Nuclear weapons were once the ultimate symbol of super power. But in this era of terrorism and nuclear proliferation, they have come to signify exactly the opposite: superpower vulnerability.
It's increasingly hard to imagine, say, the U.S. using a nuclear weapon to achieve any military goal. But the possibility of such a weapon getting in the wrong hands -- or going off by mistake -- is the stuff of nightmares.
That's why peaceniks and neocons alike are converging on the Ronald Reagan presidential library in California on Tuesday for a two-day meeting organized by the group Global Zero. Some 100 international leaders from across the globe and across the political spectrum -- including former top Reagan advisers -- will call on the heads of the eight nuclear powers (plus nearly-there North Korea) to initiate the first-ever multilateral negotiations for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
"The choice is between Global Zero, in a phased and verified and serious way eliminating all nuclear weapons -- or continued and ultimately rampant proliferation of nuclear weapons to a point where it will be impossible to reel them back," said Global Zero co-founder Matt Brown.
And if they proliferate, he said, "they're going to be used."
The timing and the location of the meeting are significant: Tuesday and Wednesday mark the 25th anniversary of the historic Reykjavik Summit in Iceland, when Reagan and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev shocked the world by nearly agreeing to eliminate all nuclear weapons.
Since then, said Brown, these weapons have lost their practical value and major powers no longer need them. "There's really no military utility," he said. "We have the ability to blow things up, with conventional weapons."
"Having a huge nuclear arsenal didn't deter the 9/11 attack," he noted, "nor did it provide any kind of ability to respond."
By contrast, he said: "If we don't go to zero, nuclear weapons will continue to kick around in the world, and will continue to pose a huge danger to the U.S. and to every other country in the world."
Richard Burt, a self-described hawk and former top arms negotiator, serves as Global Zero's U.S. Chair. He argues that the United States' national security and its ability to project power across the globe are both threatened, rather than strengthened, by nuclear weapons.
"Nuclear weapons in a sense are really no longer great-power weapons. Increasingly, they are becoming weak-power weapons, used by weaker states to blackmail greater powers," Burt said.
"Arguably, the United States, which is the world's preeminent conventional power, would be advantaged in a world without nuclear weapons," he said.
President Barack Obama famously called for the elimination of nuclear weapons during the first overseas trip of his presidency, to Prague, in 2009. He called it the work of decades, not years.
The idea hasn't exactly caught fire since then, but Brown insists that political and diplomatic hurdles can be overcome by focusing on the seriousness of the alternatives.
"The reason so may people are getting on board [with] Global Zero is that there are so many different ways it could go wrong," Brown said.
One big threat is nuclear terrorism, of course. "As long as nuclear weapons are around and being built, as long as nuclear materials are not secured and locked down, the risk is very high," Brown said.
Another is the risk of accidental launch, which, Brown pointed out, "increases every time nuclear weapons spread to a new country." There's also the potential for the systems to get hacked.
And then there's Pakistan. "Pakistan has the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in the world," Brown said. "It's a country that has faltering governance [and] that's beset by extremist elements, and so the risk there that the nuclear arsenal falls in the wrong hands, that there's a coup by an extremist group, or that they just use them, is, I think, a grave concern."
"Pakistan is the poster child for Global Zero," Burt said.
The nuclear world is at a precarious tipping point right now, Brown argued. If Iran gets the bomb, he said, its Arab neighbors will feel they need it, too -- and at that point there might be no turning back.
When it comes to exactly how disarmament would be achieved, there are many key details to be worked out, as getting to zero requires all nuclear powers to participate and verification that they have done so. "No one's going to go all the way to zero unless everyone does," Brown said.
And although polls show widespread popular support for eliminating nuclear weapons, strong leadership is necessary to make that goal a reality.
"The pursuit of eliminating nuclear weapons is a transcendent issue and therefore it is an issue for heads of government," Brown said. "They need to lead -- hands-on and out front -- in a sustained way. "
But so far, at least, the Obama administration has had "somewhat of a schizophrenic nuclear policy," said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.
On the one hand, there has been the speech in Prague, the New START treaty -- which cut by about a third the number of nuclear weapons the U.S. and Russia are allowed to deploy -- and continued expressions of support from the State Department.
But at the same time, over at the Pentagon, they're "working hard on maintaining and modifying the stockpile -- and building literally a whole new generation of strategic delivery vehicles," Kristensen said.
And while Obama promised during the presidential campaign to remove "as many weapons as possible" from hair-trigger alert status, his Nuclear Posture Review last year was silent on that issue, leaving over 2,000 American and Russian nuclear weapons ready to launch on a few minutes notice and potentially putting about 100 million people less than an hour away from annihilation at any moment.
"If you sort of cynically look at it from the outside, and say 'let's forget about the speech, let's look at the hardware and the programs that are going on,' " Kristensen said, "it looks like we're preparing to extend the nuclear age into a new generation."
A sentence in this article was clarified to better reflect the U.S. State Department's work on arms control.
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