UNITED NATIONS - "The best way to eliminate the nuclear threat anywhere is by eliminating nuclear weapons everywhere", says Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon, who is increasingly viewed as one of the strongest opponents of nuclear arms.
But the lingering hopes of eliminating the nuclear threat keep receding: talks with Iran are deadlocked, North Korea continues its testing, and the politics of the Arab uprisings threaten to derail an international conference on a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, scheduled to take place in Finland in December.
In spite of the world's revived interest in disarmament efforts, none of the eight nuclear weapon-possessing states - the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, India, Pakistan and Israel - shows more than a rhetorical willingness to give up their nuclear arsenals just yet, according to the latest Yearbook 2012 released Monday by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
"While the overall number of nuclear warheads may be decreasing, the long-term modernization programmes under way in these states suggest that nuclear weapons are still a currency of international status and power," says Shannon Kile, senior researcher at the SIPRI Programme on Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.
Asked if a nuclear weapons-free world was just a good try in a long lost cause, Kile told IPS: "Well, I am an optimist by nature, but I think we need to be realistic in understanding that achieving a nuclear weapon-free world is a very long-term goal.
"As we report in the SIPRI Yearbook, all of the nuclear weapon- possessing states have force modernization or expansion programmes under way and all appear committed to retaining their nuclear arsenals for the indefinite future."
"Leaving aside current force trends, I am convinced that to ultimately reach the goal of a nuclear weapon-free world, we will have to first overcome what might called the persistence of deterrence thinking." --Shannon Kile, SIPRI
At the same time, he said, it is a hopeful sign that top political leaders have at least begun thinking the unthinkable and are giving serious attention to formulating a long-term strategy for not only reducing the size and spread of nuclear arsenals but eventually for eliminating them altogether.
"Leaving aside current force trends, I am convinced that to ultimately reach the goal of a nuclear weapon-free world, we will have to first overcome what might called the persistence of deterrence thinking," said Kile.
"This will require us in effect to redraw our mental maps of how best to defend against 21st-century threats."
At the end of the day, he pointed out, this actually may be the most difficult challenge of all in moving toward a world without nuclear weapons.
A London daily reported last month that a planned international conference in Helsinki in December is unraveling because of the uprisings in the Middle East and the political tug-of-war over suspected weapons programmes in both Israel and Iran.
The primary objective of the conference was to work towards a Middle East free of nuclear weapons. But some of the key players, including the United States and Israel, have not confirmed their participation.
U.S. President Barack Obama warned last year that if the hidden agenda of the conference is to single out Israel, the United States will skip the meeting.
The recent uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria have also dramatically changed the political environment in the region.
According to the SIPRI Yearbook, world nuclear forces now have "fewer but newer nuclear weapons".
At the start of 2012 the eight nuclear states possessed approximately 4,400 operational nuclear weapons. Nearly 2,000 of these are kept in a state of high operational alert.
If all nuclear warheads are counted, these states together possess a total of approximately 19,000 nuclear weapons, as compared with 20,530 at the beginning of 2011.
The decrease, says SIPRI, is due mainly to Russia and the United States further reducing their inventories of strategic nuclear weapons under the terms of the Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START) as well as retiring ageing and obsolescent weapons.
At the same time, all five legally recognised nuclear weapon states, namely China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, are either deploying new nuclear weapon delivery systems or have announced programmes to do so.
And they appear determined to retain their nuclear arsenals indefinitely.
Meanwhile, India and Pakistan continue to develop new systems capable of delivering nuclear weapons and are expanding their capacities to produce fissile material for military purposes, according to the Yearbook.
Asked why despite all the ballyhoo, North Korea isn't being considered a nuclear threat, if not now at least in the future, Kile told IPS, "As we have written in the SIPRI Yearbooks for several years, there is no publicly available information to substantiate North Korea's claim to have developed operational nuclear weapons (i.e, militarily-usable weapons that could be delivered by an aircraft or missile).
"So it does not pose a military nuclear threat per se," he said, pointing out that at the same time, North Korea is clearly committed to developing nuclear weapons.
Numerous commentaries and statements coming out of Pyongyang indicate that the leadership there genuinely sees such weapons as offering a security guarantee of the last resort against a pre-emptive attack by the United States.
Indeed, North Korea continues to denounce the U.S. hostile policy and its attempts to stifle the North in order to justify its development of a nuclear deterrent.
The question now is how the international community should respond to the reality that North Korea has developed a rudimentary nuclear weapon capability and may over time produce a small arsenal of weapons, he argued.
"I think that the most plausible answer is that the international community likely will have learn to live with North Korea's nuclear fait accompli, given the absence of any realistic options for persuading the North to give up its nuclear weapon activities in a verifiable and transparent way," Kile said.
This is true even if there were to be a gradual rapprochement between North Korea and the United States.
At the same time, said Kile, the international community must develop a coherent strategy for managing, or at least mitigating, the destabilising consequences arising from North Korea's nuclear weapon programme.
There is a growing consensus within the U.S. administration and among many independent analysts that the most dangerous of these consequences is the possibility that the North Korea will export fissile material, or the technology for producing it, to other countries (so-called secondary proliferation), as it allegedly did with Syria.
This in turn has led to renewed interest in putting into place enforceable measures and policies aimed at restricting North Koreas's nuclear capabilities while at the same time finding a formula for reaching a negotiated solution that will address the main security concerns of the DPRK and the international community writ large, Kile declared.
Meanwhile, the SIPRI Yearbook also warns that upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 highlighted the changing character of contemporary armed conflict, while peacekeeping operations in 2011 illustrated a growing acceptance of the concept of protection of civilians.