On Anti-Americanism: Obama remarks on 'walls of division' in Europe and U.S.Analysis: Obama no-nukes pledge not so farfetched
Barack Obama Presidential Transition AFP – US President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev during a meeting at …
WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's startling call Friday for a "world without nuclear weapons" brings to mind Ronald Reagan's idealistic, unfulfilled dream of eliminating the threat of nuclear annihilation.
"Even with the Cold War now over, the spread of nuclear weapons or the theft of nuclear material could lead to the extermination of any city on the planet," Obama said in Strasbourg, France, in advance of laying out his ambitious goals in a speech in Prague on Sunday.
Few experts think it's possible to completely eradicate nuclear weapons, and many say it wouldn't be a good idea even if it could be done. But a full-throated program to drastically cut the world atomic arsenal carries support from scientists and even such realpolitik lions of foreign policy and arms control as George Schultz and Henry Kissinger.
"This idea of a nuclear weapons-free world isn't sort of pie in the sky," said Peter Crail, a nonproliferation analyst at the private Arms Control Association. "There is a national security rationale behind it, and there are people who are very steeped in these national security issues who are promoting it."
Reagan spoke frequently of his dream of eliminating nuclear weapons. He advanced the idea at a 1986 summit with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and the two leaders agreed to pursue that goal. But before their meeting ended, the idea died when Gorbachev insisted on limits on Reagan's "Star Wars" program, known formally as the Strategic Defense Initiative, intended to develop a defense against nuclear attack.
Reagan's proposal caught the Pentagon and Congress by surprise. U.S. allies in Europe were aghast to learn that Reagan and Gorbachev had come close to a deal to abolish nuclear weapons, which NATO regarded as vital to deter Soviet attack.
Obama's version of "global zero," as the goal of a nuclear-free future is now called, will build on a promising agreement this week to renew arms control discussions with Russia. And, based on Obama's previous comments on arms control and those of his advisers, it is likely to follow several basic premises:
• Nuclear weapons have become more trouble than they are worth, an expensive luxury for superpowers and a threat for the rest of the world.
• The size of the U.S. and Russian arsenals inspires nuclear starter-states such as China to add to their stockpiles and give non-nuclear states a reason to join the club.
• Getting serious about eliminating nuclear weapons makes the United States more credible when it argues that states such as Iran should not be able to build their own arsenals.
During the presidential campaign, Obama talked repeatedly about securing all nuclear weapons material within four years. He promised to "make the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide a central element of U.S. nuclear policy" and said he would not authorize development of new nuclear weapons.
He said he would not drop U.S. weapons unless other nations agreed to do the same, a tenet of old-school arms control, and promised to "maintain a nuclear deterrent that is strong, safe, secure and reliable."
Obama has hired a coterie of advisers and aides with extensive arms control and nonproliferation pedigrees.
An architect of his new war strategy in Afghanistan, Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy, joined the Obama administration from a Washington policy shop that houses a program to build a policy "base camp" on the way to the summit of weapons eradication.
And Ashton B. Carter, Obama's nominee as the Pentagon's chief weapons acquisition official, is a Harvard professor who is a leading authority on arms control and an occasional critic of past defense policy.
In addition to Obama's own growing circle of advisers, he also can draw upon support from several foreign policy eminences in his quest for a nuclear-free future.
Former secretaries of state Kissinger and Schultz and two others, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Sen. Sam Nunn, have jointly written opinion pieces outlining a goal of total eradication.
"When Bill Perry and Henry Kissinger say that this is a good idea, he's got some cover," said John Nagl, now head of the Center for a New American Security co-founded by Flournoy.
Nagl said he would like to see eventual stockpiles reduced to the few hundreds, rather than the thousands.
"Global zero is hard to swallow," Nagl said, adding: "Moving toward global zero, getting a whole lot closer than we are right now, most serious students of this agree will increase our security."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Anne Gearan covers national security policy for The Associated Press.