PRAGUE — Declaring the future of mankind at stake, President Barack Obama said Sunday that all nations must strive to rid the world of nuclear arms and that the U.S. had a “moral responsibility” to lead as the only country ever to use one.
Even as a North Korean rocket launch upstaged his ambitious, if not realistic, call to action in the heart of Eastern Europe, Obama dismissed those who say the spread of nuclear weapons cannot be checked.
“This fatalism is a deadly adversary,” he told a crowd of more than 20,000 in an old square outside the Prague Castle gates. “For if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.”
Calling nuclear arms “the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War,” Obama appealed to anti-nuclear activists in the United States and abroad while taking care to promise that America’s national security would not be compromised.
He chose as the venue for his address a nation that peacefully threw off communism and helped topple nuclear power Soviet Union.
“Let us honor our past,” Obama said, “by reaching for a better future.”
Shifting on an eight-day European trip from the economic crisis to the war in Afghanistan and now nuclear capabilities, Obama said his goal of “a world without nuclear weapons” won’t be reached soon, “perhaps not in my lifetime.”
But he said his country, with one of the world’s largest arsenals and the only nation to have used an atomic bomb, has a “moral responsibility” to start taking steps now.
The nuclear-free cause is more potent in Europe than in the United States, where even Democratic politicians like Obama must avoid being labeled as soft or naïve on national security matters. Indeed, Obama said surrendering nuclear weapons must be a global endeavor — all-for-one, or not-at-all.
“Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, we will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies,” said Obama, who promised to host a summit within the next year on nuclear weapons.
He also gave his most unequivocal pledge yet to proceed with a missile defense system in Europe while Iran pursues nuclear weapons, as the West alleges. That shield is to be based in the Czech Republic and Poland. Those countries are on Russia’s doorstep, and the move has contributed to a significant decline in U.S.-Russia relations.
In the interest of resetting ties with Moscow, Obama previously had appeared to soft-pedal his support for the Bush-era shield proposal. But he adopted a different tone in Prague.
“As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven,” Obama said, earning cheers from the crowd.
Hours before the address, an aide awoke Obama in his hotel room to tell him that North Korea had make good on its pledge to launch a long-range rocket. By lunchtime, the president had addressed it publicly nearly half a dozen times.
“Rules must be binding,” he said. “Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.”
“Now is the time for a strong international response,” he said.
On the broader issue, few experts think it’s possible to completely eradicate nuclear weapons, and many say it wouldn’t be a good idea even if it could be done. But a program to drastically cut the world atomic arsenal carries support from scientists and lions of the foreign policy world.
The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was signed by former President Bill Clinton but rejected by the Senate in 1999. Over 140 nations have ratified the ban, but 44 states that possess nuclear technology need to both sign and ratify it before it can take effect and only 35 have done so. The United States is among the key holdouts, along with China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan.
Ratification of the test ban was one of several “concrete steps” Obama outlined as necessary to move toward a nuclear-free world. He also called for reducing the role of nuclear weapons in American national security strategy, negotiating a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia, and seeking a new treaty to end the production of fissile materials used in nuclear weapons.
Obama said the U.S. will seek to strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation treaty by providing more resources and authority for international inspections and mandating “real and immediate consequences” for countries that violate the treaty.
He offered few details of how he would accomplish his larger goal and acknowledged that “in a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.”