the politics around nuclear weapons. One way to do this would be for states to write into international law the 1961 UN General Assembly declaration that states, “using nuclear and thermo-nuclear weapons is to be considered as violating the Charter of the United Nations, as acting contrary to the laws of humanity and as committing a crime against mankind and civilization.”

But if we are to achieve the goal of nuclear abolition, we must acknowledge that states and people cannot feel secure when great powers can unleash almost overwhelming conventional military force anywhere in the world. Lesser powers pose the same problem on a regional scale.

President Kennedy in 1961 recognized the importance of this. Speaking to the United Nations he proposed that “disarmament negotiations resume promptly, and continue without interruption until an entire program for general and complete disarmament has not only been agreed but has actually been achieved.” This program, he said, should involve “a steady reduction in force, both nuclear and conventional, until it has abolished all armies and all weapons except those needed for internal order and a new United Nations Peace Force.”

General and complete disarmament is a commitment under the NPT. It is binding on the United States and other signatories. The treaty calls on states to negotiate and reach agreement on “a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” It is time to remember and to fulfill this promise.

Zia Mian is a physicist with the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus (online at

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