Obama to Hold Mini Nuclear Summit at the UN

05/25/2011 01:45 pm ET

President Barack Obama has decided to personally lead a meeting of heads of state at the U.N. Security Council. The subject: nuclear weapons.

This week, the U.S. Ambassador the the United Nations, Susan Rice, announced the unusual move:

"The Security Council has an essential role in preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons and is also the world's principal multilateral instrument for global security cooperation. The session will be focused on nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament broadly and not on any specific countries."

And there lies the rub.

I welcome President Obama's leadership on the nuclear weapons issue. But I worry about the mixed signals he sends. He supports both the elimination of nuclear weapons and their use as a deterrent. For even a nimble politician like Obama, that is quite a balancing act. This Security Council meeting sounds like it could be more of the same.

The September 24th meeting will focus on both nonproliferation and disarmament. Though these goals are often lumped together, they are separate concepts.

Disarmament clearly implies the elimination of all nuclear weapons from the planet. Most experts believe that this would be achieved in stages under an internationally-agreed plan. The president himself has espoused the concept, most notably in Prague this April, promising "America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

Nonproliferation deals with stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. It is often interpreted to mean that the nuclear-armed nations of the world get to keep their WMD but other nations can't develop new weapons. In other words, some nations are more equal than others. Even the Non-Proliferation Treaty separates signatories as "nuclear-weapon " or "non-nuclear-weapon " states.

These non-nuclear-weapon states sometimes decide that they need to develop nuclear weapons to gain power, respect, influence or because they want to have a deterrent of their own -- Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea are just some examples. In this way, "nonproliferation" as we have practiced it so far, has only increased the number of nuclear weapons and the number of countries that possess them.

So how can nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation be linked? This is a key question for Obama's mini-Summit.

On July 30, Ellen Tauscher, the U.S. Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security and former Congresswoman from San Francisco, had this to say:

"I believe the New START Treaty [the new arms control treaty being negotiated now between Russia and the United States] is the beginning of a new narrative for the post-Cold War generation that need not be paralyzed by the threat of nuclear war and it is a down payment for deeper reductions in the future."

This sounds promising. But in the same speech, Tauscher made this statement:

"We need to ensure that there is a safe and effective deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist without nuclear testing. I strongly support the critical role that extended deterrence has played in our national security policy. It must remain a central element of our national security policy. We must be able to tell our allies, 'We've got your back.'"

The Obama administration has proven at ease with apparent contradictions in policy. Here, we are asked to believe that though the U.S. is "committed" to a world without nuclear weapons, it will keep the policy of deterrence "as long as nuclear weapons exist."

If the world is expected to find that strategy credible, President Obama needs to first state that nuclear disarmament is the top priority and that deterrence will be de-emphasized as the world's nations agree to dismantle their nuclear weapons. He must also show how nonproliferation will be re-defined so it is not an excuse for the status quo and instead points to greater nuclear security on the way to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Perhaps he will present a roadmap for disarmament at the September Security Council meeting.

Meanwhile, Dr. David Krieger, President of the non partisan nonprofit Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, has four suggestions for the president :

-- First, visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just as he visited concentration camps in Europe. Be the first U.S. president to take this step. Make the threat of nuclear war, nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation vivid to people everywhere.

-- Second, direct our negotiators to be bold in agreeing to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Russian arsenals, to de-alert these arsenals and to declare policies of No First Use of nuclear weapons.

-- Third, assure that the new U.S. Nuclear Posture Review gives an accurate assessment of the risks of continuing to rely upon nuclear deterrence and the benefits of moving rapidly to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons.

-- Fourth, convene the leaders of the world to negotiate a new treaty for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons.

This week marks the 64th anniversaries of the nuclear attacks by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. More than 140,000 people died in those attacks. The hibakusha are the people who witnessed the horror in Japan and managed to survive. They have made their views plain on the subject:

Nuclear weapons should never be used again. So we must eliminate nuclear weapons -- before they eliminate us.

President Obama has done more than anyone to change the dialogue over nuclear weapons. Now he needs to change the policy baggage we carry from Cold War days.

On the contrary, we should focus on the hundreds of thousands lives that can be safeguarded with the dismantling of each and every nuclear weapon. We should focus on building public support for a phased, verifiable and internationally-agreed plan to eliminate the weapons.

Best of luck in September at the Security Council, Mr. President. Thanks for having the courage to address this diffcult issue. The children of the world and many future generations are relying on your work for nuclear disarmament to be successful. Please remember them.