Our Generation's Security Challenge: Eliminating Nuclear Weapons

There are approximately 17,300 nuclear weapons in the world across nine countries. Of these, nearly 7,700 are in the United States.

This is why we should pay attention to President Obama's call to action in Berlin. It was a call for all of us to remember that the manmade threat of extinction is still present, but within our control to change.

Our massive stockpile of nuclear weapons was designed to fight a foe -- the Soviet Union -- that no longer exists. It costs between $60-70 billion per year to maintain this arsenal.

In an era of fiscal stress and tight budgets, where security threats are transnational and distinct from the Cold War, what justification do we have for maintaining such a large nuclear arsenal?

It turns out, not much.

There is a consensus among senior defense and security officials that we should reshape our nuclear forces and use the financial savings to fund other national security priorities. By reshaping our nuclear arsenal, we would allow our national security strategy to redirect resources to combatting the threats of the 21st century, such as terrorism, cyber dangers, pandemics, and global warming.

Obama's speech is not the first time a president has made this point.

Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush both recognized the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and made changes in our country's force structure through executive decisions, reducing our nuclear arsenal by thousands of weapons.

President Obama has followed their example by negotiating a treaty with Russia to reduce each country's nuclear arsenals to more reasonable levels. And he is following the Bushes' wise precedent of making executive decisions to address the threat that nuclear weapons pose to global security.

He is doing so in close consultation with our allies in Europe and with Russia, and is basing it upon the advice of our nation's military and security leaders. They all support the view that the size of the American nuclear arsenal today far exceeds any utility it may once have had in protecting both American and our allies' security.

Therefore, a new round of reductions to a level up to one-third below what the U.S. will have when it reaches the New START Treaty mandated levels of 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, as outlined by the president in Berlin, is both reasonable and smart, safeguards American security, honors our country's commitments to our allies, and saves money for the American taxpayer.

This announcement, which reaffirms the president's vision of achieving the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons that he first articulated in 2009 in Prague is a call to action for all Americans.

And it is a call that puts our adversaries on notice as well. The international community is clamoring for efforts to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and nuclear states in the world. The tremendous global effort that has been put to combat both Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs -- led by the United States -- is the best evidence of this desire.

Strong American leadership on this issue, as symbolized by the president's speech, adds momentum to the efforts to prevent the proliferation of these destructive weapons. If we expect other countries to fulfill their obligations to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, the United States must live up to our own commitment to reduce our stockpiles. As we do, the international nonproliferation regime will be strengthened and America will gain more leverage to deal with nuclear programs in places like Pakistan, North Korea and Iran.

The president's speech however is more than a call to action. It is also a test. It is a test to our adversaries, to put them on notice that we are serious about changing the way the world views nuclear weapons.

And this challenge is also a test for our nation and for humanity. Will we take the steps needed to eliminate this danger, to strengthen global security, to get our fiscal house in order, or will we give in to fear and keep the status quo, with the unending expense and danger that it presents?

This is our generation's challenge. And it is a challenge that we must meet.

This piece originally appeared on Ploughshares Fund's blog.