In the State of the Union address, President Obama once again failed to rekindle his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. This is inexcusable. The Cold War ended nearly 25 years ago, but the threat of nuclear annihilation remains. Preventing nuclear disaster is possible, but it requires a serious commitment from all of us – the government, private sector, and regular citizens.

Reigniting the national conversation about nuclear security is no easy task. Once an issue at the forefront of public debate, the topic has all but vanished.


When the Soviet Union disintegrated, so did the public’s sense of impending nuclear doom. A false belief that nuclear weapons no longer pose an existential threat to the human race has settled in. In a way it’s almost understandable. It has been decades since “duck and cover” drills were practiced in schools, and the anti-nuclear movement which saw massive protests across the globe seems to have come crashing down along with the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Although the Cold War came to an end, an unacceptably high number of nuclear weapons remain, ready to launch at a moments notice. Currently the U.S. and Russia retain approximately 4,800 nuclear weapons each. This arsenal has the power to destroy the world several times over.

The nukes themselves aren’t the only danger.

According to a report published by the Arms Control Association (ACA), the U.S. is going to spend $355 billion over the next decade on modernizing and upgrading the nuclear arsenal. Over the next 30 years, the bill could add up to $1 trillion. Instead of spending less on nukes, we’re spending more - and a new nuclear arsenal comes at the expense of more important national security programs.

Obama is backsliding on his nuclear promise. Fortunately there are concrete steps Congress can take to roll back the bloated nuclear weapons budget.

That same ACA report details how the Pentagon stands to save roughly $70 billion over the next decade by cutting strategically outdated nuclear weapons systems, expanding the lifetime of existing programs and reducing the amount of nuclear submarines in our fleet from twelve to eight.

“Spending on nuclear weapons squanders the wealth of nations,” Pope Francis told delegates at the 2014 Conference on the Humanitarian Impact on Nuclear Weapons. He added that “the survival of the human family hinges” on securing a world free of nuclear weapons.

History has taught us that unless there is a popular movement for change, the status quo will always remain the same. This was the case with women's suffrage, civil rights, and the LGBT movement.

If humanity is ever to be free from the threat of nuclear catastrophe, people need to stand up and demand further action on nuclear reductions from their representatives. The debate on nuclear security has to be revived, and citizens must hold their leaders accountable for holding the entire world hostage for the sake of a false sense of security.

Over the years President Obama has set several ambitious policy goals for his presidency, and it is unrealistic to expect him to follow through on all of them. Moving towards a world free of nuclear weapons, however, is a promise worth holding him to.

Saetren is a research assistant at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. He has a master’s degree in Comparative Politics with a focus in the Russian political system and the Cold War.