Tackling Nuclear Arms

Posted April 03, 2009, at 6:10 p.m.

After two years of reckless neglect, the United States and Russia have agreed to draft a new treaty to reduce their atomic arsenals and move toward a nuclear-free world.

The announcement in London by Presidents Obama and Medvedev comes as a welcome sign that they are serious about cutting back their huge stores of the deadly warheads as a step toward persuading other nations to join in reducing and eventually eleminating nuclear weapons as a “long-term goal.”

They said they were instructing their negotiators to start talks immediately on a replacement for the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires at the end of this year. It contains the only verification provisions still in effect. They ordered a report on the new agreement by July.

President Obama is expected to elaborate on his arms-control plans in a major address on the subject this weekend as he winds up his current European trip. He is adding experienced arms-control specialists to his administration and has called the issue “one of the great and urgent challenges of our time.”

Prompt attention to the spread of these mass killers is long overdue. The United States and Russia have thousands of the weapons, with about one-third of them poised on hair-trigger alert aimed mostly at each other as a residue of the Cold War. Of course, there are safeguards in place, but accidents do happen — and have happened. A B-52 bomber flew across the United States in 2007 with six nuclear-armed cruise missiles and no one missed them for 36 hours. And the Air Force secretary and chief of staff were fired last year because four fuses for nuclear warheads had been mistakenly shipped to Taiwan.

Other steps that Mr. Obama could take would include de-alerting strategic weapons in agreement with the Russians, negotiating a removal of short-range tactical nuclear weapons by both sides, and heading toward a change in military doctrine to rely more on conventional weapons and less on nuclear weapons. The nukes haven’t been used since World War II and probably never will be used. The long reliance on mutually assured destruction has lost its usefulness now that the Cold War is long over and the worst new threat is a suicidal attack by terrorists with nothing to lose.

Another move that Mr. Obama should consider is a new request that Congress ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Now signed by 180 nations and ratified by 146 of them, it needs nine more ratifications to become effective, and the United States remains one of the holdouts.

Arms control is a tough challenge, especially when it comes to nukes. The world is better off with this new agreement toward harnessing them.

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