President Obama: A Chance to Lead

04/29/2015 03:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

This month at the United Nations, 190 nations will gather to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which constrains the spread of nuclear weapons and contains a promise by the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China to negotiate the elimination of nuclear weapons.

There is a crisis because the steps these five states have agreed to as a path to move toward a nuclear weapons-free world, such as entry-into-force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, commencing negotiations on a treaty banning further production of weapons capable fissile materials, and convening a conference to bring about a nuclear weapon-free Middle East, have not moved forward.

There are treaties eliminating other weapons of mass destruction - biological and chemical weapons. The failure to pursue the reasonable route forward by commencing negotiations on a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons has created a crisis.

This rational route forward--which has been identified by the vast majority of the world's countries, and the UN Secretary-General--is to advance a convention banning nuclear weapons. Neither the United States nor Russia, two states with more than 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, support this rational route, instead insisting that the singular way forward is to support a step-by-step, incremental approach.

In the midst of renewed tensions with Russia, it is also a moment of opportunity: any reasonable person can see that reinvigorating the Cold War nuclear stand-off is too dangerous, and that the continued failure to fulfill disarmament commitments will surely stimulate proliferation by other states.

Many nations are concerned that rhetorical puffery is expected, while a new crisis du jour sweeps attention away from nuclear disarmament obligations. This cynicism is a dangerous and contagious problem, and will become even more so if nothing meaningful is done soon.

China and India have both expressed support for negotiating a universal ban on nuclear weapons and Pakistan has stated it would follow. France, the United States. the United Kingdom, and Russia openly oppose even taking preliminary steps to negotiate a legal ban. Diplomats from these states assert that work toward a universal, non-discriminatory ban would divert attention from the incremental steps, neverminding that progress on these steps is lackluster at best, and failing to bring us closer to the stated goal of nuclear disarmament.

The problems with the incremental approach are many. This US Senate is unlikely to ratify the test ban, and its benefits have not been argued effectively to the American people or their elected representatives. Moreover, the commitment to spend upwards of a trillion dollars to modernize the nuclear arsenal illustrates an incoherence of policy that is outrageous.

Progress toward disarmament that relies on the bilateral, unified leadership of Russia and the United States is unwise. Acrimony over the Ukraine makes this obvious. Yet US-Russia leadership to entice Syria to join the near-universal Chemical Weapons Convention made us all safer. Surely no one would claim nuclear weapons are any less abhorrent and more legitimate to use than chemical weapons, yet such unified leadership by major powers remains starkly lacking.

Amidst the threats of global nuclear proliferation, most Americans probably do not realize that most of the world's states took it upon themselves to declare their regions nuclear-free. Latin America, Africa, South Asia, Central Asia, and the South Pacific negotiated legally binding treaties to permanently create nuclear-weapon-free zones (Mongolia, too, is a unilateral nuclear-weapon-free zone). Good news like this remains dormant.

These next four weeks as the NPT Review Conference meets in New York is an exceptional opportunity for a world leader who is serious about making historic strides toward protecting the global commons. The time for reiterated rhetorical support has passed and real movement must be realized. This is a time for leadership. And, considering the increasing threat that nuclear weapons pose, time just may be running out.