Obama has promised it, his Defense Secretary isn’t convinced, but now you can vote on it. At Change.org you can help construct a list of priorities for the new American Administration that includes US leadership to abolish nuclear weapons in the top 10 (the direct link is below).

Last fall President-elect Barack Obama told the Arms Control Association that “as president, I will set a new direction in nuclear weapons policy and show the world that America believes in its existing commitment under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to work to ultimately eliminate all nuclear weapons.”[i]

But his Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, shows some reluctance. Not only does he have doubts about ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty,[ii] but Gates told a Carnegie Endowment gathering last fall that “as long as other states have or seek nuclear weapons – and can potentially threaten us, our allies and friends – then we must have a deterrent capacity that makes it clear that challenging the United States in the nuclear arena – or with other weapons of mass destruction – could result in an overwhelming, catastrophic response.”[iii]

President-elect Obama’s responses to the Arms Control Association also paid homage to deterrence: “as long as states retain nuclear weapons, the United States will maintain a nuclear deterrent that is strong, safe, secure, and reliable.”

All of which means that if nuclear abolition is to become an American priority, Washington thinking still needs to undergo some major changes.

With the new Administration coming in nuclear disarmament prospects will be better than they have been for a long time, but it will still take some doing to overcome the unconstructive formulations and assumptions that apparently remain in the thinking of Secretary Gates.

Gates says, for example, that as long as others “seek” nuclear weapons the US must retain a nuclear deterrent. That is a formula for the indefinite perpetuation of nuclear weapons, for as long as the US and other states retain nuclear weapons, there will always be some hitherto non-nuclear states that will seek them.

Gates also says that the possible possession by other states of “other weapons of mass destruction” is a reason for America to retain nuclear weapons. But the potential for some states to acquire chemical or biological weapons will never be eliminated once and for all; the question is how to deal with that ongoing possibility. It is not to threaten nuclear annihilation but to work through established and upgraded mechanisms for verification and for the implementation of the two treaties that already ban chemical and biological weapons.

What Mr. Gates says on behalf of the US, that nuclear weapons must be retained to deter those of others and to shield the US from unacceptable threat, could be as legitimately said by virtually every other country. Indeed, many countries without nuclear weapons could make a much more urgent claim that they are threatened by nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, as well as by countries with vastly superior conventional forces, and thus make the case for acquiring nuclear weapons so that they too can assure any state that challenges them with “an overwhelming, catastrophic response.”

The US has the capacity to fundamentally alter this self-defeating formula. And the alternative, the push for the elimination of nuclear weapons that Mr. Obama has promised, will be pursued only through the engagement of an informed public. The US and the international community are well served by a highly informed and expert disarmament and non-proliferation community that has for decades been setting out a credible policy road map. The work of that community is now being supported and legitimized by a growing chorus of mainstream or “establishment” figures – personalities as diverse as Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and Mikhail Gorbachev, together with others like Shaharyar Khan, a former Pakistani foreign minister, retired Air Chief Marshal Shashindra Pal Tyagi of India, and former British foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind. The recent appeal by the Global Zero group adds the critically important demand for a clear timeline for reaching the goal of total elimination.

And after the leadership declaration has been made, the policies formulated, and the endorsements added, it is the global public voice that is needed to make nuclear abolition a serious political priority.

That is where initiatives like the Change.Org appeal to the public for “Ideas for Change in American” come in. The hope that nuclear weapons abolition will become a priority of the new US Administration can be given voice by going to

http://www.change.org/ideas/view/us_leadership_to_abolish_nuclear_weapons_globally and then voting for “US leadership to abolish nuclear weapons globally.”

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[i] President-elect Obama’s views on nuclear arms control are perhaps most clearly and succinctly presented in his response to a series of questions posed by the Washington-based Arms Control Association. Arms Control Today 2008 Presidential Q & A: President-Elect Barack Obama, Special Section, Arms Control Association, http://www.armscontrol.org/system/files/Obama_Q-A_FINAL_Dec10_2008.pdf.

[ii] See DisarmingConflict post of 5 January 2009, http://disarmingconflict.blogspot.com/2009/01/complication-and-compromise-on-obamas.html.

[iii] Elaine M. Grossman, “Gates Sees Stark Choice on Nuke Tests, Modernization,” Global Security Newswire, The Nuclear Threat Initiative, 29 October 2008, http://www.globalsecuritynewswire.org/gsn/nw_20081029_2822.php.


The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.