Moving toward the elimination of nuclear weapons

Gregg Reese | 6/23/2010, 5 p.m.

"I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones." --Albert Einstein

Earlier this year on January 14, the board members of the "Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS)" moved the minute hand of the "Doomsday Clock," back from five to six minutes to midnight. The clock, a symbolic representation of how close the world is to annihilation (or a way of predicting the potential of nuclear war), was established by the Bulletin in 1947 near the beginning of the Cold War. Midnight is therefore, symbolic for the end of civilization.
The Bulletin itself was begun by physicists from the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb at the University of Chicago (site of the world's first man-made nuclear reaction). It was to be a non-technical magazine meant to educate the masses about the dangers of these newly conceived weapons. In the decades since, it has been amended to include articles about other global security issues of a scientific nature such as climate change, military spending, and similar topics threatening humanity and the globe.
Over the years, the Bulletin's clock hands have been reset 19 times. The symbol itself shows only the upper left corner of a clock face (the last fifteen minutes of an hour). The closest it came to midnight was in 1953 (two minutes until midnight), when both the United States (code name "Castle Bravo" at the Marshall Islands' Bikini Atoll) and Russia (code name Sloika or "Layer Cake" in Kazakhstan) exploded thermonuclear devices within nine months of each other. In 1991, five months before the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic's (USSR) collapse, Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START 1) was signed, and the Doomsday Clock was pushed back to 17 minutes until (two minutes outside the clock display), the furthest from midnight documented since the clock's inception.
This latest decision to move the hand back one minute reflects the relative optimism stemming from President Barack Obama's efforts to reach a global agreement restricting the existence of nuclear weaponry. In the months that followed the January action, this optimism gained momentum as the United States and Russia signed a treaty in Prague on April 8 limiting the number of strategic weapons.
Like the debate on health care, negotiations involving the nuclear arsenals of these two countries have been a global focal point. The White House press organ however, heralds this latest agreement as a milestone amidst all the scores of accords, conferences, forums, pacts, summits, and treaties that preoccupied the diplomacy of 10-plus administrations. At the press conference announcing the clock change, the BAS issued a statement citing "a change in the U.S. government's orientation toward international affairs brought about, in part, by the election of Obama."
Setting the stage
These latest developments are a validation of the president's administration, since stopping weapons proliferation was an Obama campaign pledge. As the presidency eases towards the mid-point of its tenure, there has been no shortage of drama, with domestic policy arguably generating the lion's share of the media's attention. Even as issues closer to home dominated the government's attention, preliminary steps were initiated on an international level. That might be seen as the appetizer leading up to the main meal consisting of substantial agreements for long-term reductions.
In a May 2009 speech in the Czech capitol of Prague, as he outlined objectives of the upcoming Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, President Obama stated that the reduction/abolishment of nuclear arms was key to global security in the 21st Century. In July at the annual Group of Eight Summit amidst discussions about African development, environmental issues, and so on that overshadowed this gathering, plans were announced for a global summit on nuclear security the following year in Washington, D.C. Then on September 24, Obama became the first U.S. President to chair the United Nations (U.N.) Security Council; at that time U.N. Resolution 1887 was unanimously adopted. It addressed the spread of nuclear weaponry, reduction of existing stockpiles, and control of fissile material (matter that can be used to effect a nuclear explosion).
Following the months-long concentration on health care, foreign affairs have come back into focus with the dawn of the new year. The U.S. held a meeting of leaders in Washington, D.C. Heralded as the largest gathering of world leaders since President Franklin Roosevelt assembled a group of 50 WWII allies in San Francisco circa 1945 for the formation of what would become the United Nations, the Global Nuclear Security Summit boasted representatives from 40-plus countries, and is perhaps more notable for those nations not invited: Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Belarus.
Belarus, a former republic of the USSR, is notable for its strained relationships with the European Union and the United States, evidenced by the recall of its U.S. ambassador following the expulsion of his Belarusian counterpart in America, because of human rights concerns in that East European country. With its independence in 1991, Belarus transferred its nuclear armaments to Russia (in compliance with the START I accords), and is now considered a non-nuclear weapons state. The other three nations specifically pose nuclear threats because 1) they already have these types of weapons (North Korea); 2) are known to be developing them (Iran); 3) or are suspected of seeking them (Syria).