ROME – President Barack Obama’s call for a nuclear weapons-free world is welcome, but the huge U.S. defense budget may prove an “insurmountable obstacle” to reaching that goal, former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev said Thursday.
Talk of nuclear disarmament would be “just rhetorical” if other nations were asked to give up nukes while the United States maintains an overwhelming conventional military superiority, Gorbachev said. What’s needed, he said, are talks to “demilitarize” world politics.
Gorbachev, last leader of the now-defunct Soviet Union, helped inaugurate two days of discussions on nuclear disarmament involving some 100 former and current international leaders, under the sponsorship of the Italian Foreign Ministry, the U.S.-based organization Nuclear Threat Initiative and Gorbachev’s own World Political Forum.
The U.S. contingent was led by former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, formerand ex-Sen. of Georgia.
In an afternoon of talks, conference participants repeatedly applauded the positions Obama has taken on the nuclear future, including his unprecedented joint statement April 1 withthat the two leaders had “committed our two countries to achieving a nuclear free world.”
Egyptian diplomat Nabil Fahmy recalled a different time.
“In the 1970s, when we said we wanted a nuclear-free world, we were laughed out of the room. It was as if today I took this chair and threw it into that chandelier,” he told fellow conferees in a grand meeting room at the Italian ministry. “I am pleased and honored that we are discussing this seriously now.”
Shultz, 88, President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state in 1982-89, called nuclear abolition “an idea whose time has come.” But, he added, “time is not on our side. The key phrase must be `careful urgency.’”
Gorbachev, 78, who once bargained with Reagan over possibly eliminating nuclear arsenals, said the major nuclear powers only recently have recognized that “the current situation is untenable” — a world with more than 23,000 atomic warheads, 95 percent of them in U.S. and Russian hands.
But a “militarized” world without nuclear weapons would also be untenable, he suggested, since it would leave other nations potentially vulnerable to U.S. military power.
“Defense budgets far exceed reasonable security needs,” Gorbachev said. “The United States spends on military purposes almost as much as the rest of the world put together.” U.S. military spending totals more than $600 billion this year.
“Military superiority would be an insurmountable obstacle to ridding the world of nuclear weapons,” the ex-Soviet president said. “Unless we discuss demilitarization of international politics, the reduction of, preventing militarization of outer space, talking about a nuclear-free world will be just rhetorical.”
Asked about Gorbachev’s call for conventional arms negotiations, Perry said talks on nuke control could still go ahead independently.
“Many things need to happen in parallel with,” he said. “If there is no solution to all of these problems it does not mean that you don’t proceed on nuclear arms control.”