A farewell to nuclear arms

By Mikhail Gorbachev
October 11, 2011

By Mikhail Gorbachev
The opinions expressed are his own.

Twenty-five years ago this month, I sat across from Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik, Iceland to negotiate a deal that would have reduced, and could have ultimately eliminated by 2000, the fearsome arsenals of nuclear weapons held by the United States and the Soviet Union.

For all our differences, Reagan and I shared the strong conviction that civilized countries should not make such barbaric weapons the linchpin of their security. Even though we failed to achieve our highest aspirations in Reykjavik, the summit was nonetheless, in the words of my former counterpart, “a major turning point in the quest for a safer and secure world.”

The next few years may well determine if our shared dream of ridding the world of nuclear weapons will ever be realized.

Critics present nuclear disarmament as unrealistic at best, and a risky utopian dream at worst. They point to the Cold War’s “long peace” as proof that nuclear deterrence is the only means of staving off a major war.

As someone who has commanded these weapons, I strongly disagree. Nuclear deterrence has always been a hard and brittle guarantor of peace. By failing to propose a compelling plan for nuclear disarmament, the US, Russia, and the remaining nuclear powers are promoting through inaction a future in which nuclear weapons will inevitably be used. That catastrophe must be forestalled.

As I, along with George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, Sam Nunn, and others, pointed out five years ago, nuclear deterrence becomes less reliable and more risky as the number of nuclear-armed states increases. Barring preemptive war (which has proven counterproductive) or effective sanctions (which have thus far proven insufficient), only sincere steps toward nuclear disarmament can furnish the mutual security needed to forge tough compromises on arms control and nonproliferation matters.

The trust and understanding built at Reykjavik paved the way for two historic treaties. The 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty destroyed the feared quick-strike missiles then threatening Europe’s peace. And, in 1991, the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) cut the bloated US and Soviet nuclear arsenals by 80% over a decade.

But prospects for progress on arms control and nonproliferation are darkening in the absence of a credible push for nuclear disarmament. I learned during those two long days in Reykjavik that disarmament talks could be as constructive as they are arduous. By linking an array of interrelated matters, Reagan and I built the trust and understanding needed to moderate a nuclear-arms race of which we had lost control.

In retrospect, the Cold War’s end heralded the coming of a messier arrangement of global power and persuasion. The nuclear powers should adhere to the requirements of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty and resume “good faith” negotiations for disarmament. This would augment the diplomatic and moral capital available to diplomats as they strive to restrain nuclear proliferation in a world where more countries than ever have the wherewithal to construct a nuclear bomb.

Only a serious program of universal nuclear disarmament can provide the reassurance and the credibility needed to build a global consensus that nuclear deterrence is a dead doctrine. We can no longer afford, politically or financially, the discriminatory nature of the current system of nuclear “haves” and “have-nots.”

Reykjavik proved that boldness is rewarded. Conditions were far from favorable for a disarmament deal in 1986. Before I became Soviet leader in 1983, relations between the Cold War superpowers had hit rock bottom. Reagan and I were nonetheless able to create a reservoir of constructive spirit through constant outreach and face-to-face interaction.

What seem to be lacking today are leaders with the boldness and vision to build the trust needed to reintroduce nuclear disarmament as the centerpiece of a peaceful global order. Economic constraints and the Chernobyl disaster helped spur us to action. Why has the Great Recession and the disastrous meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan not elicited a similar response today?

A first step would be for the US finally to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). President Barack Obama has endorsed this treaty as a vital instrument to discourage proliferation and avert nuclear war. It’s time for Obama to make good on commitments he made in Prague in 2009, take up Reagan’s mantle as Great Communicator, and persuade the US Senate to formalize America’s adherence to the CTBT.

This would compel the remaining holdouts – China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan – to reconsider the CTBT as well. That would bring us closer to a global ban on nuclear tests in any environment – the atmosphere, undersea, in outer space, or underground.

A second necessary step is for the US and Russia to follow up on the New START agreement and begin deeper weapons cuts, especially tactical and reserve weapons, which serve no purpose, waste funds, and threaten security. This step must be related to limits on missile defense, one of the key issues that undermined the Reykjavik summit.

A fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT), long stalled in multilateral talks in Geneva, and a successful second Nuclear Security Summit next year in Seoul, will help secure dangerous nuclear materials. This will also require that the 2002 Global Partnership, dedicated to securing and eliminating all weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical, and biological – is renewed and expanded when it convenes next year in the US.

