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Presidential Leadership: "The Future Does Not Belong to Fear"

11/23/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama gave a tough presidential speech at the United Nations today - strong on American commitments but also strong on the responsibility of other nations to act for "our common future." He told the world that America wanted a world without nuclear weapons. He told America that this path would make us safer and stronger. He told his own officials that he expected them to deliver on his promise.

Defense officials here should take note of the president's instructions: "We will complete a Nuclear Posture Review that opens the door to deeper cuts, and reduces the role of nuclear weapons." That can only mean that he wants this critical review to shed nuclear missions designed to respond to attacks with conventional, chemical or biological weapons. Many experts have urged the U.S. and Russia to reduce their arsenals to 1000 total weapons each. The President seems to want to head in that direction.

President Obama also put Capitol Hill on notice: he wants these treaties ratified. "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." He noted that he was sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the test ban conference at the UN tomorrow, making her the highest ranking US official ever to attend the meeting. Obama means business.

Obama rose above the petty posturing coming from the UN podium and the media commentators today. He gave no apologies for past US actions, no shirking of the special roles America holds as the most powerful nation in the world, and no shifting of blame onto one or two "rogue" nations. He gave a balanced, visionary and, at times, personal appeal to the nations of the world to cooperate to prevent global catastrophes--particularly the nuclear threats--that await us if we fail to act together.

Obama got a warm greeting at the UN. Most countries like him personally and his popularity has fueled a huge increase in global approval for the United States.

But American security is not a popularity contest. Today, Obama used his high standing to press other leaders to do the hard work necessary to solve the global problems threatening all nations. He spoke of many vital issues, including global warming, Middle East peace and pandemics, but he devoted special attention to the threat of nuclear weapons. It is also the theme of a special session of the UN Security Council tomorrow, September 24 that Obama himself will chair - the first time a U.S. president has done so.

His priorities are spot on. Nuclear threats are growing. The previous administration's military approach to the problem failed. Efforts at regime change encouraged Iran and North Korea to gallop ahead and diverted resources from counter-terrorism while nuclear material security lagged. Meanwhile, weapon reduction talks with Russia ended; accidents with nuclear weapons increased; nuclear-armed Pakistan teetered on the edge of collapse.

Today, Obama is charting a new course that no longer relies on Cold War strategies. He affirmed the dual-need to stop other states from getting these weapons and reduce existing stockpiles--including the 10,000 weapons the U.S. controls and the estimated 12,000 weapons held by the Russians.

Nuclear disarmament and preventing proliferation are two sides of the same nuclear security coin. Nuclear disarmament builds the global cooperation needed to prevent new nuclear states and nuclear terrorism; preventing proliferation creates the security needed to continue disarmament. You have to keep flipping this coin over and over. Each turn makes the world a little safer.

President Obama understands this dynamic. At the UN, he detailed "four pillars that are fundamental to the future that we want for our children: 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 first pillar had twin tasks: "Stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and seek the goal of a world without them."

He understands the threat is growing, warning, "If we fail to act, we will invite arms races in every region, and the prospect of wars and acts of terror on a scale that we can hardly imagine."

To avoid this frightening future, Obama said the next twelve months will be "pivotal" in strengthening the basic bargain of the global regime, that "nations with nuclear weapons have the responsibility to move toward disarmament; and those without them have the responsibility to forsake them."

Obama promised:

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.

He will also host a global nuclear security summit in Washington in April to ensure that not a single nuclear device ever falls into the hands of a violent extremist. He also called out North Korea and Iran as nations that have ignored international standards and must be held to account.

Obama presented a balanced, bold, strong plan worthy of any president in US history. It is up to all of us to help achieve this ambitious agenda.

A longer version of this article appears in Yes Magazine.