Katrina vanden Heuvel, Editor of The Nation

"After a long winter of discontent we have the audacity to hope for springtime…. But there are miles to go before we sleep." –Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapalawe, President of Pugwash

For more than five years, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission (WMDC) and its Chairman, Dr. Hans Blix, have worked to generate proposals for reducing the dangers of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Two weeks ago in Washington, DC, the commission met for the last time.

Blix described this moment as hopeful–a post-Iraq world in which people see the limits of force and the need for diplomacy. The world’s attention is focused on the potential threat of nukes in Iran and North Korea, or in the hands of a terrorist group, and on nuclear instability in Pakistan. And there is real hope as a result of the new and focused leadership of President Obama and other leaders around the world.

It’s critical that the disarmament movement seize this opportunity to push its agenda.

So, as the Commission ended its work, Dr. Blix invited the leaders of eight disarmament groups to speak about their continued efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Participants included the Ploughshares Fund, Global Zero, Nuclear Security Project, Pugwash, Luxembourg Forum, International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, Global Security Institute, and the Middle Powers Institute. There was also a presentation by White House WMD Coordinator, Gary Samore.

Dr. Bruce Blair of Global Zero said a major challenge will be to sustain the disarmament momentum and "prevent a lapse." While nuclear abolition has broadened its appeal politically–receiving endorsements from conservatives such as former Senator Chuck Hagel, John McCain, Henry Kissinger and George Schultz–Blair said the constituency isn’t as vibrant as it needs to be and young people aren’t sufficiently involved.

His colleague, former Ambassador Richard Burt, agreed. He said there simply isn’t "a constituency like there was twenty or thirty years ago. Younger people are not paying attention." To that end, Global Zero is organizing field workers on college campuses and around the world.

There is also an effort to more effectively communicate the immediacy and urgency of the nuclear threat. Blix said it needs to be understood by the world as another "Inconvenient Truth." Jonathan Granoff of the Global Security Institute also pointed to Al Gore’s success in tying global warming to something people discuss every day–the weather. People need to see nuclear weapons as "pertinent, real, present, and dangerous," Granoff said. "We haven’t hit the resonant note yet. We have to find that." (And hopefully it will resonate before a nuclear incident.)

Political obstacles also threaten to derail new cooperation on nukes. Blix pointed to the provocative NATO exercises in Georgia this month, and Charles Curtis of the Nuclear Security Project said such actions threaten to "reboot" the old relationship with Russia rather than "reset" a new one, as the administration has consistently expressed a desire to do.

Certainly President Obama has done much to put disarmament back on the radar. White House WMD Coordinator, Gary Samore, said he has worked for five presidents and Obama is the "most interested and enthusiastic" about arms control and non-proliferation.

In fact, Samore said, the speech in Prague was Obama’s own idea. Obama wanted to lay out his intention to work for "a world without nuclear weapons" and his administration’s agenda. That agenda includes Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; an arms reduction treaty with Russia this year and work on a second treaty beginning in early 2010; strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; negotiating the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty to verifiably end the production of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium; and a Global Summit on Nuclear Security next year.

Samore said the fact that there were "no differences between key departments" on Obama’s speech and proposed agenda bodes well as the administration moves forward. However, he also noted potential "huge landmines", including needed progress in talks with Iran and continued tensions over Georgia. I would add to that the lunacy of the proposed missile defense system at Russia’s doorstep.

There is still a long road ahead, but this is indeed a hopeful moment for advocates who have been fighting tirelessly for nuclear abolition for decades. Once dismissed, their grounded realism and determined idealism is now moving into the mainstream.


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