President Barack Obama is set to sign a historic nuclear arms control agreement Thursday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, marking another step in the decades-long effort to reduce the world-destroying arsenals developed during the Cold War. Though the accord is far from perfect, it has the virtue of sending a signal to the world that the two countries that control 95 percent of the global stockpiles are committed to making nuclear nonproliferation one of their top security goals.
When Mr. Obama arrives in Prague on Thursday for the signing ceremony, he will be carrying on the legacy of former president Ronald Reagan, the first U.S. leader to achieve the goal of actually reducing nuclear stockpiles rather than merely limiting their growth. The INF treaty signed by Mr. Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 became the template for the Strategic Arms Reductions Talks that every American president since then has pursued.
The new treaty by no means completely eliminates the danger posed by these devastating weapons. It cuts the number of warheads each side may deploy from 2,200 to 1,550 and reduces the number of launchers for such weapons to 700. It would also allow both countries to continue verifying each other's stockpiles.
In fact, taking into account aging weapons systems that would be withdrawn from service anyway over the treaty's 10-year span, the actual number of weapons and launchers on both sides ultimately might drop by only a few hundred warheads and launchers in the end, according to some estimates — still more than enough to wipe out civilization if they were ever used. That paradox essentially points up the madness of the Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction, under which both sides feverishly built up enormous nuclear arsenals that could never be used without destroying the planet — still a real possibility.
A recent study of the consequences of a nuclear exchange between arch-rivals India and Pakistan, for example, warned that radioactive debris from the detonation of only a few dozen nuclear bombs over the region's densely populated cities could poison the atmosphere over large swaths of the globe far from the conflict zone. Even a limited nuclear war would have world-altering effects. Today's treaty is only a small step toward realizing President Obama's vision of a world without such weapons, but it is one that must be taken for the sake of humanity's survival.
Perhaps not coincidentally, earlier this week Mr. Obama also issued the most recent update of the government's Nuclear Posture Review, which surveys the most dangerous threats today and lays out the role nuclear weapons should play in the nation's defense over the next five to 10 years.
The document firmly states that the primary purpose of such weapons is deterrence and that the most imminent danger comes not from the established nuclear powers but from terrorist groups and rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. Although Mr. Obama's new policy breaks with that of previous administrations in a number of ways — such as foreswearing the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries — it pointedly makes an exception for those two nations, as well as others that refuse to comply with their non-proliferation obligations under international treaties.
The ceremony in Prague and the issuance of the Nuclear Posture Review both come as Mr. Obama is gearing up for a sustained effort focused on nuclear issues. On Tuesday he'll play host to 40 world leaders at a summit to discuss more effective ways to safeguard nuclear materials from terrorist organizations, and this month he's begun a major push at the United Nations for stronger sanctions against Iran for its defiance of International Atomic Energy Agency demands to inspect all its nuclear facilities, which the administration suspects are secretly aimed at producing weapons.
Getting an agreement for tougher measures against Iran from all five veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, especially China, won't be easy, but the president surely will have a stronger hand to play if he can point to Thursday's treaty – along with the other measures the U.S. is taking to curb the spread of nuclear materials and technology – as evidence the United States is serious about working for a world in which such awful weapons have no place.