Nuclear weapons: A dangerous relic
It's been 20 years since President George H.W. Bush and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev declared the Cold War over. Yet the lengthy process of dismantling U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles continues to illustrate the deep chill that prevailed between the United States and the Soviet Union until the USSR collapsed.
While diplomatic and political relations may have warmed, the process of reducing nuclear weapons has proven to be more complicated and slower. So much slower, in fact, that at present, the U.S. and Russian arsenals still make up 95 percent of the world's 23,000 nuclear weapon stockpiles. Those 23,000 nuclear weapons could destroy the entire planet many times over.
The long march toward reducing the bloated and excessive nuclear weapons arsenal recently took an important stride forward. On April 8, President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a treaty to verifiably reduce each country's strategic warheads. Now our Senate and the Russian Duma must approve the agreement before it goes into effect.
This agreement, known at the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), is the successor to the first START agreement that codified the Cold War's end. That treaty, signed in 1991, was the first agreement between Russia and the United States to reduce the countries' strategic nuclear inventories and provide the measures to ensure each country complied. That treaty is widely viewed as a major success, but it expired last December. Until New START goes into effect, the important verification measures the treaty provided will be in limbo.
New START marks an important first step toward greater international stability and security. The world has changed a lot in two decades. The Cold War is a distant memory. Neither the United States nor Russia needs Cold War-era numbers of nuclear weapons, which bring to mind haunting images of mass decimation of innocent civilian populations.
Today, each existing nuclear weapon is one more that could fall into the hands of terrorists. To counter these forces, the treaty will help ensure a stable and predictable relationship between the world's two major nuclear powers. New START will be one of the best opportunities to increase U.S. national security in years.
Because the treaty so clearly benefits U.S. security, it already enjoys broad bipartisan support from military and policy leaders. Within days of the completion of the agreement, its list of proponents included Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (who first served under George W. Bush), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, and former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George P. Shultz.
Once approved by each county's legislative bodies, New START will make important advances in reducing the unnecessarily large nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia. It's high time for nuclear weapons -- vestiges of a bygone era -- to be drastically and decisively reduced in number.
Mary Slosson is a Herbert Scoville Peace Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.