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Nuclear weapons: Is full disarmament possible?

As world leaders convene in Washington for a summit on halting the spread of nuclear weapons, a global debate is rising on the merits – and feasibility – of total nuclear disarmament.

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Behind the push is the sobering realization of how dangerous the world has become. During the last great public debate over nuclear weapons – in the 1980s – the world had good reason to be wary: Two adversaries with huge nuclear-tipped arsenals, the US and the Soviet Union, were confronting each other around the world in a fraught game of geopolitics.

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Today, in the aftermath of the cold war, the old threat has greatly diminished. The two countries maintain smaller but still potent nuclear stockpiles. Yet other threats now loom: the expansion of the nuclear club to include rivals like India and Pakistan as well as mercurial North Korea; the quest to join by new states like Iran and Syria; the possibility of nukes finding their way to terror groups that could use them – in Moscow, the Middle East, Beijing, or Washington.

"Why is it so hard for us to solve a problem that is obvious?" Schultz asked with an edge of exasperation in an interview at his home in California.

Skeptics of a nuclear-free world might answer that such a goal is politically impossible and practically dangerous: They believe it could lead to an even greater possibility of a nuke being used.

IN PICTURES: Nuclear Weapons

As Obama prepares to host more than 40 world leaders April 12 in Washington to discuss the spread of nuclear materials, this will be the fundamental question underlying it all: Is a nuclear-free world actually attainable? Is it just a gauzy notion, or the grand imperative of our time?

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Whatever the different views, the issue is once again being discussed somewhere other than in the cubicles of a few think tanks. It is, at least rhetorically, a stated US goal.

In the Oval Office meeting with Obama, Schultz bantered a bit with the president about the politics of the issue. Obama told Schultz, who was present with Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at the historic first cut in nuclear arsenals in 1986 in Reykjavik, Iceland, that it was nice to work on a bipartisan issue. Schultz told Obama the issue is "obviously bipartisan," but added, "none of us think of it that way.... It is nonpartisan. It is a subject of such importance that it ought to be taken out of any partisan arena." Schultz says that "Obama laughed and agreed."

Two weeks ago when Obama announced the new START treaty as part of a US "reset" with Russia – a small but crucial hurdle in moving forward on a larger nuclear agenda – he thanked and named each of the "gang of four" statesmen.