Released July 9, 2009
In March 2009, just before the historic first meeting between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War sent the two leaders a letter signed by more than 300 of the world’s top physicians, appealing for leadership toward a world without nuclear weapons. Our hopes and expectations were raised by the statements issued from the London meeting, and by President Obama’s speech in Prague a few days later, when he pledged “America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” and added that “as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act.”
From the perspective of the US-Soviet Cold War, when tens of thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert threatened humanity with extinction, the goal announced by Presidents Medvedev and Obama this week in Moscow — the reduction of US and Russian strategic arsenals to their lowest levels since the mid 1950s — is welcome news.
As a promised “down payment” toward a nuclear-weapons-free world, however, this is a disappointingly small step. Combined stockpiles of 3,000 strategic warheads are still more than enough to kill and injure hundreds of millions of people, and plunge the Earth into a nuclear winter. Even a nuclear war using only a fraction of the proposed arsenals would result in a humanitarian and climate catastrophe to which physicians could offer no meaningful medical response.
There is no plausible definition of deterrence that could not be satisfied with far fewer weapons during the transition to a nuclear-free world. Engaging the other nuclear weapon states in meaningful negotiations will require deeper reductions by the world’s largest nuclear powers, and we see no reason to postpone such reductions despite the need to resolve disputes about missile defenses, NATO expansion, and conventional force levels. Taking all US and Russian missiles off high alert would go a long way toward removing the danger of accidental nuclear war, and can be done by executive orders in Washington and Moscow. We have urged both leaders to take this security enhancing and confidence building step in the past, and we do so again.
Ridding the world of nuclear weapons will not happen overnight. But we should not have to wait for another generation of leaders to finish the task to which Presidents Obama and Medvedev say they are committed—and to which we believe they are committed. A nuclear-weapons-free world can be achieved in our lifetime, but it will require bolder action than we have seen so far.
The Russian and US negotiating teams, with the support of abolitionist Presidents, could exceed the modest goals set for them in Moscow, and we hope they will. IPPNW told Presidents Obama and Medvedev in March that “A thousand years from now no one will remember most of what you will do over the next few years; but no one will ever forget the leaders who abolished the threat of nuclear war.” We reiterate that message as the Moscow summit comes to a close, and continue to offer our support, our encouragement, and our impatience for a world that is no longer held hostage to these instruments of mass extermination.