Obama lays out steps for a nuclear free world

In Prague speech Sunday, the US president talked about Iran, North Korea, Russia, and how to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    US President Barack Obama spoke to a crowd of some 30,000 Sunday under the spiky spires of Prague Castle in the Czech capital.
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President Barack Obama unveiled his vision for a world free of nuclear weapons in a major speech Sunday in the Czech capital.

Speaking to a crowd of some 30,000 under the spiky spires of Prague Castle, the US leader pledged that Washington will take "concrete steps" to reduce US nuclear weapon stockpiles and underscored the urgent need to bring into force the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

"Some argue that the spread of these weapons cannot be checked — that we are destined to live in a world where more nations and more people possess the ultimate tools of destruction," Mr. Obama told the crowd in his key address during his maiden diplomatic tour of Europe as president. But criticizing such fatalistic attitudes as a "deadly adversary," he added, "If we say to ourselves that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, we are saying that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable."

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Obama said Washington would host a summit by the end of the year to discuss "locking down" loose fissile materials.

Obama's speech came hours after news North Korea tried and failed to launch a satellite into orbit on a long-range rocket that can carry nuclear warheads.

Obama joined a wave of international criticism, saying Pyongyang had "broken the rules" and must be forced to change. "Now is the time for a strong international response," he said.

If Iran backs down ...

Obama also referred to Iran, saying the US will go ahead with a plan to build a missile defense shield, "as long as the threat from Iran persists."

The US leader, however, added, "If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for missile construction in Europe will be removed."

Key components of a missile defense system (a radar tracking station) would be based in the Czech Republic and (10 interceptor missiles) in neighboring Poland.

At a press conference later, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said Obama's speech made it clear the US has every intention to build the antimissile shield.

But analysts say the system's future is shaky as Washington looks to "reset" relations with Moscow, which opposes the system.

"The United States needs to get relations with Russia back on track; it needs Russia's help on a range of issues," explains Lawrence Korb, a former Reagan defense official and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington.

Why the US needs Russian help

At Obama's first meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in London on Wednesday, both agreed on fast-track negotiations to slash their countries' nuclear stockpiles by about a third.

Besides nuclear reduction, Mr. Korb says the US needs Russian help on Iran's nuclear program and on finding new supply routes into Afghanistan. "The missile shield is really a secondary issue," says Korb.

Czechs and others in Eastern Europe, however, are watching nervously as Washington warms to Moscow. The war with Georgia last summer and second gas spat with Ukraine last winter have upped fears of a resurgent Russian bear.

"The missile shield is a further guarantee of our belonging to the transatlantic security system," explains Pavel Prikryl, an analyst at the Association for International Affairs in Prague.

"A Russian general said Moscow didn't care if the system was located in Germany or France, but they object to it being put here because they still view the region as their sphere of influence," Prikryl added.

But Jiri Dienstbier, a Czech senator and former foreign minister, told the Monitor the Czech Republic is already firmly entrenched with the West through membership in NATO and the EU.

"That we need a special relationship with the United States to further ensure our security is nonsense," he said.

Opinion polls show most Czechs oppose the plan, fearing it could make them the target of a terrorist attack.

Speaking to Czech TV, Jan Zahradil, a member of the European Parliament from the Czech right-wing ODS party, said the radar transforms the country into an "important player" and a "strategic partner" with Washington.

In his speech, Obama credited Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution with helping to bring down a "nuclear power without a shot being fired," and proving "that small nations can play a big role in history."

Obama's visit comes as Eastern Europe marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 10th anniversary of the admittance of the first former Warsaw Pact nations – Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary – into NATO.

Czechs flock to see Obama

In a sign of the times, security was tight. Sharpshooters were situated on nearby rooftops within gaze of the podium from where Obama spoke. Traffic came to a standstill as Obama's motorcade made its way to Prague Castle. Most of the cobbled streets snaking toward the square were blocked off. Those hoping to get a peek of the US leader had to pass through metal detectors.

For many, the wait was worth it.

"I won't be traveling to the US, so it's a great opportunity to hear him," explains a man who identified himself as Jaroslav, who along with his wife, Petra, and two small children, woke up early to travel about 50 miles from Litomerice to hear Obama, whom he called a "breath of fresh air."

Petr Bauer – who emigrated with his wife, Stanislava, from Czechoslovakia to Germany in 1968 the year Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the Prague Spring uprising against hard-line Communist rule – likened Obama to John F. Kennedy.

We have a lot of hope with Obama," says Mrs. Bauer, who was not a big fan of George Bush or his "aggressive" policies. [Editor's note: The original version duplicated a sentence.]

In Prague, Obama also attended an EU-US summit that focused on cutting greenhouse gases and energy security.

The "No Bases" movement, which opposes the US radar on Czech soil, had planned to march on the venue hosting the summit, but was denied a permit by city authorities. Greenpeace activists, however, managed to hang a huge banner across a bridge near the conference center. It read: "Bail out the environment."

The EU-US summit wraps up a whirlwind of high-level diplomatic meetingsfor Obama that started at the G-20 in London and continued with a NATO 60th anniversary celebration in France and Germany.

After an informal meeting with former Czech president Vaclav Havel, Obama heads on to Turkey, his final destination on his maiden tour of Europe.

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