Ending the Threat of Nuclear Attack

Late last year, we noted the tenth anniversary of what was probably the most remarkable of all the meetings between an American president and his Soviet counterpart, the Reykjavik Summit of October 1986. History has shown that Reykjavik was a true turning point. Three major treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union were negotiated by the end of 1992; they resulted in substantially reduced levels of nuclear weapons. That happened as the Cold War was ending and, as the Russians say, it was no coincidence. A dramatic change in the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States made it possible. A readiness, both in Washington and in Moscow, to open a new chapter in their relationship prepared the way.

The world has moved on. The Soviet Union no longer exists. But can we say that the world has been freed from the incessant and pervasive fear of nuclear devastation? Not yet, as this report will show. Persuading three newly independent states to eliminate the nuclear weapons they inherited in the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major achievement. Cooperating with Russia to tighten controls over fissile materials has made a real difference in terms of international security. But illicit trafficking in nuclear materials is still a potential problem and this has happened just as a more brutal form of terrorism, more willing to engage in mass murder, has made its appearance. This threat requires a wide spectrum of responses, but at the heart of it is the need for strict controls over nuclear weapons and fissile materials from the laboratory to the missile silo and every point in between.

The idea of a safer strategic environment involving progressively less reliance on nuclear weapons is still valid and must be pursued. Abolishing nuclear weapons is a feat beyond our present capacity to achieve, but we can go much further than we have to date in eliminating these weapons. The recent U.S.-Russian summit meeting in Helsinki made a start in that direction.

The American relationship with Russia is one among many that require careful tending. It is one of the few that can be said to be vital. We can reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in the Russian-American relationship and that would open the door to many opportunities now denied us.