Our world remains too militarized. In today’s economic climate, nuclear weapons have become loathsome money pits. If, as seems likely, economic troubles continue, the US, Russia, and other nuclear powers should seize the moment to launch multilateral arms reductions through new or existing channels such as the UN Conference on Disarmament. These deliberations would yield greater security for less money.

But the buildup of conventional military forces – driven in large part by the enormous military might deployed globally by the US – must be addressed as well. As we engage in furthering our Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) agreement, we should seriously consider reducing the burden of military budgets and forces globally.

US President John F. Kennedy once warned that “every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment.” For more than 50 years, humanity has warily eyed that lethal pendulum while statesmen debated how to mend its fraying cords. The example of Reykjavik should remind us that palliative measures are not enough. Our efforts 25 years ago can be vindicated only when the Bomb ends up beside the slave trader’s manacles and the Great War’s mustard gas in the museum of bygone savagery.

This piece comes from Project Syndicate.

Photo: U.S. President Ronald Reagan (L) and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev leave Hofdi House after finishing their two days of talks during a mini-summit in Reykjavik October 12, 1986. REUTERS/Nick Didlick


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The genie is out of the bottle, and cannot be put back inside.

Nuclear weapons ended WWII and kept the world from WWIII. So long as nations have these weapons, there will not be another World War. The presence of these arms have saved millions of lives. For example, they maintain the relative peace between India and Pakistan – because neither one wants to be bombed. I hope, really hope, that they will never be used, and that there will come a time when they are not needed or present.

As long as humankind insists on not living together in peace, these weapons are needed. I see little hope of changing human nature in the near term.

Posted by stevedebi | Report as abusive

Thank you Mr. Gorbachev, for your enlightening remarks.

Where do you stand on missile defense today, Mr. Gorbachev? Is missile defense (alongside mutual verification through trust-building transparent inspections) an essential component in the long-term non-proliferation régime? Or a threat to disarmament, peace, or the brotherhood of Man? If so, how so?

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/ina tl/longterm/summit/archive/oct86.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reykjav%C3% ADk_Summit

Am I wrong in thinking that missile defense systems help to ensure peace by changing the risks and economics of aggression?

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Dear Mr Gorbachev,
In discussions with friends I have always maintained that you were behind the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War. In Europe we usually agree on this, but my American friends feel this honour should be given to Mr Reagan. Which of you was it?
Generations will continue to benefit from this great deed and people have a need for heroes.
Thank you.

Posted by Austrobok | Report as abusive

Iran, N Korea and others will force us to continue to stockpile nucs-wish it weren’t so and THANK YOU Russia for being our friends!

Posted by DrJJJJ | Report as abusive

I do not know what weapon will be used in WWIII but I know what will be used in WWIV. ROCKS!

Posted by rahie | Report as abusive

First of all, Your connection between nuclear power and atomic bombs is outdated and incorrect. Nuclear material in a reactor is not enriched like a bomb and cannot explode like an atomic bomb. Also, no one was killed by Fukushima and that disaster is nothing like a nuclear bomb. Finally, how can we ever trust countries like Pakistan who protect Osama Bin Laden to be truthful to anyone? Not a chance in the near future. There are more pressing issues out there.

Posted by jcaple | Report as abusive

Mr. Gorbachev, your words and thoughts inspire all of us to try to rethink old assumptions.

But how shall small countries, without the resources of a USA or a Russia, defend themselves against predatory behavior from a much more powerful State? Nuclear weapons can somewhat level the playing field. In the absence of some way to assure Superpower behavior, or even regional Power behavior, what is a small country to do?

Without the power to destroy the heart of what an aggressor values, how can they be stopped?

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

There will never be a day without these arms. The future has been written. There will be no peace in a world with islam. ‘Till we all meet in “the valley”… I wish you well.

Posted by Paperdragon | Report as abusive

The very idea of a nuclear free world is an illusion. The disarmament parleys for last 42 years have not yielded anything conclusive. Even the idea of no major war after ww2 due to nukes is is fraud with perils. Although Cold war never caused enormous human suffering, it did take us to the tripping point during Cuban Missile crisis.

In 1960s, President Kennedy was apprehensive that the nukes will sweep the world. The NPT might not have been completely successful, it has proved Kennedy wrong. The very idea of US nuclear umbrella has stopped many countries from going nuclear. As per IAEA chief ElBaradei , 40 countries or more now have the know-how to produce nuclear weapons. Still, we haven’t seen the unstoppable nuclear proliferation due to NPT and US nuclear umbrella.

