Nuclear Weapons Breakthrough -- Obama & Medvedev Make Fresh START

05/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There is history being made in London this week and it has nothing to do with the G-20's response to our economic difficulties.

The key players are U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.

The issues are security, international relations and the most immediate catastrophic threat of all, nuclear weapons.

The main development is diplomatic: negotiations will begin immediately for a new treaty to verifiably reduce nuclear weapons held by Russia and the United States.

Why does this matter? Well, there are 26,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Russia and the U.S. control about 95 percent of them.

The April 1 meeting was the first for U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. Their joint statement was clear, emphasizing a new relationship:

"We, the leaders of Russia and the United States, are ready to move beyond Cold War mentalities and chart a fresh start in relations between our two countries."

So what does that mean? Here are some bullet points from the joint statement:

They don't see each other as "enemies." Rather, they have "many common interests" and are "resolved to work together" on stability, security and global challenges, "while also addressing disagreements openly and honestly in a spirit of mutual respect."

• As mentioned, they agreed to seek a new version of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with negotiations for the new treaty to begin immediately. A report on "results achieved" is due by July.

They committed their countries "to achieving a nuclear free world," meaning they will "fulfill our obligations under Article VI of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and demonstrate leadership in reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world." (The NPT commits all signatories to work towards eventual nuclear disarmament.)

They promised to work together to fight nuclear terrorism and to "support international negotiations for a verifiable treaty to end the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons."

The joint statement also addressed issues including: Iran, Afghanistan, missile defense (they acknowledged differences and discussed possible cooperation) and, oh yes, the economy.

But the big news was the Big Thaw.

Here's how one Obama administration official spun it after the meeting:

"I think what you'll hear when we get to Prague [where Pres. Obama will give a speech later this month] is a President who's very focused on the threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons. The reason to have a verifiable, legally binding agreement to continue on from START is to not only have an agreement with Russia, which is obviously the biggest holder of -- well, along with us, is the biggest holder of such weapons, it's also to send a very clear message to the world -- places like Iran, where we continue to have very serious concerns about their illicit nuclear program, and other countries throughout the world -- that this is a United States that's very serious about the challenge posed by nuclear weapons and the proliferation of such technology."

Now, nuclear nonproliferation is not the same as nuclear disarmament. And it must be clear that any reductions in the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia should not be seen as ends in themselves, but rather steps in the phased, multi-lateral and verifiable elimination of all nuclear weapons.

But it's hard to see the joint statement by the U.S. and Russia as anything but a positive development. The idea of countries working together to solve global problems is no longer some 20th century dream. It's a 21st century necessity. Climate change proves this point. We must talk, we must negotiate, we must cooperate -- if we want to make the world a safer place.

If we want to survive.

Administration officials pointed out that much effort had gone into forging the joint statement and much more effort would be expended trying to achieve its aims. "This is a document of work; this is not a document of principles or flowery language," said one official.

I applaud such work. Every nuclear weapon that is dismantled through such diplomacy is a victory for reason and compassion.