In 1986 at the Reykjavik summit, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, both passionate about nuclear disarmament, shocked deterrence experts with an unimaginable proposal – total nuclear disarmament.  “It would be fine with me if we eliminated all nuclear weapons,” said Reagan.  “We can do that,” replied Gorbachev, “Let’s eliminate them.  We can eliminate them.”

However, U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz explained that the proposal was “too much for people to absorb, precisely because it was outside the bounds of conventional wisdom,” and “the world was not ready for Ronald Reagan’s boldness.”

Today, having won his election on a campaign of “change,” President Obama has promised to take “urgent new actions” toward a goal of “eliminating nuclear weapons.”  In fact, with public opinion and a growing consensus of  world leaders on his side, Obama is now better positioned than any previous global leader to accomplish what Reagan and Gorbachev couldn’t achieve over two decades ago – national and international commitment to total nuclear disarmament.  To do this, Obama will have to step outside the bounds of conventional wisdom and avoid “more of the same” self-defeating “lead and hedge” policies advocated by the vast majority of experts and policy makers.  To realize Reagan’s vision and to adequately address the threats of the 21st century, Obama must commit to a timeline for nuclear disarmament and rally national and international consensus to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Few would argue the U.S. nuclear policy has made the world safer from the threat of next-use nuclear employment.  In fact, a recent Congressional Commission has concluded that “unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack… by 2013.”  And nuclear weapons place the U.S. in a moral, ethical, legal, and therefore political dilemma, which makes their use by the U.S. highly unlikely, thereby negating their deterrence effect.  In that light, George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn published a series of articles which called upon the U.S. to lead a global effort to abolish nuclear weapons.

The “Gang of Four” argued that reliance on nuclear deterrence is becoming “increasingly hazardous and decreasingly ineffective.”  Nuclear weapons dependence, they argue, only increases the likelihood of catastrophic terrorism, “nuclear accidents, misjudgments, and unauthorized launches.”  Mikhail Gorbachev still agrees with the goal of disbarment.  He wrote, “It is becoming clearer that nuclear weapons are no longer a means of achieving security; in fact, with every passing year they make our security more precarious.”

Additionally, the Gang of Four noted that nuclear weapons programs divert limited economic assets from other important programs.  In 2008, the U.S. spent $52 billion on nuclear weapons and related programs, with only 10 percent of that amount going toward attack prevention and nonproliferation efforts.  By comparison, the entire foreign assistance budget was just under $35 billion.  This becomes increasingly relevant as President Obama has recently asked the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff to cut $55 billion dollars from the fiscal year 2010 budget.  Finally, the United States maintains sufficient conventional military power to deter an attack.

Throughout the Cold War, nuclear weapons served as the great deterrent, denying any potential benefits of attack by imposing unacceptable costs resulting from massive, catastrophic retaliation.  Fundamentally, deterrence relied on kinetic capability directed at specific targets to affect the psyche of an assumed rational actor.  However, the potential adversaries of the 21st century may not be deterred by the threat of a massive kinetic retaliation, on the contrary, they may desire that response.  Old nuclear deterrence thinking viewed such threats as “undeterrable.”  However, every adversary undergoes some sort of cost/benefit analysis that can be influenced, though perhaps not with threats of retaliation; and every adversary pursues an objective that can be denied through appropriate application of various instruments of national power and with capabilities other than nuclear weapons.  Accepting non-nuclear deterrence simply requires new ways of thinking about security.

Obama says he “will set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and pursue it.”  Doing so quickly will have positive economic, security, and political gains for the United States.  There is no better date than August 6, 2025, the 80th anniversary of Hiroshima, to end the nuclear weapons era.

Joe Craft is currently a student at the U.S. Naval War College.  His views are his own.  He thanks Derek Reveron for reviewing previous drafts.