Over 200 years ago, the philosopher Immanuel Kant defined the ultimate choice before mankind: World history would ultimately culminate in universal peace either by moral insight or by catastrophe of a magnitude that left humanity no other choice. Our period is approaching having that choice imposed on it.
The basic dilemma of the nuclear age has been with us since Hiroshima: how to bring the destructiveness of modern weapons into some moral or political relationship with the objectives that are being pursued.
Any use of nuclear weapons is certain to involve a level of casualties and devastation out of proportion to foreseeable foreign policy objectives. Efforts to develop a more nuanced application have never succeeded, from the doctrine of a geographically limited nuclear war of the 1950s and 1960s to the mutual assured destruction theory of general nuclear war of the 1970s.
In office I recoiled before the options produced by the prevalent nuclear strategies, which raised the issue of the moral right to inflict a disaster of such magnitude on society and the world. But I was also persuaded that if the U.S. government adopted restraints, it would be turning over the world's security to the most ruthless and perhaps genocidal force.
In the two-power world of the Cold War, the adversaries managed to avoid this dilemma. But today, the sharpening of ideological dividing lines and the persistence of unresolved regional conflicts have magnified the incentives to acquire nuclear weapons, especially by rogue states or non-state actors.
Proliferation of nuclear weapons has become an overarching strategic problem for the contemporary period. Any further spread of nuclear weapons multiplies the possibilities of nuclear confrontation; it magnifies the danger of diversion, deliberate or unauthorized.
How will publics react if they suffer or even observe casualties in the tens of thousands in a nuclear attack? Will they not ask two questions: What could we have done to prevent this? What shall we do now so that it can never happen again?
Considerations as these induced former Senator Sam Nunn, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, former Secretary of State George Shultz and me - two Democrats and two Republicans - to publish recommendations for systematically reducing and eventually eliminating the danger from nuclear weapons.
We continue to affirm the importance of adequate deterrent forces, and we do not want our recommendations to diminish essentials for the defense of free peoples while a process of adaptation to new realities is going on. At the same time, we reaffirm the objective of a world without nuclear weapons that has been proclaimed by every American president since Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Such a world will prove increasingly remote unless the emerging nuclear weapons program in Iran and the existing one in North Korea are overcome. Both involve the near-certainty of further proliferation and of further incorporation of nuclear weapons into the strategies of nuclear weapons states.
I have long advocated negotiations with Iran on a broad front, including the geopolitical aspect. Too many treat this as a kind of psychological enterprise. In fact, it will be tested by concrete answers to four specific questions: a) How close is Iran to a nuclear weapons capability? b) At what pace is it moving? c) What balance of rewards and penalties will move Iran to abandon it? d) What do we do if, despite our best efforts, diplomacy fails?
A critical issue in nonproliferation strategy will be the ability of the international community to place the fuel cycle for the material produced by the peaceful uses of nuclear energy under international control. Is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) capable of designing a system which places the enrichment and reprocessing under international control and in locations that do not threaten nuclear proliferation?
Arresting and then reversing the proliferation of nuclear weapons places a special responsibility on the established nuclear powers. They share no more urgent common interest than preventing the emergence of more nuclear-armed states.
Established nuclear powers should strive to make a nuclear capability less enticing by devoting their diplomacy to diffuse unresolved conflicts that today make a nuclear arsenal so attractive.
A new nuclear agenda requires coordinated efforts on several levels: first, the declaratory policy of the United States; second, the U.S.-Russian relationship; third, joint efforts with allies as well as other non-nuclear states relying on American deterrence; fourth, securing nuclear weapons and materials on a global basis; and, finally, reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the doctrines and operational planning of nuclear weapons states.
The Obama administration has already signaled that a global nuclear agenda will be a high priority in preparation for the Review Conference on the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty scheduled for the spring of 2010. A number of measures can be taken unilaterally or bilaterally with Russia to reduce the pre-emptive risk of certain alert measures and the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons.
-Russian relations:Russia and the United States between them control around 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. They have it in their control to reduce the reliance on nuclear weapons in their bilateral relationship. They have already done so for 15 years on such issues as the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.
The immediate need is to start negotiations to extend the START I agreement, the sole document for the verification and monitoring of established ceilings on strategic weapons, which expires at the end of 2009.
That should be the occasion to explore significant reductions from the 1,700 to 2,000 permitted under the Moscow Treaty of 2002. A general review of the strategic relationship should examine ways to enhance security at nuclear facilities in Russia and the United States.
A key issue has been missile defense - especially with respect to defenses deployed against threats from proliferating countries. The dialogue on this subject should be resumed at the point at which it was left by President George W. Bush and then-President Vladimir Putin in April 2008.
The Russian proposal for a joint missile defense toward the Middle East, including radar sites in southern Russia, has always seemed to me a creative political and strategic answer to a common problem.
-Allies: The effort to develop a new nuclear agenda must involve our allies from its inception. Key European allies are negotiating with Iran on the nuclear issue. America deploys tactical nuclear weapons in several NATO countries, and NATO's declaratory policy mirrors that of the United States. Britain and France - key NATO allies - have their own nuclear deterrent.
A common adaptation to the emerging realities is needed, especially with respect to tactical nuclear weapons. Parallel discussions are needed with Japan, South Korea and Australia. Parallel consultations are imperative with China, India and Pakistan. It must be understood that the incentives for nuclear weapons on the subcontinent are more regional then those of the established nuclear powers and their threshold for using them considerably lower.
The complexity of these issues explains why my colleagues and I have chosen an incremental, step-by-step approach. Affirming the desirability of the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, we have concentrated on the steps that are achievable and verifiable.
Sam Nunn has described the effort akin to climbing a mountain shrouded in clouds. We cannot describe its top or be certain that there may not be unforeseen and perhaps insurmountable obstacles on the way. But we are prepared to undertake the journey in the belief that the summit will never come into view unless we begin the ascent and deal with the proliferation issues immediately before us, including the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.
The program sketched here is not a program for unilateral disarmament. So long as other countries build and improve their nuclear arsenals, deterrence of their use needs to be part of Western strategy. The efficiency of our weapons arsenals must be preserved. Both President Obama and Senator John McCain, while endorsing this approach, also made it clear, in Obama's words, that the United States cannot implement it alone.
The danger posed by nuclear weapons is unprecedented. They should not be integrated into strategy as simply another more efficient explosive. We thus return to our original challenge: Our age has stolen the fire from the gods; can we confine it to peaceful purposes before it consumes us?