The global effort to extinguish the nuclear peril needs to regain momentum. A bold act of leadership and imagination by one of the weapons-states could provide it.
Barack Obama's pledges during his campaign for the United States presidency in 2008 included one that was especially bold and ambitious: working towards substantial reductions in nuclear arsenals linked to the larger aim of moving to a nuclear-free world.
The promise was reaffirmed in the new president's speech in Prague in April 2009, and has again emerged in the run-up to the review conference on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) to be held in New York on 3-28 May 2010 (see David E Sanger & Thom Shanker, "White House is Rethinking Nuclear Policy", New York Times, 28 February 2010).
The political impetus of the Obama administration's approach to nuclear-weapons reduction is closely linked to the development of its forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review, around which a number of possible proposals - some unilateral and some more broadly based - are clustering (see Mike Shuster, "Delayed U.S. nuclear review likely to call for cuts", NPR, 3 March 2010). The administration would like Congress to ratify the comprehensive test-ban treaty (CTBT), and some opinion-formers close to the White House would like to see the United States embrace a no-first-use policy.†Both suggestions are guaranteed to raise political problems: some in Congress are opposed to CTBT ratification because it might limit further nuclear-weapon developments, and many in the Pentagon opposed to the presumed constraints of a no-first-use policy.
The administration is more determined when it comes to halting the development of new nuclear warheads. It is also willing to make progress with Russia over mutually verifiable cuts in strategic arsenals, and ready (subject to Russia doing the same) to reduce the US's remaining stocks of tactical nuclear warheads (see Andrew Mack, "America, Russia, and a nuclear-free world", 6 July 2009).