University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

David Cortright

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A few years ago, the notion of a world without nuclear weapons was merely an aspiration. Today it has become a widely accepted goal of international policy.

In September, U.S. President Barack Obama presided over an extraordinary meeting of heads of state in the United Nations Security Council as it adopted Resolution 1887, resolving to “create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons.” Public officials and policy experts in numerous countries have taken up the call for disarmament that was issued three years ago by former U.S. national security officials George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn.

In October 2009, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the Finnish Institute of International Affairs convened a meeting of policymakers and security experts in Helsinki, Finland, to deliberate on ways to strengthen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a cornerstone of the global effort to control nuclear weapons. Former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry was a keynote speaker at the conference. Perry was part of the White House technical team in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis.


“We avoided nuclear war by luck, not by good management,” he declared. Sixteen years later, while he was at the Pentagon, Perry was awakened at 3 a.m. by a call from a watch officer at the North American Air Defense Command, warning of hundreds of incoming Soviet missile warheads (it proved to be a computer malfunction). “The risks of nuclear detonation are not theoretical,” he said. “I experienced them first-hand.”

Traditional concepts of nuclear deterrence have lost their meaning in a world of suicide bombers and non-state terrorist networks.

Today the dangers of nuclear weapons are greater than ever, the result of proliferation and global terrorist threats. Nine countries have nuclear weapons. If North Korea and Iran acquire full nuclear weapons capability, the world may reach a proliferation tipping point, with the bomb spreading rapidly to other states. Pakistan has at least 50 nuclear weapons and is threatened by deepening internal instability and Al Qaeda terrorists who have vowed to get their hands on the bomb. Traditional concepts of nuclear deterrence that apply to states have lost their meaning in a world of suicide bombers and non-state terrorist networks.


Overcoming these dangers will require unprecedented global cooperation to gain control over nuclear technologies and materials and to de-emphasize and ultimately eliminate reliance on nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia must lead the way. Together they possess 90 percent of the world’s stockpile of more than 20,000 nuclear weapons. The two states are negotiating a new treaty that reduces nuclear weapons levels modestly and reinforces weapons monitoring and verification systems. Ratification of that treaty will be an urgent priority for the U.S. Senate in the months ahead.

The new strategic reduction treaty is a step in the right direction, but much deeper cuts will be needed in the future. The United States and Russia also must work together to strengthen nonproliferation mechanisms and negotiate an international treaty to halt the production of fissile material. They should take weapons systems off hair-trigger alert and work with other governments to strengthen the authority and capacity of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Especially important will be ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which makes permanent the existing moratorium on testing and outlaws nuclear explosions globally. Here again, U.S. Senate ratification will be essential. These and other good faith efforts by the major powers are necessary to win global cooperation for strengthened nonproliferation controls.

Achieving a world without nuclear weapons will take much time and effort, but the goal is now widely accepted as an essential requirement for international security.

In May 2010, the 189 countries that are party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty will gather at the United Nations in New York for an NPT five-year review conference, which is critically important for efforts to reduce the nuclear danger. Many leaders in the global South have long criticized the “do as I say not as I do” approach of the nuclear weapons states, which have been unwilling to negotiate for disarmament as required by Article VI of the NPT. Today the political climate is improving, thanks to the leadership of the United States and Britain, but the major powers must show concrete results to gain the global cooperation that is necessary to prevent further proliferation.

Achieving a world without nuclear weapons will take much time and effort, but the goal is now widely accepted as an essential requirement for international security. The way forward will require steady progress on steps toward the gradual reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons, coupled with continuous improvement in monitoring, verification, and international cooperation for peace and security.

David Cortright is director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame.