President Obama’s trip to Europe generated many headlines. By combining the G-20 meeting with a NATO summit and routine bilateral discussions, very few international security issues were left untouched. Among those is nuclear disarmament. In Prague, President Obama declared, “The United States will take concrete steps toward a world without nuclear weapons.”  


This bold statement is certainly with precedent. As Joe Craft wrote earlier in the New Atlanticist, 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.” 

After 23 years, there are still about 8,000 strategic warheads remaining in the Russian and American stockpiles (see the Table 1).

Table 1: Weapons Disclosures as of January 1, 2009

Category of Data

Total, Former USSR Parties

Deployed ICBMs and Their Associated Launchers, Deployed SLBMs and Their Associated Launchers, and Deployed Heavy Bombers


Warheads Attributed to Deployed ICBMs, Deployed SLBMs, and Deployed Heavy Bombers


Warheads Attributed to Deployed ICBMs and Deployed SLBMs

If President Obama is to be successful in ridding the world of nuclear weapons, history offers a few lessons. First, start small. By identifying a single category of weapon like land-based ICBMs or multiple independent re-entry vehicles, agreement is more likely. This is how the USSR and USA eliminated intermediate range missiles under the 1987 INF Treaty.  

Second, acknowledge how the security environment has changed. One of the reasons President Reagan could not eliminate nuclear weapons was American concern about the Soviet military’s overwhelming conventional superiority (at least in numbers). Today, the opposite is true. The United States has a superior conventional force, so it must identify ways to reassure Russia and other nuclear powers like China and India that it poses no conventional threat to those countries. With the backdrop of Kosovo and Iraq, this will not be easy to do.

One proven method to alleviate tension and increase transparency is to expand alliances. While it might seem ridiculous to bring Russia into NATO today, it was at least plausible in the early 1990s. If reset buttons were pressed on US-Russia relations, then it is time for NATO to see how it can alleviate Russia’s security dilemma by improving transparency. 

Along these lines, the West can help Russia balance its dwindling nuclear weapon capabilities against increasing its conventional force capabilities. Given the state of Russia’s military, nuclear weapons have increased its value for Russian deterrence. Russia’s neighbors would undoubtedly be uncomfortable with this approach, but President Obama’s assurances alone will not make Russia feel more secure. To eliminate nuclear weapons, leaders need to find an answer to why countries develop and field weapons in the first place. 

Alternatively, the global recession offers an opportunity for countries to rethink defense budgets. If we talk about global caps on CO2 emissions, why not defense spending? As countries seek to renew their nuclear deterrent capabilities, a large bill is coming due. The UK, for example, is looking at a submarine replacement that will cost several billion pounds. The bill in the United States is many times that and all militaries would appreciate investing those amounts in needed conventional capabilities if they only operated in a nuclear-weapon free world. 

Finally, incorporate Russia into a new bilateral missile defense organization or incorporate missile defense into an expanded NATO that includes Russia. The United States and Russia have proven that they can eliminate entire classes of nuclear weapons and thousands of warheads. It is unlikely that new nuclear powers are ready to disarm, but a missile defense shield for North America and Eurasia can reassure both nuclear powers that they are immune from attack.

Derek Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. These views are his own.