Twenty years ago this month the world might have taken a different course. On October 11, 1986, at the Reykjavik Summit, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan entertained the idea that had long been unthinkable among the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union: a world free of nuclear weapons. Yet, despite the end of the Cold War and the development of relatively normal relations among the world’s nuclear powers, the idea of a non-nuclear world seems more distant than ever. As the recently released report of the International Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction makes clear, even the limited goals of nuclear arms control and non-proliferation have been set back by the lack of leadership on the part of the United States and by the proliferation of new weapons states. Also worrying, the goal of nuclear disarmament no longer seems to animate the progressive community or the peace movement– let alone figure into today’s discussion of American national security policy.

But even as the idea of a non-nuclear world seemed more distant than ever, Mikhail Gorbachev was in New York speaking eloquently of his belief that there are always alternative roads to sanity. At a gathering at the Museum of Television and Radio’s auditorium, the former Soviet President insisted that the major nuclear powers must abide, in good faith, by the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s core obligations. That includes, he reminded the packed hall, pursuit of real nuclear disarmament leading to the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Just hours before Gorbachev spoke to a standing ovation, the New York Times’ lead story called our era a “second nuclear age.” And the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to impose sanctions on North Korea for its reported nuclear test.

Lost amidst so much of the coverage of today’s nuclear threats is a full understanding of how we got where we are. That doesn’t mean listening to Hardball or one of the cable show’s foodfights about who lost North Korea (we know it was Bush); but, rather, it requires a clear understanding of the history of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, and what it called for. In a cogent “Talk of the Town” piece in the current issue of The New Yorker, Steve Coll reminds us that the NPT “proscribes all but five countries–the US, Russia, China, Britain and France–from possessing nuclear weapons, in exchange for a pledge from the five to eliminate their own stockpiles at some unspecified future time.” But, as nuclear weapons expert Joseph Cirincione argues persuasively in the Los Angeles Times, by “rejecting international treaties as the solution to proliferation” and “by clinging to our own nuclear arsenal and touting the importance of these weapons to our own security,” Bush and his Administration have “sent the world a schizoid message: Nuclear weapons are very, very important and useful–but you cannot have them.” As Cirincione explains, “This double standard is impossible to maintain.”

Today Gorbachev speaks of the paramount need for political will and leadership to end the insanity of a nuclear weapons race. He speaks of what real security means–envisioning governments tackling global poverty, and the fact that simply providing access to clean water could save two million lives each year.

We’ve lost twenty years since two leaders envisioned an alternative world. Today, as Coll says, ” the only solution is to engage in the daunting, dull and entirely plausible project of steadily making such weapons marginal, illegitimate and very difficult to acquirem inspired by a final vision of enforceable abolition.” The NPT, as Gorbachev told the hall on Sunday, is a guide to such a moral and practical end–if only the major nuclear powers would abide by the agreement they signed onto.

CODA: No other major US media outlet I know of commemorated that moment, 20 years ago, when the world came close to a nuclear-free world. However, at, following on this magazine’s longstanding commitment to nuclear abolition, we published a Forum on the summit’s anniversary (October 11) with leading figures of the nuclear disarmament movement at that time. Their incisive, sometimes passionate reflections on what went wrong –and how to put the issue of nuclear disarmament back onto the political agenda–should make us understand why we must never give up on saving our world from nuclear peril.