Rather than looking for complete disarmament, we ought to look at the ways we can stop more countries from going nuclear. Nuclear weapons are more of a political weapons than arsenal. This can be done by maintaining the delicate balance of power in the world. Presently, it is only USA that is in position to maintain the balance of power. The complete nuclear free world is nothing more than wishful thinking.

Posted by abhi1498 | Report as abusive

Thank you very much for this write up. Hon’ble Mr.Gorbachev. Best wishes.
Anand Mohan,

Posted by anandmohan | Report as abusive

Why is this article not front page news? He’s one of the few remaining of that generation of great world leaders and younger generations need to be listening to him. Next year will mark 20 years of leadership in the US by younger generations-need I say more?

Posted by tbro | Report as abusive

Hon. Mr. Gorbachev,
We all need to ponder your words at length. Dangerous countries like North Korea, Pakistan and Iran make disarmament hazardous, but steps to reduce nuclear and conventional arms has to occur soon before we fall off the knife’s edge. Given human nature and fanaticism extant today, is there really a solution other than counter-measures and threat of retaliation? You are one of history’s greatest leaders and your views are sorely needed today.

Posted by kolea | Report as abusive

Thank You Mr. Gorbachev for your continuing insightful thoughts.
As a younger man 25 years ago, I saw the evolution toward a more hopeful time for mankind as you and Mr.Reagan brought the world a bit closer to sanity. By this point in my life, there was hope the world might have found a path toward true enlightenment and peace.
Instead, we have squandered opportunities through greed and selfish behavior, placing greater value on remaining closer to our ancient forefathers violent ways.
Regrettably, it seems today’s world leaders are a mere wisp of the integrity you presented with Mr. Reagan in the 1980′s.
We can only hope they heed your words…….

Posted by rick1959 | Report as abusive

What about nuclear legs??

Posted by GOLDENRULE | Report as abusive

S UVAZHENYEM MIKHAIL SERGEEVICH ! More of your comments and suggestions must be posted to get the World into a better place. Thank you for all that you have done for all.

Posted by episcan | Report as abusive

As to: “The next few years may well determine if our shared dream of ridding the world of nuclear weapons will ever be realized.”

Say what!? The only AAA+++ I ever made in college was in a Political Science course that I took where we were supposed to write about nuclear and thermonuclear disarmament. I thought that this was only for cloudy minds. Even in the 1960′s, it was obvious that Mutual Assured Destuction was succeeding in keeping the peace, and, especially unilateral disarmament, would be suicide for this nation.

With nuclear proliferation some very difficult choices must be made, but this is not one of them. There is no law against the USA being the next nation to use these horrid weapons. These upstart nations with, at best, some dirty bombs, may well need to be taught a lesson — that the United States is not a paper tiger.

Unilateral disarmament is a dream all right — a nightmare!

Posted by Elemental5 | Report as abusive

Mr. Gorbachev,

You never stop trying to fool the young. You were a fox in the hen house back then, and your no different today, and neither is your mother Russia.

Whey don’t you ask Russia to lead in arms cutbacks so we can see you put your money where your mouth is. Becaues it is Russia who is building nucler power reactors in Iran, Syira (which Israel took out) and providing those two extreemly dangerious governments with high tec military weaponry. And your biggest black eye is Russian support of North Korea.

When you can get the plank out of your own eye, then you an see clearly to take the splinter out of ours.

Put your money where your mouth is commrad!

Posted by Franco1470 | Report as abusive

With the morons we have running the ship today and the tweeting twits of today’s generation coming up we’re screwed. There is no depth of thought in people today, everything is immediate gratification or nothing. The worlds going right down into the toilet, faster and faster everyday. We’ll be lucky to survive the next half a generation without seeing mushroom clouds on the horizon.

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

I think some people are missing the basic thrust of Gorbachev’s argument, which is that forward progress on disarmament, which of course also comprises arms control and nonproliferation, will help to facilitate progress on more graspable achievements, especially US efforts to stem the spread of nuclear weapons. A number of countries have abstained from building nuclear weapons since the NPT was signed (though US and indeed Soviet nonproliferation actions predated 1968), and the pace of nuclear proliferation has demonstrably slowed since then too. At the moment, however, we are at a fork in the road. With US and Russia arsenals still much larger than any credible deterrent requires, why not exchanged them for the moral and diplomatic capital needed to smooth the way for multilateral nonproliferation efforts by helping to bring such responsible emerging powers as Brazil and Turkey on board sanctions and other carrots and sticks to disincentivize, for instance, Iranian nuclear ambitions.

Posted by JRHuntATX | Report as abusive