Gideon Rachman: A nuclear-free world? No thanks

Roundup: Media's Take

[Gideon Rachman is chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times.]

Barack Obama wants a world without nuclear weapons. America will push the idea of “global zero” at the United Nations conference on nuclear non-proliferation that opened in New York on Monday. The vision was unveiled just over a year ago. In a speech in Prague, the US president painted a glorious picture of a world freed from the nuclear threat, while adding (in words that faintly echoed Martin Luther King) that it might not happen in his lifetime.

It was good stuff. But I sincerely hope that Mr Obama was being insincere. For the idea of a world free of nuclear weapons is not so much an impossible dream as an impossible nightmare.

Mr Obama’s distant vision matters because nuclear weapons are once again at the very centre of global politics. On Monday the propaganda war raged in New York, as first Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the president of Iran, and then Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, took to the podium at the UN.

America’s immediate and urgent priority is to stop Iran developing nukes. The Iranians are trying to fight off the threat of tougher UN sanctions – and to press ahead with a programme that they insist is civilian in nature. Meanwhile, the British general election has thrown open debate about the future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Russia and the US have just agreed a new nuclear arms reduction treaty. And many see the current UN conference as the last chance to shore up an increasingly threadbare nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

As a tactical device to counter Iranian propaganda, America’s call for total nuclear disarmament has a certain brilliance. It allows the US to claim the moral high ground in the debate. And it strengthens the country’s position in the complex nuclear diplomacy that takes place at the UN since, under the NPT, the nuclear weapons states are obliged to work for disarmament.

But the actual achievement of a world without nuclear weapons would be dangerous. Nobody can prove it is nuclear weapons that have kept the peace among the world’s main powers since 1945. But the likeliest explanation is that conflict between nuclear-armed states is just too dangerous to consider. The balance of terror works.

A world that was genuinely free of nuclear weapons would look very different...

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