US President Barack Obama’s call for a nuclear-free world builds on solidifying support at home and abroad amid what experts fear is the rising risk of an atomic weapons attack.
Analysts said reclusive Stalinist North Korea’s launch of a rocket, which could eventually deliver a nuclear warhead, underscored the threat even if it upstaged Obama’s pledge.
During a visit Sunday to Prague for a US-European Union summit, hours after the launch, Obama unveiled plans to cut atomic stockpiles, curtail testing, choke fissile production and secure loose nuclear material.
He said he wanted an immediate end to nuclear tests, confirmed he would seek Senate approval of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and would hold a global summit on nuclear security within the next year.
The Vienna-based organization which is working to implement the CTBT welcomed Obama’s speech.
“It’s important that the United States take the leadership on this issue. Hopefully it will move other actors to follow suit,” said CTBTO spokeswoman Annika Thunborg.
Joe Cirincione, a US non-proliferation expert, told AFP that the president’s pledge echoes a shift among former US government leaders who once supported maintaining stockpiles of nuclear weapons as a deterrent during the Cold War.
“You now have die-hard realists like Henry Kissinger, George Schultz embracing the elimination of nuclear weapons,” said Cirincione of the two former secretaries of state under presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Also pushing for elimination are William Perry, defense secretary for former president Bill Clinton, former president Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation, said influential public figures are embracing the strategy because “the threats are real and increasing.”
He cited fears over the implications of North Korea’s ballistic missile and weapons-grade nuclear programs, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and terror mastermind Osama bin Laden’s escape from Afghanistan to nuclear-armed Pakistan.
“The Bush doctrine, which was supposed to be a quick, easy answer to this (threat) ... made matters worse,” he said, referring to former president George W Bush’s pursuit of overthrowing hostile and dangerous regimes.
Cirincione said Obama was right to have the US lead by example and then stage a summit of countries with nuclear weapons, those suspected of having such weapons or at least the technology to make them.
He recalled that countries like Iran and North Korea have always thrown criticism about the pursuit of nuclear programs back at the United States, which set off two nuclear bombs in Japan during World War II.
The new US approach, he added, not only robs such countries of that excuse but boosts US credibility with countries whose support Washington needs to pressure so-called rogue regimes.
“It helps you get other countries, for example, to join the Proliferation Security Initiative to interdict shiploads of North Korean missile technology being sent to other countries,” Cirincione said.
“It helps you to convince them to take stronger action to enforce UN resolutions,” he added.
The United States has struggled to recruit Russia and China to impose tougher UN Security Council resolutions on Iran in order to halt its uranium enrichment.
David Albright, a non-proliferation expert who heads the independent Institute for Science and International Security, said he had not heard Obama’s speech, but supported his general vision of a nuclear-free world.
“It may take a long time before we get there but our actions should be guided by that vision,” Albright said, lamenting that “Bush had no vision.”
In the short term, he said it was not only “irritating” that North Korea upstaged Obama’s speech but worrying that North Korea might be able to fit a warhead on a long-range ballistic missile in five or ten years.
John Bolton, a US ambassador to the United Nations under Bush and outspoken critic of North Korea, sharply criticized Obama’s speech.
It was “utopian at best,” he told AFP, as long as there are “countries like Iran and North Korea that are willing to cheat on their commitments in order to get nuclear weapons.”