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Mikhail Gorbachev: A farewell to nuclear arms (CARL COURT/AFP)
Mikhail Gorbachev: A farewell to nuclear arms (CARL COURT/AFP)


A farewell to nuclear arms Add to ...

Twenty-five years ago this week, I sat across from Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik to negotiate a deal that would have reduced, and could have ultimately eliminated by 2000, the fearsome arsenals of nuclear weapons held by the United States and the Soviet Union.

For all our differences, Mr. Reagan and I shared the conviction that civilized countries should not make such barbaric weapons the linchpin of their security. Even though we failed to achieve our highest aspirations, the summit was nonetheless, in Mr. Reagan’s words, “a major turning point in the quest for a safer and secure world.” The next few years may well determine whether our shared dream of ridding the world of nuclear weapons will ever be realized.

Critics present nuclear disarmament as unrealistic at best, a risky utopian dream at worst. They point to the Cold War’s “long peace” as proof that nuclear deterrence is the only means of staving off a major war.

As someone who has commanded these weapons, I strongly disagree. Nuclear deterrence has always been a hard and brittle guarantor of peace. By failing to propose a compelling plan for nuclear disarmament, the U.S., Russia and the other nuclear powers are promoting a future in which nuclear weapons will inevitably be used. That catastrophe must be forestalled.

As I, along with George Shultz, Henry Kissinger and others, pointed out five years ago, nuclear deterrence becomes more risky as the number of nuclear-armed states increases. Barring pre-emptive war (counterproductive) or effective sanctions (insufficient), only sincere steps toward nuclear disarmament can furnish the mutual security needed to forge compromises on arms control and non-proliferation matters.

The trust and understanding built at Reykjavik paved the way for two historic treaties. The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty destroyed the feared quick-strike missiles then threatening Europe’s peace. And the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (1991) cut the bloated U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals by 80 per cent over a decade.

In retrospect, the Cold War’s end heralded the coming of a messier arrangement of global power and persuasion. The nuclear powers should adhere to the requirements of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty and resume “good faith” negotiations for disarmament. This would augment the diplomatic and moral capital available to diplomats as they strive to restrain nuclear proliferation in a world where more countries than ever have the wherewithal to build a nuclear bomb.

Only a serious program of universal nuclear disarmament can provide the reassurance and credibility needed to build a global consensus that nuclear deterrence is a dead doctrine. We need leaders with boldness and vision to build the trust needed to reintroduce nuclear disarmament as the centrepiece of a peaceful global order. Economic constraints and the Chernobyl disaster helped spur us to action. Why have the Great Recession and the meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi not elicited a similar response?

A first step would be for the U.S. to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. President Barack Obama has endorsed it as a vital instrument to discourage proliferation and avert nuclear war. It’s time for him to make good on commitments he made in Prague in 2009 and persuade the Senate to formalize America’s adherence to this treaty. This would compel the holdouts – China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan – to reconsider the treaty as well.

A second step would be for the U.S. and Russia to follow up on the New START agreement and begin deeper weapons cuts, especially tactical and reserve weapons. This step must be related to limits on missile defence, one of the key issues that undermined the Reykjavik summit.

A fissile material cut-off treaty, long stalled in multilateral talks in Geneva, and a successful second nuclear security summit next year in Seoul, will help secure dangerous nuclear materials. This will also require that the 2002 Global Partnership, dedicated to securing and eliminating all weapons of mass destruction, is renewed and expanded when it convenes next year in the U.S.

In today’s economic climate, nuclear weapons have become loathsome money pits. If economic troubles continue, the nuclear powers should seize the moment to launch multilateral arms reductions through new or existing channels such as the United Nations Conference on Disarmament. These deliberations would yield greater security for less money.

But the buildup of conventional military forces – driven in large part by the enormous military might deployed globally by the U.S. – must be addressed as well. As we engage in furthering our Conventional Forces in Europe agreement, we should seriously consider reducing the burden of military budgets and forces globally.

John Kennedy once warned that “every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment.” For more than 50 years, humanity has warily eyed that lethal pendulum while statesmen debated how to mend its fraying cords. The example of Reykjavik should remind us that palliative measures are not enough. Our efforts 25 years ago can be vindicated only when the Bomb ends up beside the slave trader’s manacles and the Great War’s mustard gas in the museum of bygone savagery.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the USSR, founded Green Cross International, a Geneva-based NGO working to address the global challenges of security, poverty eradication and environmental degradation.

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