A World Without Nukes -- Just Like 1939

Tuesday, April 7, 2009; Page A23

In Prague on Sunday, President Obama committed his administration to putting us on a "trajectory" toward "a world without nuclear weapons."

Of course, we had a world without nuclear weapons not so long ago -- say, in 1939. The war that began in that nuclear-free world led to a crash project to develop nuclear weapons. It ended with America's use of them -- something Obama alluded to: "As a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act."

It is not clear whether this statement implies disapproval of our use of nuclear weapons in 1945. It's telling, however, that Obama never referred in his Prague speech to the Second World War. Instead, he called the existence of thousands of nuclear weapons "the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War." This framework makes it possible to think of the elimination of nuclear weapons as a logical response to the end of that conflict: "Today, the Cold War has disappeared but thousands of those weapons have not."

Yet to justify a world without nuclear weapons, what Obama would really have to envision is a world without war, or without threats of war. That's an ancient vision. It's one reason American presidents have tried to encourage the spread of liberal democracy and responsible regimes around the world.

Of course, there are all kinds of practical things we can do about the nuclear problem -- seek agreements to regulate the deployment of nuclear weapons, reduce their number and limit their production, regulate the export of nuclear materials, secure vulnerable nuclear material, and the like. We should pursue such agreements as long as they are sensible, verifiable and enforceable, as long as they promote stability and reduce the risk of war.

But we have a long way to go before achieving a world of pacific liberal regimes. George W. Bush's hope for a world without tyranny is the necessary -- though perhaps still not the sufficient -- precondition to a world without nuclear weapons. The danger is that the allure of a world without nuclear weapons can be a distraction -- even an excuse for not acting against real nuclear threats.

Consider Obama's speech. Referring to North Korea, which a few hours earlier had taken a break from six-party talks to test a rocket that could be used for long-range missiles, Obama said: "Now is the time for a strong international response. . . . All nations must come together to build a stronger, global regime. And that's why we must stand shoulder to shoulder to pressure the North Koreans to change course."

In other words: We'll all huff and puff about North Korea, and standing shoulder to shoulder we can pat ourselves on the back for our commitment to a world without nuclear weapons. In the meantime, the United States will do nothing to destroy North Korea's nuclear or missile capability, or to topple its political regime.

Obama also addressed Iran, saying that country's "nuclear and ballistic missile activity poses a real threat," which justifies some (limited) missile defense efforts in Europe. But Obama's real hope is for dialogue with Iran, in which he will present the regime with "a clear choice":

"We want Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations, politically and economically. We will support Iran's right to peaceful nuclear energy with rigorous inspections. That's a path that the Islamic Republic can take. Or the government can choose increased isolation, international pressure, and a potential nuclear arms race in the region that will increase insecurity for all."

Obviously, Obama recommends the first path. But notice what he didn't do:

He didn't say that a nuclear-armed Iranian regime is unacceptable. He didn't express a commitment to preventing such an outcome, or confidence that the United States and international community would prevent such an outcome. He simply suggested that it wouldn't be optimal for Iran to choose that outcome. And if the rulers of the Islamic republic disagree? In the very speech in which Obama outlined his vision of a world without nuclear weapons, he weakened America's stand against Iran's nuclear weapons program.

So while Obama talks of a future without nuclear weapons, the trajectory we are on today is toward a nuclear- and missile-capable North Korea and Iran -- and a far more dangerous world.

William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, writes a monthly column for The Post.

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