Mark these days. A long-dreaded transformation from hope to doom is taking place as the United States of America ushers the world onto the no-turning-back road of nuclear perdition. Once, we could believe there was another way to go. Indeed, we were invited to take that path by the man who is, even today, overseeing the blocking of it, probably forever.
It was one of the most stirring speeches an American president had ever given. The place was Prague; the year was 2009; the president was the recently sworn in Barack Obama. The promise made that day is worth recalling at length, especially since, by now, it is largely forgotten:
“As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.… So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I’m not naïve. This goal will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now, we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can…’”
President Obama had been in office only three months when, boldly claiming his place on the world stage, he unequivocally committed himself and his country to a nuclear abolition movement that, until then, had at best existed somewhere on the distant fringes of power politics. “I know,” he added,
“that there are some who will question whether we can act on such a broad agenda. There are those who doubt whether true international cooperation is possible…and there are those who hear talk of a world without nuclear weapons and doubt whether it’s worth setting a goal that seems impossible to achieve. But make no mistake. We know where that road leads.”
The simple existence of nuclear weapons, an American president declared, paved the road to perdition for humanity.
Obama as the Captain Ahab of Nuclear Weapons
At that moment, the foundations for an imagined abolitionist world were modest indeed, but not nonexistent. The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) had, for instance, struck a bargain between nuclear haves and have-nots, under which a path to abolition was treated as real. The deal seemed clear enough: the have-nots would promise to forego obtaining nukes and, in return, the world’s reigning nuclear powers would pledge to take, in the words of the treaty, “effective measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament.”