UNITED NATIONS - The Barack Obama administration's apparent resolve to take U.S. foreign policy in a new direction is creating ripples of hope for an enhanced U.N. agenda on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament.
Observers and diplomats who are due to take part in a major meeting to discuss progress on the implementation of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) told IPS they had never before so optimistic about the U.N.-led negotiation process.
"I think he [Obama] is sincere about what he is saying," said David Krieger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, an advocacy group that works closely with the U.N. "I think he is willing to stand up against the vested interests."
Many peace activists, like Krieger, believe that the threat of a possible nuclear catastrophe is not going to go away so long as the major nuclear powers remain reluctant to take drastic steps towards dismantling their nuclear arsenals.
Countries that rolled back their weapons programs, as well as those that never produced such arms, have long been calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons, but the response they received from the major nuclear powers has always been disappointing. In addition to actions against the spread of nuclear weapons, the NPT requires the five declared nuclear states - the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China - to engage in "good faith" negotiations for disarmament. Until now that task has remained elusive.
The United States and Russia are the world's largest nuclear weapon states. They possess no less than 93 percent of the total number of nuclear weapons in the world, according to Sipri, a Sweden-based think tank that tracks weapon production and export worldwide.
Among others, China has 400 warheads, France 348, and Israel and Britain about 200 each. India is believed to have more than 80 and Pakistan about 40 nuclear weapons.
Critics see the United States as the most irresponsible member of the nuclear club, for it not only failed to meet the NPT obligations, but also contributed, at great length, to block, and even derail, the international discourse on nuclear disarmament.
The Ronald Reagan administration, for example, looked the other way when Pakistan was developing its illegal nuclear program in the 1980s. Similarly, the George W. Bush administration decided to make a nuclear trade deal with India that remains outside the fold of the NPT.
The Bush administration is held responsible by many for sabotaging the U.N. agenda on disarmament by its decision to abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and to install controversial missile defenses in countries located next to Russia's borders.
During the past eight years, the former U.S. administration also refused to endorse the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which is considered by experts an integral part of the international framework to achieve the goal of disarmament.
"We have been through the dark ages," Krieger told IPS. "It was a death plan for humanity."
During his two terms, Bush never spoke of nuclear disarmament. He rather fully supported the move to generate new kinds of nuclear weapons. In March 2007, his administration declared plans to make new kinds of nukes, a move considered as controversial by many.
Bush argued that the existing warheads had become obsolete, but many experts saw his line of reasoning as out of step with reality because in their conclusion, the U.S. stockpile was already 'safe and reliable' for at least 50 years.
At the time, many independent think tanks in Washington warned that such a move would prove provocative and counter-productive because countries like Iran and North Korea would use it as justification to possess nuclear weapons.
In contrast to the Bush administration, however, the message from the new administration in Washington appears to be radically different.
"A world without nuclear weapons is profoundly in America's interest and the world's interest," said the new U.S. president in a recent statement. "It is our responsibility to make the commitment, and to do the hard work to make this vision a reality."
Currently, a coalition of peace advocacy groups is running a nationwide signature campaign to press Obama to take immediate, effective, and practical measures for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
"Nuclear weapons could destroy civilization and end intelligent life on the planet," said the campaign in a letter to Obama. "The only sure way to prevent nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear war is to rid the world of nuclear weapons."
Krieger told IPS that so far over 50,000 people, including some Noble laureates, have signed the letter. He expects that by next month when the letter is due to be delivered to the White House, at least one million people would have endorsed it.
An international group, known as "Global Zero," is proposing deep cuts in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, a verification and enforcement system, and phased reduction leading to the elimination of all stockpiles.
Supporters of the Global Zero campaign includes many distinguished international figures and former statesmen, such as former U.S. President Jimmy Carter; former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger; former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci; former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev; and Shaharyar Khan, a former Pakistani foreign minister.
The launching in Paris follows 18 months of consultations among diplomats and military leaders and in effect established Global Zero as a participant in mobilizing efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons.
Last July Obama said, "as long as nuclear weapons exist we will retain a strong deterrent," but added in the same breath:" We will make the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons a central element in our nuclear policy."
According to unconfirmed reports, the Obama administration is already engaged in negotiations on the proposal to reduce the number of nuclear weapons to 1,000 in the first phase and that it is possible that the reaction from Moscow is likely to be positive.
However, in Krieger's view, that would happen only if the Obama administration takes a different position on the deployment of the U.S. missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, which Russia perceives to be a threat to its sovereignty.
Building the missile defense systems has cost U.S. taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, although it's still not clear that it would be especially effective.
"The defense contractors in the United States will continue to put pressure," he told IPS. "But he [Obama] has to understand that this system is not going to work."
While Krieger and many others seem satisfied with the gradual and phased reduction of nuclear weapons on both sides, some nuclear abolitionists remain skeptical about the outcome of such measures and would rather like to see dramatic results in a short span of time.
"Cutting down to 1,000 nuclear weapons each? 1,000 are too many. It's the same kind of slow process as it was during the cold war," said Zia Mian, a nuclear physicist and peace activist at Princeton University. "It's about restoring the process, not breaking away from the process."
Mian, who plans to attend the upcoming NPT preparatory meeting in May, added: "If Obama wants a real change, he must say: We are going to negotiate a treaty now to eliminate the nuclear weapons."