WARSAW — The agreement by the American and Russian presidents to renew strategic arms reductions has revived hope for the global abolition of nuclear arms. The urgency can hardly be exaggerated: nuclear weapons may come into the possession of states that might use them, as well as of stateless terrorists — creating new threats of unimaginable proportion.

A noble dream just several years ago, the elimination of nuclear arms is no longer the idea only of populists and pacifists; it has now been adopted by professionals — politicians known for their realism and academics known for their sense of responsibility.

The invention of nuclear weapons — which served the goal of deterrence during the Cold War, when the world was divided into two opposing blocs — answered the needs and risks of the time. Security rested on a balance of fear, as reflected in the concept of mutually assured destruction.

In that bipolar world, nuclear weapons were held by only five global powers, all permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Today, the global picture is different. Sparked by Poland’s Solidarity movement, the Warsaw Pact dissolved, the Soviet Union disintegrated, and the bipolar world and its East-West divide vanished.

An order based on the dangerous doctrine of mutual deterrence, was not, however, replaced with a system founded on cooperation and interdependence. Destabilization and chaos followed, accompanied by a sense of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Nuclear weapons are now also held by three states engaged in conflicts: India, Pakistan and Israel. Given the development of the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, they, too, may become nuclear-weapon states. There is also a real danger that this group may expand further to include states where governments will not always be guided by rational considerations. There is also the risk that nuclear weapons may fall into the hands of non-state actors, such as terrorist groups.

An effective nonproliferation regime will not be possible unless the major nuclear powers, especially the United States and Russia, take urgent steps toward nuclear disarmament. Together, they hold nearly 25,000 nuclear warheads — 96 percent of the global nuclear arsenal.

It gives us hope that U.S. President Barack Obama recognizes these dangers. We note with satisfaction that the new U.S. administration has not turned a deaf ear to responsible statesmen and scientists who are calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Indeed, the goal of a nuclear-free world was incorporated in the U.S. administration’s arms control and disarmament agenda. We appreciate the proposals from the United Kingdom, France and Germany as well, while Russia also signaled recently in Geneva its readiness to embark upon nuclear disarmament.

Opponents of nuclear disarmament used to argue that this goal was unattainable in the absence of an effective system of control and verification. But, today, appropriate means of control are available to the international community. Of key importance are the nuclear safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The world must have guarantees that civilian nuclear reactors will not be used for military purposes — a condition for nonnuclear-weapon states’ unrestricted access to nuclear technologies, as proposed recently by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in his initiative on a global nuclear bargain for our times. This is especially urgent now, with the search for new energy sources and a “renaissance” of nuclear power.

The 2010 Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference calls for an urgent formulation of priorities. The Preparatory Committee will meet in New York this May, and this is where the necessary decisions should be made. The main expectations are for a reduction of nuclear armaments, a cutback in the number of launch-ready warheads (de-alerting), negotiations on a Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty, ratification of the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty and other means of strengthening practical implementation of the Nonproliferation Treaty, especially its universal adoption.

The time has come for a fundamental change in the proceedings of the Geneva-based Disarmament Conference, which has failed to meet the international community’s expectations. We share the view expressed by the academics, politicians and experts of the international Warsaw Reflection Group that consideration should be given to the zero option as a basis for a future multilateral nuclear disarmament agreement.

The Group’s report, Arms Control Revisited: Nonproliferation and Denuclearization, elaborated under the chairmanship of Adam Rotfeld of Poland and drafted by British scholar Ian Anthony of SIPRI, was based on contributions by security analysts from nuclear powers and Poland, as well as from countries previously in possession of nuclear weapons (South Africa) and post-Soviet countries where they were once stored (Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine). The fact that these states were denuclearized as part of the Safe and Secure Disarmament program provides a valuable lesson.

The process of gradual nuclear disarmament must be set in motion. It will not produce results overnight, but it would give us a sense of direction, a chance to strengthen nonproliferation mechanisms, and an opportunity to establish a global, cooperative nonnuclear security system.

The deadliest threat to global security comes from a qualitatively new wave of nuclear proliferation. The heaviest responsibility is shouldered by the powers that hold the largest arsenals. We trust that the U.S. and Russian presidents, and leaders of all other nuclear powers, will show statesmanlike wisdom and courage and begin the process of freeing the world from the nuclear menace. But as important as this goal is for international order and security, of equal importance is respect for human rights and the rights of minorities, as well as the establishment, on a global scale, of democracy and the rule of law.

Aleksander Kwasniewski was Poland’s president from 1995 to 2005. Tadeusz Mazowiecki was prime minister in Poland’s first noncommunist government (1989-1990). Lech Walesa was Poland’ president from 1990 to 1995. © 2009 Project Syndicate, 2009.

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