Countdown to Zero

05/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Earlier this month in London, Presidents Obama and Medvedev issued an historic joint statement announcing that they had committed their two countries to achieving a nuclear free world. The two presidents -- the first to ever jointly commit the U.S. and Russia to work for the elimination of all nuclear weapons worldwide -- declared that they had "agreed to pursue new and verifiable reductions in [their] strategic offensive arsenals in a step-by-step process, beginning by replacing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with a new, legally-binding treaty."

Three days later in Prague, President Obama reinforced his commitment to leading an international effort to eliminate all nuclear weapons and declaring his intention to "seek to include all nuclear weapons states in this endeavor." The North Korean missile launch just hours before President Obama's speech underscored the urgency for all the nuclear powers to commit to this effort.

President Obama called the spread of nuclear weapons the "gravest threat to humanity." Today, nine countries have more than 23,000 nuclear weapons. Terrorist groups have been trying to buy, build, or steal nuclear weapons, and in the last two decades, there have been at least 25 instances of nuclear explosive materials being lost or stolen. If terrorists were to finally get their hands on a bomb and explode it in a major city, hundreds of thousands of people would die instantly.

Whatever stabilizing impact nuclear weapons may have had during the US-Soviet Cold War confrontation, any residual benefits of these arsenals are overshadowed today by the growing risks of proliferation and terrorism.

I, and all of the 100-plus leaders of Global Zero, are thrilled that Presidents Obama and Medvedev are demonstrating bold and historic leadership on this agenda, and taking an approach that is fully in line with the plan we presented at the launch of Global Zero in December 2008.

Global Zero is an international, non-partisan initiative formed in response to the growing threats of proliferation and nuclear terrorism, dedicated to achieving a binding, verifiable agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons. The group includes many who have worked at senior levels with issues of national security such as former heads of state, former foreign ministers, former defense ministers, former national security advisors, and nineteen former top military.

At our December launch, we presented a step-by-step plan for the phased, verified elimination of nuclear weapons, calling for initial deep reductions to the U.S. and Russian arsenals -- which account for 96 percent of the world's nuclear weapons -- to be followed by multi-lateral negotiations among all nuclear weapons states for an agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons -- global zero.

Now, following on the historic Obama-Medvedev announcement, we are urging the leaders of the other nuclear weapons countries to commit to supporting this effort and participating in multi-lateral negotiations on an agreement for global zero.

The good news is that broad consensus already exists for a nuclear free world. The United States and Russia are among 189 countries that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Seven nuclear weapons-free zones currently encompass half the world's landmass. And in a recent Global Zero poll of 21 nuclear and non-nuclear countries, more than three-quarters of citizens polled favor the total elimination of all nuclear weapons.

I am tremendously encouraged that there is unanimous support in the Middle East for the creation of a regional weapons of mass destruction-free zone, although differences exist on its timing. All Arab countries have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and over the past 30 years have pursued intensive diplomatic efforts to bring Israel into the treaty.

Getting to global zero will be one of the greatest political challenges of our time. We can only do it if citizens get involved and make sure political leaders know where they stand. Thousands of citizens from more than 100 countries have signed the Global Zero declaration and joined the campaign. I encourage everyone to go to globalzero.org to stay informed and get involved.

As long as these weapons exist, they will continue to spread. The only solution to the threats of proliferation and nuclear terrorism is global zero. This will not happen overnight, nor unilaterally. It will require the phased and verified elimination of all nations' nuclear arsenals. It is urgent to begin now.