The potential spread of nuclear weapons to states and terrorists, the spread of nuclear technology and know-how and the residual nuclear threat from the cold war have brought us to the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear era. This unprecedented challenge to global security is the context for an extraordinary head-of-state-level meeting of the UN security council this week in New York, chaired by President Barack Obama.
We have arrived at this nuclear tipping point at a time when there are multiple challenges to our economic and national security. The global financial crisis, climate change and the enduring conflict in Afghanistan all rightly demand the urgent attention and focus of leaders and governments – and complicate efforts to maintain focus on any one challenge. Nevertheless, we are encouraged that over the past year, individuals and governments around the globe are daring to put forward bold approaches to reduce nuclear risks.In April, we had the privilege of hosting with former President Mikhail Gorbachev in Rome a conference on overcoming nuclear dangers that brought together more than 100 leaders and experts from around the world. We agreed on the importance of deep reductions in nuclear weapons as required by the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT) and on the crucial imperative of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in security policies.We also addressed the challenges and opportunities posed by the expansion of nuclear energy, as well as the key issue of strengthening the security of nuclear materials. The most essential point of agreement from the Rome conference: We must work together in a joint enterprise to effectively reduce nuclear dangers, involving both nuclear and non-nuclear countries in working on urgent and practical steps towards achieving the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.
Such a global effort is essential to reverse reliance on nuclear weapons, to prevent their spread into potentially dangerous hands and ultimately to end them as a threat to the world. Disarmament, non-proliferation and the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy remain, as matter of fact, the three mutually reinforcing pillars of the NPT. Reducing nuclear dangers means strengthening, in the first place, all three pillars.The call from the Rome conference for a joint enterprise among nations was given a substantial boost at the recent G8 summit in Italy, which was preceded by a similar appeal at the G8 ministerial meeting in Trieste. At the L'Aquila summit, the G8 – including four nuclear-weapon states that are party to the NPT – committed to seeking a safer world for all and to creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons.The G8 also made substantial progress in defining the necessary and practical steps that must be taken to improve our security now. There was strong support for ratification of the comprehensive test ban treaty in the US and entry into force of that agreement, as well as efforts by the US and Russia to conclude a replacement for the Start treaty before it expires this year and for the early commencement of multilateral negotiations on a treaty banning the production of fissile material for weapons.The G8 also made clear their support for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the IAEA safeguards agreement and additional protocol with tougher inspections as essential international standards. Importantly, they agreed that measures are needed to address non-compliance, to include real and immediate consequences for states that withdraw from the NPT while in violation of it, including appropriate action by the security council of the United Nations.The G8 also addressed head-on the serious concerns presented by Iran and North Korea. The G8 re-affirmed the inalienable right of all NPT parties – including Iran – to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and made clear that Iran does have an opportunity for reaching a comprehensive, peaceful and diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue.
But the G8 made clear there can be no cutting corners: Iran must recognise its obligation to restore confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear activities through compliance with the relevant UN security council resolutions and full cooperation with the IAEA. The G8 also condemned in the strongest terms the nuclear test conducted by North Korea, which undermines peace and stability in the region and beyond.The G8 under Italy's presidency has set out a daring and essential agenda. Now, the challenge – for governments, nongovernmental organisations and individuals – is to endure with the necessary unity and commitment to turn words into deeds. There are a number of crucial tests ahead of us, including the NPT review conference, which will start in April next year. In the face of the nuclear threat, we cannot fail.
Franco Frattini is the foreign minister of Italy. George Shultz was US secretary of state from 1982-1989 and is a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Sam Nunn is co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and a former US senator.