A Farewell to Nuclear Arms
Moscow—Twenty-five years ago this month, I sat across from Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik, Iceland, to negotiate a deal that would have reduced, and could have ultimately eliminated by 2000, the fearsome arsenals of nuclear weapons held by the United States and the Soviet Union.
For all our differences, Reagan and I shared the strong conviction that civilized countries should not make such barbaric weapons the linchpin of their security. Even though we failed to achieve our highest aspirations in Reykjavik, the summit was nonetheless, in the words of my former counterpart, “a major turning point in the quest for a safer and secure world.”
The next few years may well determine if our shared dream of ridding the world of nuclear weapons will ever be realized.
Critics present nuclear disarmament as unrealistic at best and a risky utopian dream at worst. They point to the Cold War’s “long peace” as proof that nuclear deterrence is the only means of staving off a major war.
As someone who has commanded these weapons, I strongly disagree. Nuclear deterrence has always been a hard and brittle guarantor of peace. By failing to propose a compelling plan for nuclear disarmament, the US, Russia, and the remaining nuclear powers are promoting through inaction a future in which nuclear weapons will inevitably be used. That catastrophe must be forestalled.
Nuclear deterrence becomes less reliable and more risky as the number of nuclear-armed states increases.
Barring preemptive war (which has proven counterproductive) or effective sanctions (which have thus far proven insufficient), only sincere steps toward nuclear disarmament can furnish the mutual security needed to forge tough compromises on arms control and nonproliferation matters.
The trust and understanding built at Reykjavik paved the way for two historic treaties. The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty destroyed the feared quick-strike missiles then threatening Europe’s peace. And, in 1991, the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start I) cut the bloated US and Soviet nuclear arsenals by 80 percent over a decade.
But prospects for progress on arms control and nonproliferation are darkening in the absence of a credible push for nuclear disarmament. I learned during those two long days in Reykjavik that disarmament talks could be as constructive as they are arduous.
By linking an array of interrelated matters, Reagan and I built the trust and understanding needed to moderate a nuclear-arms race of which we had lost control.
In retrospect, the Cold War’s end heralded the coming of a messier arrangement of global power and persuasion. The nuclear powers should adhere to the requirements of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty and resume “good faith” negotiations for disarmament.
This would augment the diplomatic and moral capital available to diplomats as they strive to restrain nuclear proliferation in a world where more countries than ever have the wherewithal to construct a nuclear bomb.
Only a serious program of universal nuclear disarmament can provide the reassurance and the credibility needed to build a global consensus that nuclear deterrence is a dead doctrine. We can no longer afford, politically or financially, the discriminatory nature of the current system of nuclear “haves” and “have-nots.”
Reykjavik proved that boldness is rewarded. Conditions were far from favorable for a disarmament deal in 1986. Before I became Soviet leader in 1985, relations between the Cold War superpowers had hit rock bottom. Reagan and I were nonetheless able to create a reservoir of constructive spirit through constant outreach and face-to-face interaction.
What seem to be lacking today are leaders with the boldness and vision to build the trust needed to reintroduce nuclear disarmament as the centerpiece of a peaceful global order.
Economic constraints and the Chernobyl disaster helped spur us to action. Why has the Great Recession and the disastrous meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan not elicited a similar response today?
A first step would be for the US finally to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). President Barack Obama has endorsed this treaty as a vital instrument to discourage proliferation and avert nuclear war.
It’s time for Obama to make good on commitments he made in Prague in 2009, take up Reagan’s mantle as Great Communicator, and persuade the US Senate to formalize America’s adherence to the CTBT.
This would compel the remaining holdouts—China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan—to reconsider the CTBT as well. That would bring us closer to a global ban on nuclear tests in any environment—the atmosphere, undersea, in outer space, or underground. Project Syndicate
Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the USSR, founded Green Cross International, an independent non-profit group working to address the inter-connected global challenges of security, poverty eradication and environmental degradation.
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