Obama outlines sweeping goal of nuclear-free world

April 5, 2009 8:58:35 AM PDT
Declaring it "matters to all people everywhere," President Barack Obama promised on Sunday to lead the world into a nuclear-free future, giving a hawkish edge to a peacenik pursuit even as North Korea upstaged him with the launch of a long-range rocket that theoretically could carry a warhead. Obama made his pledge before 20,000 flag-waving Czechs outside the gates of picturesque Prague Castle. He chose a nation that peacefully threw off communism and helped topple nuclear power Soviet Union as the backdrop for presenting an ambitious plan to stop the global spread of dangerous weapons.

"Let us honor our past by reaching for a better future," Obama said.

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 the United States, 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.

It is not only a lofty goal. Gary Samore, Obama's arms control coordinator, said the plan has a strategic aim: to give the U.S. extra leverage in opposing the pursuit of nuclear arms in adversarial countries such as North Korea and Iran. "We are trying to seek the moral high ground," Samore said.

Devoting an entire speech to the longtime "no nukes" cause of the political left is more popular in Europe than in the United States. Obama signaled he would not allow America to become more vulnerable, saying that surrendering nuclear weapons must be a global all-for-one, or not-at-all, endeavor.

"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," he said.

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.

This was in part a message to Russia, which has balked at using its influence to press Iran to drop its nuclear pursuits.

North Korea's launch, in the works for weeks, could not have been better timed to achieve the reclusive communist country's goal of grabbing attention.

An aide awoke Obama in his hotel room to tell him of the launch in the early morning hours here. By lunchtime, the president had addressed it publicly nearly half a dozen times.

North Korea claimed it had sent up a satellite, not a missile. The West says it hardly matters because such a rocket presumably could carry a warhead into Japanese, South Korea or even U.S. airspace. North Korea declared the launch a success, saying an experimental communications satellite reached outer space. The U.S. military said "no object entered orbit."

Obama said the North Korean action served only to underscore the need for the actions he outlined.

"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.

He offered few details of how he would accomplish his larger goal, which has eluded presidents and foreign policy lions, including Ronald Reagan, George Shultz and Henry Kissinger.

Obama acknowledged this. "In a strange turn of history," he said, "the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up."

To combat the risk from countries, and possibly terrorists, with nuclear weapons, Obama said he would:

_"Immediately and aggressively" seek ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, which he may not get. Signed by President Bill Clinton, it was rejected by the Senate in 1999. Overall, 140 nations have ratified the ban. But they include only 35 of the 44 states that possess nuclear technology, and the United States is the most prominent holdout.

_Host a summit within the next year on nuclear weapons.

_Undertake a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material worldwide within four years.

_Try to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by providing more resources and authority for international inspections and mandating "real and immediate consequences" for countries that violate the treaty.

_Pursue by the end of the year a new treaty with Russia to reduce the two nations' nuclear arsenals.

_Seek a new international treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons.

_Build a new framework for civil nuclear cooperation, including an international fuel bank, so countries can access peaceful power without increasing the risks of proliferation.

Obama spoke after conferring with Czech leaders, including Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, just two weeks after his government collapsed. Topolanek is remaining in office until President Vaclav Klaus names a replacement. Obama also participated Sunday in a hastily arranged U.S.-EU summit; the Czech Republic holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.

Obama met with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and later was having an audience with playwright and former president Vaclav Havel, who led the 1989 Velvet Revolution that peacefully toppled communism in the former Czechoslovakia.

As he has throughout the trip, Obama emphasized priorities that closely match Europe's, such as promising to tackle climate change. But he had requests as well. He asked European nations to accept detainees from the Guantanamo Bay prison, which he has ordered closed, and to bring in Turkey as a member of the European Union to send a positive signal to the Muslim world.

Turkey is the next and final stop on Obama's European tour.

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