It's springtime in Ottawa, and Barack Obama's nuclear weapons adviser invites a luncheon gathering to join him on an imaginary journey that is more Dr. Strangelove than A Moveable Feast.
``Picture in your mind's eyes your favourite bistro, or some other cherished spot in the city of Paris,'' Dr. Bruce Blair tells the 75 guests picking at a rubber-chicken lunch recently at a downtown Ottawa hotel.
Now, Blair tells them, picture an atomic bomb exploding in that cafe, just like the one that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. In that instant, downtown Paris is gone, along with 150,000 souls. The carnage soon multiplies exponentially.
``History would perish. Culture would perish with those many lives. Your bistro, the family at the table next to you, all of these evaporate,'' says Blair, who, by his own admission, misspent part of his youth with his finger on the trigger of mass destruction as a nuclear-ballistic-missile launch officer in the U.S. Midwest.
Obama arrives in Moscow on Monday to meet his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, to hammer out the details of new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty before the old 1991 deal expires in five months. While many see a new START treaty as the road to smoother relations between the White House and the Kremlin, people such as Blair see it as a watershed moment to take bold steps to ultimately rid the world of nuclear weapons.
``We have the wind of Obama and Medvedev at our back,'' says Blair, president of the non-profit World Security Institute, on a recent visit to Canada's capital to push his Global Zero grassroots initiative to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
On a trip to Europe in April, Obama called for a nuclear-free world. But with the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, coupled with the ever- present threat of terrorists in search of a dirty bomb, the road to that nuclear-free utopia is littered with more potholes than during the Cold War.
Still, Blair and many others say the need for the U.S. and Russia to show leadership is even more pressing, to remove not only the ever-present Cold War possibility of a world-ending nuclear accident, but the 21st-century threat of nukes falling into terrorist hands.
Much has been made of the need to press the ``reset'' button on the strained relations of late between the White House and the Kremlin. Medvedev struck a conciliatory note this past week when he called for a new era in relations with Washington, based on a ``purely pragmatic'' agenda.
Thomas Graham, a retired U.S. diplomat and Clinton-era arms-control ambassador, said Russian and American co-operation on arms control, including a new START treaty, would pay dividends in a much broader sense.
``For too long in this post-Cold War world, the two former Cold War adversaries have remained in a semi-hostile relationship,'' Graham said this past week.
``There could be a serious threat of broader nuclear-weapon proliferation. Many people are concerned about the Iranian nuclear program. . . . This administration, I believe, correctly understands that we cannot effectively deal with either of those issues, and many others, as well, without close co- operation with the Russian Federation.''
Officials from both countries are already hammering out the details of an agreement that would replace the START 1 treaty which expires Dec. 5.
Though the Moscow-Washington relationship is tangled in a web of tension over the U.S. missile-defence-shield plans for Europe, and NATO's eastward expansion, positive signals emerged from the Kremlin on Friday on one front: Medvedev's spokesman said he and Obama would sign a side deal that would allow the U.S. military transit of goods through Russian territory to Afghanistan.
The main goal would be a new START framework that would essentially see both sides slashing their nuclear-warhead stockpiles by one-quarter, down to about 1, 500 warheads each.
Despite the spread of nuclear-weapons arsenals to countries such as China, Pakistan, India and elsewhere, nine out of every 10 nuclear bombs on the planet are under the control of the White House and the Kremlin.
Lilia Shevtsova, of the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggests that a renewed version of START will not necessarily make the world a safer place.
``When you start counting nukes, you start talking disarmament and verification procedure. It's a sign, not of mutual trust; it's rather a sign of lack, an absence of mutual trust,'' says Shevtsova.
Charles Ferguson, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, says if Russia and the U.S. were to go so far as to cut their arsenals down to 1,000 each, other nuclear countries could begin to compete with them.
``We're uncertain as to where China is headed, in terms of its gradual nuclear development. There's still uncertainties even about India, where it may be headed, or Pakistan,'' says Ferguson.
For Blair, it's well past the time to abandon long-held suspicions and animosities.
After walking his Ottawa luncheon crowd through his Paris doomsday vision, Blair piles on more scenarios.
If there were an accidental launch of weapons that triggered all-out nuclear war between Russia and the U.S., 119 million people in each country would die in the initial exchange. That would include 15 million around the Kremlin in Moscow. A city like Chicago or Ottawa would be gone within the hour.
``We've pushed our luck as far as we can; now we need a policy. So, to put it bluntly, there are two paths that stretch before us: We either bury our weapons or we're buried by them,'' says Blair.
``In a Global Zero world, there will still be terrorists, and still be criminals, but they'll not get their hands on nuclear materials. We'll always have Paris in our future, Ottawa in our future. Right now, we cannot say that.''