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Can Obama lead the world toward zero nukes?

Obama will chair a UN Security Council summit on nuclear nonproliferation Thursday – the first US president to preside over the body.

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"The NPT is a critical part of the agenda, but it's not the only issue at stake here. There's also the pressing question of what happens with Iran," says Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association, in Washington. "The summit could set the tone and lay the groundwork for progress in the months ahead."

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Convincing the skeptics

To get there, Obama must address the skeptics. That includes those within his own administration who doubt the wisdom of Obama's goal of "getting the world to zero" nukes.

"At the UN, Obama will be addressing three audiences: the international, the domestic, and the internal ­– the last being those in his administration, and particularly in the Pentagon, who do not share his vision," says Mr. Cirincione.

"For the international, the message is disarmament. For the domestic, it's security. And for the internal, the message is transformational," he adds. "He's saying 'I'm serious about this. I'm going to transform US nuclear policy, not just tweak it.' "

The vision of a world with no nuclear arms, which many consider to be pie in the sky, got a boost in 2007 when four preeminent American statesmen ­– Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn, and William Perry ­– declared it realistic and laid out a path to achieve it.

Even so, some say major-power disarmament will be destabilizing – or that Obama might be too eager to downsize the US nuclear stockpile.

"I just don't see that the principal problem in fighting nuclear proliferation is that countries are waiting for the US to reduce its arsenal faster," says Christopher Ford, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. "The weapons of a new possessor like North Korea have nothing to do with the arsenals of weapons states."

An overly enthusiastic US risks giving up too much to achieve a diplomatic success, says Mr. Ford, who led the Bush administration's delegation to the 2007-08 NPT preparatory meetings. "There's a danger of too much focus on disarmament and not on constraining proliferation," he says.

First up: US and Russia

What seems certain is that many nations expect the US and Russia to disarm further – and see little reason to push others to act on disarmament or nonproliferation until then.

Says one European official in Wash­ington: "The US and Russia have 95 percent of the nuclear weapons, so getting an agreement on reduction between them is really the core of the issue. 'Zero' is a fine long-term goal, but it verges on demagoguery to focus on that before you've downsized a lot."

In announcing the summit, Ambassador Rice underscored that it is about widely supported objectives and won't focus on particular countries. In other words, the summit is not about Iran and North Korea.

Some officials and nuclear diplomacy experts say, though, that the summit can't help but be focused on those two countries and the challenges their nuclear programs present.

The US can build the global consensus needed to address Iran and future nuclear wannabes, says Mr. Kimball. But it also must improve its credibility with much of the world, via initiatives such as Obama's summit and by taking further steps toward nuclear-arms reduction.

"Iran may not be on the [summit] agenda, but it will be on everyone's mind," says Kimball. "That focus, and [a US] understanding of the critical effort we have to make, can help build the support we need if it comes down to taking action on Iran."


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