PRAGUE - Declaring the future of mankind at stake, President Barack Obama on Sunday said all nations must strive torid the world of nuclear arms and that the U.S. had a "moralresponsibility" to lead because no other country has used one.
A North Korean rocket launch upstaged Obama's idealistic call toaction, delivered in the capital of the Czech Republic, a formersatellite of the Soviet Union. But Obama dismissed those who saythe spread of nuclear weapons, "the most dangerous legacy of theCold War," cannot be checked.
"This goal will not be reached quickly -- perhaps not in mylifetime," he told a cheering crowd of more than 20,000 in thehistoric square outside the Prague Castle gates. We "must ignorethe voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have toinsist, 'Yes, we can."'
Few experts think it's possible to completely eradicate nuclearweapons, and many say it wouldn't be a good idea even if it couldbe done. Even backward nations such as North Korea have shown theycan develop bombs, given enough time.
But a program to drastically cut the world atomic arsenalcarries support from scientists and lions of the foreign policyworld. Obama embraced that step as his first goal and chose as thevenue for his address a nation that peacefully threw off communismand helped topple the Soviet Union, despite its nuclear power.
But he said his own country, with its huge arsenal and itshistory using two atomic bombs against Japan in 1945, had to leadthe world. He saids a "moral responsibility" to start takingsteps now.
"To reduce our warheads and stockpiles, we will negotiate a newStrategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians this year," hepromised.
The nuclear-free cause is more potent in Europe than in theUnited States, where even Democratic politicians such as Obama mustavoid being labeled as soft or naive if they endorse it. Still,Obama said he would resubmit a proposed Comprehensive Test BanTreaty to the Senate for ratification. The pact was signed by President Clinton but rejected by the Senate in 1999.
While espousing long-term goals, Obama took care to promise thatAmerica would not lower its defenses while others are pursuing anuclear threat. He warned both North Korea, which has tested anuclear weapon, and Iran, which the West says is developing one,that the world was against them.
Obama gave his most unequivocal pledge yet to proceed withbuilding a missile defense system in Europe, so long as Iranpursues nuclear weapons, a charge it denies. That shield is to bebased in the Czech Republic and Poland. Those countries are onRussia's doorstep, and the missile shield has contributed to asignificant decline in U.S.-Russia relations.
In the interest of resetting ties with Moscow, Obama previouslyhad appeared to soft-pedal his support for the Bush-era shieldproposal. But he adopted a different tone in Prague.
"As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forwardwith a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven,"Obama said, earning cheers from the crowd.
Hours before the address, an aide awoke Obama in his hotel roomto tell him that North Korea had make good on its pledge to launcha long-range rocket. By lunchtime, the president had addressed itpublicly nearly half a dozen times.
"Rules must be binding," he said. "Violations must bepunished. Words must mean something."
"Now is the time for a strong international response," hesaid.
On the broader anti-nuclear issue, more than 140 nations haveratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. But 44 states thatpossess nuclear technology need to both sign and ratify it beforeit can take effect and only 35 have do so. The United States isamong the holdouts, along with China, Egypt, India, Indonesia,Iran, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan.
Ratification was one of several "concrete steps" Obamaoutlined as necessary to move toward a nuclear-free world. He alsocalled for reducing the role of nuclear weapons in Americannational security strategy and seeking a new treaty to end theproduction of fissile materials used in nuclear weapons.
Obama said the U.S. will seek to strengthen the nuclearnonproliferation treaty by providing more resources and authorityfor international inspections and mandating "real and immediateconsequences" for countries that violate the treaty.
He offered few details of how he would accomplish his largergoal and acknowledged that "in a strange turn of history, thethreat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of anuclear attack has gone up."