Washington – Hollywood and Silicon Valley leaders have teamed up with Middle Eastern royalty and high-level U.S. diplomats to send a message to heads of state who are gathering here in Washington next week: the world needs to reduce its nuclear arsenal to zero as soon as possible.
Next week, U.S. President Barack Obama will host leaders of 47 countries in Washington – including Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, Chinese President Hu Jintao, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – to discuss how to keep nuclear weapons out of terrorists’ hands. India and Pakistan are expected to attend but Iran and North Korea have not been invited.
In advance of this “Nuclear Security Summit”, the directors of a months-old campaign called “Global Zero” held a press conference in Washington on Thursday.
The centrepiece of the event was a new film “Countdown to Zero” directed by Lucy Walker, a British filmmaker, and produced by Lawrence Bender, who also produced the acclaimed climate change film “Inconvenient Truth” and several Quentin Tarantino films like “Inglorious Basterds.”
The film was financed by Jeff Skoll, Canadian-born billionaire founder of EBay, the online auction site, who has funded a number of political films like “Food, Inc.” as well as dramas like “Charlie Wilson’s War”.
Film publicists say that the documentary – which includes interviews with former heads of state Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair, and Pervez Musharraf – concludes that “our only option is to eradicate every-last nuclear missile”.
“Nuclear weapons have lost their political and military utility,” said Richard Burt, a former U.S. ambassador who was the chief negotiator in the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) with the former Soviet Union in 1991.
“The danger today is not nuclear conflict but the spread of nuclear materials,” he added as he introduced a range of speakers like Queen Noor of Jordan and General John J. “Jack” Sheehan, former Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic for NATO.
At the peak of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the U.S. possessed 19,000 nuclear weapons, enough to destroy the world hundreds of times over. The two countries have reduced this number to a ceiling of 2,200 weapons each – but a new treaty signed in Prague today by Obama and Medvedev will cut the number of nuclear warheads to 1,550 over the next seven years.
President Obama also unveiled a new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) two days ago that will significantly limit the circumstances under which Washington would use nuclear weapons. This new strategy forbids the use of nuclear weapons against signatories in good standing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), puts a stop to the testing of nuclear weapons and development of new nuclear warheads, and requires the White House to seek Senate ratification and the entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
At the signing ceremony in Prague, Obama and Medvedev ratcheted up the pressure on Iran and North Korea, neither of whom are signatories to the NPT, suggesting that they could face retaliation if they did not join the treaty. Obama called for “smart” and “strong” sanctions by the United Nations, while Medvedev said: “Unfortunately Tehran is not reacting to an array of constructive compromise proposals. We cannot close our eyes to this.”
The two presidents did not agree on everything – they parted ways on U.S. plans to build an anti-missile shield in Europe to counter Iran.
Film producers Bender and Skoll say they would like to break through this global leadership stalemate by getting as many people to sign a statement calling for a complete elimination of nuclear weapons and a lockdown on loose nuclear materials.
In a teaser clip from their documentary film, which is scheduled to be released on Jul. 9, world leaders and ordinary citizens say one after the other: “Zero”.
Asked if he would take the film to countries like Iran and North Korea, Bender said he would be more than willing to. Queen Noor of Jordan, who also spoke at the press conference, and who regularly visits Syria said she would be happy to try and encourage Middle Eastern leaders from throughout the region to view the film and sign the pledge for zero nuclear weapons.
Anti-nuclear activist groups say Obama himself could also do more. They say that while Obama is using the nuclear posture review, the START treaty and the nuclear security summit to paint himself as a nuclear dove, his actions on Iran and North Korea show that he could further reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation.
“It is, in other words, a very hawkish nuclear posture – a hawk dressed in dove’s feathers,” says Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group (named after one of the key sites at which the U.S. government first developed nuclear weapons). “This posture review attempts to reconcile liberal ideals with the hawkish realities of current U.S. nuclear policy. Those policies are to continue almost unchanged.”
Mello put the Prague agreement in perspective by noting that to date – on a numerical and a percentage basis – Obama’s stockpile cuts have been surpassed by the previous administration of George W. Bush. “This posture review aims for nuclear stability worldwide as a background for the continued application of U.S. ‘hard power,'” Mello said.
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