The Test of Leadership

The Washington Times
July 9, 2008
by James Goodby

Much has been written about what the next president’s priorities should be. Iraq? Health care? The environment? The economy? Seldom mentioned is a danger many Americans have chosen to forget – the atom bomb. The damage done to one of the world’s great cities by just one atom bomb, not to mention the thousand times more powerful hydrogen bomb, would eclipse any other imminent danger faced by humanity.

The United States and Russia have reduced their nuclear arsenals significantly since the end of the Cold War, but each has thousands of nuclear weapons in its inventory even though the strategy of mutual assured destruction (MAD) has become obsolete. The real danger lies elsewhere.

Terrorists are anxious to get their hands on an atom bomb or other nuclear device and will pay a high price to do so. They are determined to find vulnerabilities and to exploit them. So far, the civilized world has patched the potential leaks in time. A thriving nuclear black market was broken up just a few years ago, but it operated without detection for a long time. Even the most meticulous control system sometimes loses track of the thousands of nuclear weapons or their components. That happened twice recently just in the United States.

Fewer than 10 nations possess nuclear weapons. Chief among them, by virtue of having about 90 percent of all the world’s nuclear weapons, are the United States and Russia. These are the nations that the world looks to for leadership in reducing nuclear risks. The next U.S. administration will have to mount a diplomatic offensive to win the battle to prevent a global nuclear arms race. It can’t be a back burner issue.

The equation that should inform policy is this: More atomic bombs or warheads in more hands equals more chances for them to be lost, stolen or used in anger. Each nation has an interest in preventing this deadly progression, even if it means rolling back its own holdings of nuclear weapons.

But it is the United States and Russia, above all, which have the power to change expectations. Nations act in accordance with what their common sense tells them is the likely state of their world in the decades ahead. Now they expect to see nuclear weapons spreading to more and more states. So they keep their own options open. Nations once expected chemical weapons to be used in war. They are still liquidating the unused chemical weapons of World War II.

It would make a difference if the nuclear weapons states, led by the United States and Russia, join in removing nuclear weapons from their war plans and taking prudent steps to reduce the numbers of deployed weapons to zero. And, very importantly, it would create a solid front against the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, North Korea and others that might seek to emulate those nations.

So what should a new U.S. president do? He should call his Russian counterpart right after breakfast on his first full day in office and offer to meet with him to discuss how best to curtail the threat posed by nuclear weapons. The two of them, aided by their advisers, eventually could decide to amend the treaty signed by their predecessors in Moscow in May 2002. That treaty permits 1,700 to 2,200 operationally deployed nuclear weapons in 2012. Why not change that to 1,000 by 2012?

Why not reaffirm a commitment to work for zero operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons by the time the two leaders leave office in eight years? Operationally deployed warheads and missiles are relatively easy to detect. At least, the new leaders could agree to reduce strategic warheads to numbers on the same scale as those of Britain, China and France that, collectively, total about 500.

Of course, putting an atom or hydrogen bomb beyond the reach of terrorists or radically governed states has to involve many nations. The United States and Russia can do only so much, but their leadership could rally other nations in the cause of a step-by-step process of shrinking atomic arsenals to the vanishing point. And that would dry up the reservoir of the most potent weapons terrorists could acquire.

The American presidential candidates have spoken favorably of boldly moving against the nuclear threat. This is not a party issue. It’s an issue of survival, and all Americans have a stake in it. The Russian and American leaders will have a lot of business to do with each other. The agenda is crowded with economic and political issues.

But the one test that will earn them the praise of posterity through future ages, or condemn them to the ranks of failures, will be what they do about ending the nuclear threat. And it can be ended.

James E. Goodby, a former U.S. ambassador, was principal negotiator and special representative of the president for nuclear security and dismantlement in the early 1990s, when the United States and Russia began an historic nuclear weapons reduction.

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