Leading article: President Obama's sound nuclear statesmanship

Only a consensual approach can meet the challenge of proliferation
Click to follow

Sometimes the British political discourse reveals itself to be hopelessly parochial. The furore about Barack Obama's "snub" to Gordon Brown betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the Obama White House does business. This administration – unlike the previous one – is less interested in bunkering down with ideological allies like Britain than reaching across divides of mistrust to get things accomplished. In a hectic week such as this, Mr Obama, understandably, has little time to spend preaching to the choir.

The President's approach to nuclear proliferation demonstrates this new way of working. Mr Obama personally chaired a meeting of the United Nations Security Council yesterday which produced a resolution pledging fresh efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and to promote disarmament. Mr Obama also wants America to ratify the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty, ending years of foot-dragging by the US.

All this activity represents a major boost to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT), the great collective effort of 1968 to edge the world away from the precipice of nuclear destruction. The agenda of global nuclear disarmament has grown very forlorn in recent years. Any hopes that the end of the Cold War would bring a nuclear-free world closer were dashed by the secret development of nuclear weapons by Pakistan, India and North Korea. And now there are fears that Iran is moving down that same road.

The NNPT has also been undermined by the failure of the dominant nuclear powers of the Cold War – America, Russia, France, China and Britain – to reduce their stockpiles of weapons, as the treaty demands of them. President Obama is now showing that the world's remaining superpower is prepared to live up to its side of the bargain and will pressure others to do the same.

This renewed support for the multilateral principles of the NNPT is good global politics. It will undermine the argument made by the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the UN General Assembly this week that America and other nuclear powers are simply hypocritical bullies, intent on keeping smaller nations in their place.

Mr Obama's efforts are a demonstration of good faith which his administration can take into meetings with the Iranian regime next month. They will also make it easier for the US to build a coalition of support for sanctions against Tehran should those talks break down.

What Mr Obama recognises is that the cynical principles of realpolitik have no utility when it comes to a challenge such as nuclear proliferation. For disarmament to become a reality, nations need to come to the negotiating table with not just their narrow self-interest, but a sense of the common global good in mind.

It is all too easy to see how a new global arms race could begin. If nuclear powers fail to reduce their stockpiles, smaller nations will continue to feel a need to level the playing field by creating their own capacity. As these states "go nuclear", larger regional powers such as Japan, Brazil and South Africa that had previously decided not to pursue nuclear weapons will feel pressure to join the race on the grounds of "security".

International statesmanship of a high order is needed to reverse this dismal dynamic and set the world on a safer course. It remains to be seen if he will be successful, but Mr Obama is certainly trying to rise to the occasion. All those who want a world free from the threat of nuclear annihilation need to pray he is successful.