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Obama's UN Speech and American Leadership on Nuclear Disarmament

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Today, in his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama called for a new era of global engagement based on "mutual interests and mutual respect," listing four pillars for a safer world: non-proliferation and disarmament; the promotion of peace and security; the preservation of our planet; and a global economy that advances opportunity for all people. The president's emphasis on non-proliferation and disarmament is a continuation of his efforts to restore American leadership on one of the most pressing challenges we face as a country and world.

The risk from nuclear weapons remains one of the greatest threats to American and international security and due to the nature of the threat, it is only through international agreements and engagement with the international community that the threat can be addressed. And because of America's unique position in the world, especially regarding nuclear weapons, we hold a special responsibility in leading the efforts to reduce and eliminate them. In his first major address on nonproliferation in Prague, President Obama recognized that American leadership is essential to spur this international effort. He said:

So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly -- perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change.

Today, he echoed this promise, setting forth an ambitious agenda for the United States on nonproliferation:

America will keep our end of the bargain. We will pursue a new agreement with Russia to substantially reduce our strategic warheads and launchers. We will move forward with ratification of the Test Ban Treaty, and work with others to bring the Treaty into force so that nuclear testing is permanently prohibited. We will complete a Nuclear Posture Review that opens the door to deeper cuts, and reduces the role of nuclear weapons. And we will call upon countries to begin negotiations in January on a treaty to end the production of fissile material for weapons.

I will also host a Summit next April that reaffirms each nation's responsibility to secure nuclear material on its territory, and to help those who can't -- because we must never allow a single nuclear device to fall into the hands of a violent extremist. And we will work to strengthen the institutions and initiatives that combat nuclear smuggling and theft.

In stark contrast, neoconservatives and conservatives in Congress have attempted to derail efforts at international engagement. Sen. Jon Kyl and neocon Richard Perle wrote an op-ed this summer, during President Obama's meeting with President Medvedev, where they said, "There is a fashionable notion that if only we and the Russians reduced our nuclear forces, other nations would reduce their existing arsenals or abandon plans to acquire nuclear weapons altogether."

Yet a recent bipartisan Council on Foreign Relations task force, chaired by William Perry and Brent Scowcroft, disagrees and advocates for exactly the type of engagement and global leadership that President Obama is providing:

The start of a new administration presents a fresh opportunity to reenergize international dialogue and cooperation on best security practices that would reduce the risk of loss of control of nuclear weapons or materials. Strategic discussions with other nuclear-armed states would also provide the United States with the necessary insight and foresight to determine how best to shape U.S. nuclear policy.

In his speech, the president outlined a number of challenges that the world faces, and as he said, so far "the magnitude of our challenges has yet to be met by the measure of our action." The proliferation of nuclear weapons is one of the most dangerous and frightening of these challenges. Yet it also one the challenge that through American global leadership and international cooperation can be addressed.

Today the president took a major step in that direction.