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Berlin Wall Anniversary is Time to Rethink Nuclear Arsenal

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Commemorating a historic event is one thing - actually fixing its legacy is another.

Today, the world's attention is on the Berlin Wall. Twenty years ago, this divisive symbol fell marking the end of the Cold War. But, it didn't tear down the legacy - that being the over 23,000 nuclear warheads still in existence.

At least, that's until now.

"I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons," stated U.S. President Barack Obama during an April speech in Prague. "I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly - perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence."

The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of a conflict between two superpowers. Both had the ability to bring the world to the nuclear precipice but didn't through a guarantee of mutually assured destruction.

Deterrence placed value on nuclear weaponry. Today, modern conflict has made them an expensive liability. It's Obama's acknowledgement of this folly that can be used to move towards a nuclear-free future.

What kept conflict at bay during the Cold War was self-preservation. The United States and the Soviet Union were unwilling to put their own populations at risk. Since 1989, many proponents of nuclear weaponry have held to that view of our enemies.

September 11 changed everything.

Following the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbour, the United States did not even discuss using its arsenal. Doing so would have been futile in Afghanistan where the Taliban already placed little value on its citizens. With suicide bombers willing to sacrifice life for their cause, the fear created by nuclear weapons became obsolete.

This powerlessness is further demonstrated when it comes to state relations. Interactions between Russia, the United States, France and the United Kingdom have cooled. As well, China's investment in large holdings of U.S. currency means the greater likelihood is that mutually assured destruction will come economically.

For rogue states like North Korea, the nuclear arsenals in countries like the United States have failed to discourage Kim Jong-il's nuclear ambitions. In addition, South Korea's and America's conventional weapon superiority would be more than sufficient for retaliation.

In the case of India and Pakistan, some initially argued their nuclear weapons are a hidden blessing causing a Cold War scenario of restraint as leaders are aware that conflict could quickly spiral out of control. But, that sentiment is waning. The bigger fear is that in a politically unstable Pakistan, nuclear capability could fall into the hands of extremists.

Finally, in the Middle East while Iran asserts its nuclear program is peaceful, it's these nuclear ambitions and Israel's undeclared status that are contributing to a hostile environment. If Israel were to give up its arsenal, this would counter Iran's argument that there is a double standard when it comes to nuclear transparency. As well, Tehran would be under the no illusion it could overcome Israel's conventional weapons combined with US support.

Despite no viable reason to use nuclear weapons, the United States spends an estimated $25-$35 billion annually on research, development and maintenance according to the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Even the most hawkish politicians can appreciate the argument that resources can be better deployed. For those calling for 40,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the Pentagon puts their estimated annual cost at $20 billion.

This makes Obama's calls for disarmament significant. For the last 20 years, intellectuals, politicians and policymakers alike have held to the Cold War legacy based on a theory that no longer has weight. Regardless of political affiliations, Obama's policy change better reflects our current realities.

As we mark history in Berlin, we must acknowledge the past and move into a more peaceful future. Commemorating the fall is one thing. But, fixing its legacy is what's important.