08/01/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Berlin Nuclear Challenge

Senator Barack Obama spoke these words in Berlin:

This is the moment when we must renew the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. The two superpowers that faced each other across the wall of this city came too close too often to destroying all we have built and all that we love. With that wall gone, we need not stand idly by and watch the further spread of the deadly atom. It is time to secure all loose nuclear materials; to stop the spread of nuclear weapons; and to reduce the arsenals from another era. This is the moment to begin the work of seeking the peace of a world without nuclear weapons."

Big words. Bold words. But will we look back and see them as historic or just more campaign rhetoric? The big (and bold) question is -- will the words turn into action? If Sen. Obama is elected, could we expect a change in US policy?

The same questions are just as pertinent when we look at Senator John McCain's nuclear weapons policy. On May 27, speaking at the University of Denver, Senator McCain said that he is inspired by President Reagan's dream of a world without nuclear weapons. He also said he was prepared to enter into a new arms control agreement with Russia.

"As our two countries possess the overwhelming majority of the world's nuclear weapons, we have a special responsibility to reduce their number."

Sounds great. But if it's just rhetoric, we're in trouble. In case you haven't noticed, the status quo is scary and getting scarier. And to me, the scariest part isn't necessarily Iran or North Korea, it's the revival of Cold War tensions.

This week, a Russian newspaper report quoted a senior Russian air force official saying Russian bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons could be deployed to Cuba in response to U.S. plans to install a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.

The nominee to become US Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, had a point-blank response at his confirmation hearing. If Russia acts on such a plan, he said,
"we should stand strong and indicate that is something that crosses a
threshold, crosses a red line for the United States of America."

Just because the Cold War ended 17 years ago, it doesn't mean it can't begin again. Remember, vast nuclear arsenals remain in place in both the US and Russia -- about 9,000 nuclear weapons in the US and about 10,000 in Russia.

So Sen. Obama's words in Berlin are important only if they lead to action.

And what concrete steps can the United States take to make the world safer? Here are seven:

De-alert. Remove all nuclear weapons from high-alert status, separating warheads from delivery vehicles;

No First Use. Make legally binding commitments to No First Use of nuclear weapons and establish nuclear policies consistent with this commitment;

No New Nuclear Weapons. Initiate a moratorium on the research and development of new nuclear weapons, such as the Reliable Replacement Warhead;

Ban Nuclear Testing Forever. Ratify and bring into force the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty;

Control Nuclear Material. Create a verifiable Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty with provisions to bring all weapons-grade nuclear material and the technologies to create such material under strict and effective international control;

Nuclear Weapons Convention. Commence good faith negotiations, as required by the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to achieve a Nuclear Weapons Convention for the phased, verifiable and irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons;

Resources for Peace. Reallocate resources from the tens of billions currently spent on nuclear arms to alleviating poverty, preventing and curing disease, eliminating hunger and expanding educational opportunities throughout the world.

These seven steps are part of a major public education campaign by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. The Foundation is gathering one million signatures on a campaign called:, US Leadership for a Nuclear Weapons-Free World--An Appeal to the Next President of the United States. The text of the Appeal sets out these seven prudent steps. The names will be delivered to the White House on Inauguration Day January 20, 2009.

In the end, the US -- and Russia -- must walk the talk. Author and expert on nuclear weapons, Jonathan Schell said it best in a recent article:

"If the nuclear powers wish to be safe from nuclear weapons, they must surrender their own.

"With each year that passes, nuclear weapons provide their possessors with less safety while provoking more danger. Possession of nuclear arms provokes proliferation. Both nourish the global nuclear infrastructure, which in turn enlarges the possibility of acquisition by terrorist groups.

"The step that is needed to break this cycle can be as little doubted as the source of the problem. The double standard of nuclear haves and have-nots must be replaced by a single standard, which can only be the goal of a world free of all nuclear weapons. "