But the threat of nuclear conflict may be greater now than at any time in decades. Eight countries are known to have the bomb, and others, including Iran and North Korea, are believed to be close to building one, if they haven't already. A black-market network of nuclear sales was uncovered in Pakistan a few years ago, and terrorist groups like Al Qaeda are trying to get hold of nuclear weapons to attack the West.
Amid this new nuclear-arms race, President Barack Obama says he wants to eliminate all nuclear weapons. He says it is vital for the security of the world, but his critics call it wishful thinking, at best.
"I'm not na•ve," Obama told a cheering crowd in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, in April. "This goal will not be reached quickly, perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence."
The idea of eliminating nuclear weapons has been on Obama's mind for years. In 1983, as a senior at Columbia University in New York, he wrote an article in a campus magazine about his vision of a nuclear-free world, and called for the elimination of nuclear arsenals holding tens of thousands of warheads.
"People assume he's a novice," says Michael L. Baron, who taught Obama in a Columbia seminar on international politics and American policy. "He's been thinking about these issues for a long time." In fact, in a paper for Baron's class, Obama considered how a President might negotiate nuclear-arms reductions with the Russians. (He got an A.)
Twenty-six years later, as President, Obama has a chance to translate that vision into policy. And the President says his agenda is actually the best way forward in today's turbulent world.
"It's na•ve for us to think," he says, "that we can grow our nuclear stockpiles, the Russians continue to grow their nuclear stockpiles, and our allies grow their nuclear stockpiles, and that in that environment we're going to be able to pressure countries like Iran and North Korea not to pursue nuclear weapons themselves."
But critics say the United States will only weaken itself if it pursues a path to a nuclear-weapons-free world. "If the implications were not so serious, the discrepancy between Mr. Obama's plans and real-world conditions would be hilarious," says Frank Gaffney, who worked on defense issues for President Ronald Reagan. "There is only one country on earth that Team Obama can absolutely, positively de-nuclearize: ours."
The Cold War
Indeed, the nuclear world Obama studied and wrote about at Columbia bears little resemblance to the world today. Russiafor decades, America's Cold War adversaryis in many ways the least of Obama's challenges. Far more complex are the problems posed by North Korea, which has now conducted two nuclear tests, and Iran, which experts say will be able to build a warhead soon, if it cannot already.
The U.S. was the first nation to develop atomic weapons, based on Einstein's famous formula, E=mc², which says that enormous amounts of energy can be unleashed by nuclear chain reactions. Between 1945, when the U.S. dropped the two atom bombs on Japan, and 1964, four other nations developed nuclear weapons: the Soviet Union (now Russia), China, Great Britain, and France (see timeline, p. 16).
During the Cold War (roughly 1945-91), the U.S. and the Soviet Union became locked in a nuclear-arms race and wound up with nuclear arsenals so vast that each nation could blow up the otherand the worldmany times over. (Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia have been reducing the size of their nuclear arsenals, but together still have more than 20,000 nuclear weapons, with thousands ready to launch within minutes.)
To keep nuclear weapons from spreading, the United Nations approved the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1968. Most nations have signed the treaty, agreeing never to build their own weaponsas long as the nuclear powers helped them use nuclear technology to produce electricity. The five "declared" nuclear powers also signed the treaty, promising not to spread nuclear technology and to work toward disarmament.
But three of the countries that did not sign the treatyIndia, Pakistan, and Israelsped ahead with nuclear programs, and now have nuclear arsenals, though their governments have not officially acknowledged it. They're often referred to as "undeclared" nuclear states.
Soon they may have company. If North Korea and Iran end up with nuclear weapons, other countries in their respective regions are likely to follow, making the world more dangerous. (North Korea signed the Nonproliferation Treaty but withdrew in 2003; Iran signed and remains bound by the treaty, which is why it has been subject to U.N. sanctions for violating it.)
New Members of the Club?
A throwback to the Communism of the Cold War era, North Korea is one of the world's most isolated, repressive, and economically stunted nations. The Korean War, in which 36,000 Americans died, ended in an armistice in 1953, but North and South Korea have never signed a peace treaty, and 28,000 U.S. troops remain in South Korea as a protective forceand in harm's way.
Further complicating matters, North Korea's autocratic ruler, Kim Jong Il, may be in poor health, and a power struggle over his successor could be brewing. These concerns also raise questions about who's actually in control of the country's nuclear program.
Iran is a theocracy run by Muslim clerics known as mullahs who have referred to the U.S. as "the Great Satan" since the Islamic Revolution 30 years ago. Iran's hardline President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, insists that Iran's nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
The Obama administration has reached out to Iran, saying it wants to begin direct talksa significant step for two nations that have not had diplomatic relations for 30 years. But Washington still supports U.N. sanctions against Iran and possibly toughening them.
The President has said the effort to engage Iran in talks is "not open-ended," giving it until this month to show progress, and the violent crackdown on protesters following Iran's disputed presidential election in June (see Voices, p 28) may have made it harder for the U.S. to talk to Iran. (After years of Iran threatening to wipe Israel off the map, Israel could take matters into its own hands and attack Iran's nuclear sites, as it did when it destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 in the face of similar threats.)
Another issue of grave concern is that terrorists will get their hands on nuclear weapons, either from hostile regimes in North Korea or Iran, or from a nation like Pakistan, where there are still questions about how much control the government has over its nuclear arsenal: During the 1980s and '90s, A.Q. Khan, the scientist who led Pakistan's nuclear program, went into business for himself, selling nuclear technology to countries like Iran and North Korea.
The U.S. has been helping Pakistan (and Russia) improve the security of their nuclear stockpiles, but Pakistan's government is shaky as it battles an internal insurgency by Islamic militants. Fears are also mounting that Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which the U.S. is fighting in neighboring Afghanistan, could get their hands on Pakistan's nuclear weapons.
In July, President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev agreed on the basic terms of a treaty to reduce the number of warheads and missiles by at least a quarter, to the lowest levels since the early years of the Cold War.
The Russian Front
The President views the agreement with Russia as a small step toward his ultimate goal of a nuclear-free world.
Next year, U.S. officials are slated to rewrite crucial provisions of the nonproliferation treaty. Obama wants to strengthen inspections and close the loophole that makes it easy for countries to drop out, as North Korea did in 2003.
But to move toward a nuclear-free world, Obama and like-minded world leaders will have to establish a new global order that can truly restrain rogue states and terrorist groups from moving ahead with nuclear projects. Many international security experts say this will be very difficult. Michael O'Hanlon at the Brookings Institution in Washington cautions that the deterrent effect of the American nuclear arsenal is critical and must somehow be maintained.
"I think there is a serious case for being more assertive in pursuing" the elimination of nuclear weapons, he says. "But I think that in doing it wrong you could do more harm than good."
Despite the challenges, the President remains determined to tryand convinced it's the right thing to do. "I don't think I'm that unique today," President Obama told The Times in July, "in thinking that if we could put the genie back in the bottle, in some sense, that there would be less dangernot just to the United States but to people around the world."