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Hendrik Hertzberg : Eight Days in April

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Hendrik Hertzberg : Eight Days in April
Eight Days in April
by Hendrik Hertzberg
April 26, 2010

Now then, Dmitri. You know how weve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the bomb. The bomb, Dmitri. The hydrogen bomb.
President Merkin Muffley to Premier Dmitri Kissov, 1964.

Dmitri, we agreed.
President Barack Obama to
President Dmitri Medvedev, 2010.

Dr. Strangelove is a lot less scary than it used to be. When Stanley Kubricks great, dark satire first appeared in theatres, not long after the Cuban missile crisis, the laughter of audiences was laced with dread. Back then, the spectre of nuclear warof global nuclear war, war that would, as the clich of the time had it, leave the survivors to envy the deadwas a constant presence. That fear held the world in its grip for forty years, from the first Soviet atomic test to the Soviet Unions peaceful dissolution. Today, on DVD, Dr. Strangelove is a period comedy. It remains as brilliant as ever, but the laughs it provokes are uncomplicated, because the danger it drew upon has abated nearly to nonexistence. Today, we live with a different kind of nuclear terror. It is narrower, and it no longer presents an existential threat to all of civilization and all of human life. But in no way is it lesswell, worrying.

On April 5th of last year, in Prague, President Obama said, 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. On April 13th of this year, in Washington, he said, Two decades after the end of the Cold War, we face a cruel irony of history: the risk of a nuclear confrontation between nations has gone down, but the risk of nuclear attack has gone up. During the year between those two nearly identical admonitions, an enormous amount of mostly quiet diplomatic and technical work was done.

Earlier this month, in an eight-day whirl of public activity, the President demonstrated the seriousness of his Administrations thoroughly post-Cold War approach to American nuclear-weapons policy. The central purpose of that policy is no longer to deter an attack from Russia or China. It is to galvanize an international effort to combat nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation. On April 6th, the Department of Defense released its Nuclear Posture Review, the first since 2002, which reduces the role of nuclear weapons in Americas national-security strategy. Among other things, it explicitly narrows the circumstances under which the United States would consider using nuclear weapons, ruling out their use against non-nuclear countries that adhere to the provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. On April 8th, Obama was back in Prague, to join Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian President, in signing what is being called New Start. Under the treaty, which supersedes the old Starts, negotiated by Presidents Reagan and Bush the elder, both countries will reduce their strategic-warhead deployments by nearly a third and their launchers by half.

Finally, on April 13th, Obama took the chair of a nuclear-security summit. With leaders of forty-seven countries in attendance, it was the largest international gathering that an American President has convened since the founding conference of the United Nations, in 1945. Its commonsense goalwhich the previous Administration pursued somewhere between lackadaisically and not at allwas to persuade participating governments to lock down their bomb-usable nuclear material, much of which is stored in military, civilian, and university installations that are dangerously insecure. (Commitments were made; whether they are kept will be tested at a similar conference two years hence.) Obamas nuclear spring will conclude in May, at a U.N. session aimed at strengthening the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which the President has made the organizing principle of his new nuclear strategy.

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