Dr. Strangelove vs. the President

11/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If the United Nations were in Vegas, and policy geeks were gamblers, this would be a match made for the MGM Grand. In one corner we'd have a bright young voice in the ring, fighting for a renewed American dream--where nuclear weapons are seen as obsolete liabilities in the face of today's biggest threats. In the other corner is the unhinged general, passionately obsessed with the atomic bomb, clutching it to the bitter end.

On Thursday, the president is going to chair a U.N. Security Council meeting to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons and prevent their spread. For the first time in years, nuclear weapons are back in the headlines.

Yes, that's right. Despite some admirable efforts, they didn't go away when the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991. Like a lot of other Cold War relics, they sat around and cost taxpayers billions of dollars a year to maintain. Some countries aren't even sure where all their weapons materials are anymore.

We've kept legions of brilliant scientific minds drawing the coordinates of mega death instead of diverting their knowledge to combat climate change. Thousands of nuclear weapons still exist. It's time to deal with this problem so we can move on.

But Dr. Strangelove's obsession persists. He's like some creepy adviser in the attic of U.S. government bureaucracy--unable to let go of his core identity--despite the fact that the world has gone on to struggle against other dangers. Despite the fact that we desperately need to stop looking backward for threats when the future has plenty in store for us. And despite the fact that having so many of these weapons makes us less safe.

The subject of nukes will be present a lot over the next year. The Strangelove echo chamber is preparing to scare us back to the 1960s. We got a taste of it last week when the president made a sensible adjustment to European Missile Defense. Beware the Armageddon lobby. Some wear suits and might represent you. Lots are employed by Fox television. Many believe they have enlisted Jesus to their cause.

The president showing up in New York this week is significant for many reasons. It is saying to the world that we're back in the game. We're going to stop being the rule breaker and start being the deal maker. We're going to take responsibility for reducing the risk posed by the most destructive weapon ever devised, capable of destroying most life on this planet. It is hugely important that President Obama himself goes to the UN--because the step by step process that lessens this serious danger needs his leadership and it must include everyone.

Two major treaties will be up for ratification or review in the next 12 months--one that outlaws the explosions that lead to more weapons and one that updates the international agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons. America's negotiators will be helping build a pathway toward these important goals. Right now, this pathway is the most important thing. "Banning Nukes" will take awhile. It's the "Eyes on the Prize" part. It's why we are inspired, but not the starting point.

Though Obama has put an amazing team together to deal with nuclear threats, he's making up for a lost decade. We used to have considerably more capacity within government to track and reduce nuclear risk. But the same conservative hunting party that turned Congress into a mantel trophy also bagged the important government institutions that dealt with this threat.

The Office of Technology Assessment--one of Newt Gingrich's first victims--drew up comprehensive conversion plans for our nuclear labs in 1994. Their plans had our scientists working on renewable energy and environmental technology. It was gone by 1995. The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency disappeared three years later. CTR, the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (a bipartisan success story), started in 1993, has been the bright light on the landscape for years. It actually dismantled weapons in the former Soviet states and safeguarded dangerous materials--but struggled to gain traction because so many elected leaders remained mired in the past. CTR's day may have finally come.

During the last decade, national security transitioned from a world that was linear, predictable and technological to one that is chaotic, random and very human. Security really isn't about rocket science anymore. Security is about people. Case in point, Pakistan's top nuclear scientist sold his expertise to some very scary countries--the world's first entrepreneur of annihilation.

From counterinsurgency to climate change, Americans increasingly sense that we must behave differently in order to reach desired goals--our own safety being one of them. Coercion doesn't work well for most problems. Climate change has no military solution. Nor do international pandemics or contagious ideologies. In today's world, nuclear weapons create risk rather than reduce it: thousands of them means a lot of opportunity for them to fall into the hands of crazy types.

These days, security is about people. So perceptions of fair treatment and expectations of reciprocity have strategic implications. We Americans are the ones who built this ideal. We're the ones who asked others to be like us. At long last, we need to do what we tell everyone else to do. If we don't want other countries to have these deadly things, we need to get rid of our own and stop building more. The world is waiting for us to walk our talk.