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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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The four statesmen's initiative dates partly to a conference Schultz and Stanford physicist Sidney Drell held in 2007 on the 20th anniversary of Reykjavik. At the time, no one was paying attention to nukes, Schultz says, though no one any longer thought nuclear reduction a horrible idea. "If you asked three years ago if we would be where we are today on progress in raising the nuclear issue, I'd say you were out of your mind. But it is also true a lot of work needs to be done."

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Some of the further work may require political fights on questions like a US ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The treaty bans the underground tests that states use to develop a nuclear capability or refine their arsenals. Many states, like France, have already signed the CTBT, but the US, saying it doesn't want to abandon nuclear research and development, has not.

On the zero-nukes issue, too, some European analysts see the US acting in its own self-interest. "The US may be totally sincere in proposing a nuclear-free world," says Mr. Brustlein of the French Institute of International Relations. "But they can do so because of conventional superiority. The US knows that nukes are the main means for others to contain its military superiority. Nuclear weapons strike a balance between unequal actors."

He cites India's former Chief of Army Staff Krishnaswamy Sundarji, who, after the US's quick victory in the first Gulf War, said the main lesson of that conflict is to never fight the US without nuclear weapons.

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As with any debate about weapons of mass destruction, one issue is how big a megaphone to use in warning of the dangers they pose. Dr. Gavin of the University of Texas believes some zero-nuke advocates have become too "alarmist," which, he says, can make the world less stable by encouraging nations, particularly the US, to drift toward preemptive war policies.

But others, including Barry Blechman, cofounder of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., say the threats warrant a clear and serious warning. Nuclear disarmament, once dismissed as the playground of a few Cassandras and Don Quixotes, is now a mainstream position. Advocates used to be "marginalized," he says. "Now we are seen as normal."

Schultz, who has witnessed the menace and machinations surrounding nuclear weapons since the atom was first split, counsels taking a slow and steady approach in getting to zero. But he believes the goal is achievable – and imperative. To those who think it isn't, he summons the lessons of history.

"Few in the early '80s imagined the political changes that would in a few years result in the peaceful end of the cold war," he said at a conference in Oslo in 2008, as cited in the book "Abolishing Nuclear Weapons." "Similarly today, we underestimate the potential for developments that would profoundly change the prospects for abolishing nuclear weapons."

He added: "If a few leaders of nuclear-armed states stepped forward with conviction ... to seek the prohibition of nuclear weapons, many obstacles that seem immovable today might become movable."

IN PICTURES: Nuclear Weapons