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Nuclear weapons-free world: a vision of Kennedy, Reagan, Obama

Presidents Kennedy, Reagan, and now, Obama all envisioned a world free of nuclear weapons. The US-Russian START accord, announced Friday, is a next step in that direction, experts say.

By Staff writer / March 26, 2010

President Barack Obama comments on the new START nuclear weapons reduction treaty at the White House with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates Friday.

Jim Young/REUTERS

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Washington

US-Russia agreement on a new treaty to reduce nuclear weapons is being hailed as President Obama’s first real foreign-policy victory and a personal triumph for a leader who envisions a nuclear-weapons-free world.

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But that vision stretches back at least as far as President John Kennedy, and actually came tantalizingly close to fruition under President Ronald Reagan.

Indeed, many nuclear disarmament advocates share a sense that the treaty Mr. Obama announced Friday is the first step of many toward a nuclear-free world, given the long-standing and “centrist” support behind nuclear-weapons reduction and elimination.

“This vision of a world without the Damocles sword of nuclear weapons hanging over it, as John Kennedy said, is one whose time has come,” says Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a Washington organization that supports initiatives designed to prevent the spread and use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. “It’s the fact that the idea of moving in this direction is one shared by conservatives and moderates as well as liberals that is giving it such strength.”

START's broader importance

The weapons reductions called for in the follow-on START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) accord, to be signed April 8 in Prague, Czech Republic, are themselves not that revolutionary, most disarmament experts say. Russia and the US were already both headed in the direction outlined by the treaty’s warheads and delivery-systems reductions, they say.

The treaty's broader importance lies in its tone and the direction it sets at a time of rising interest in nuclear-arms reduction and of international steps to advance the vision of a nuclear-weapons-free world. Obama hosts a summit of 44 heads of state in Washington in April to focus on nuclear-materials security. Then, in May, the United Nations holds a five-year review meeting of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

The last NPT review conference occurred under an unenthusiastic Bush administration. But the new START should give a boost to the NPT’s underlying quid pro quo: weapons reductions by nuclear powers (the US and Russia have more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads) in exchange for nonnuclear powers verifiably foregoing nuclear weapons in exchange for civilian nuclear energy uses.

First Kennedy, then Reagan, now Obama

It was before the United Nations, in the depths of the cold war, that Kennedy ventured to envision a world free of the nuclear threat. Then, Ronald Reagan –the same president who had been vilified by nuclear-freeze advocates because of his arms buildup – stunned the world by coming close to an accord with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy all nuclear weapons within 10 years.

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