OPINION: A nuke free world?

When a fully loaded aircraft crash-landed on the river Hudson without loss of life, the people emerging from the plane appeared to walk on water.

Welcome to the era of Barack Obama.

President Obama will need all his miraculous powers if he is to satisfy the aspirations of the people who elected him.

He inherits an economy facing perhaps its biggest ever economic crisis, with collapsing banks, insolvent car-makers, lengthening dole queues and a broken health-care system.

There is growing anger at the handouts to banks and other big corporations whose own greed and folly led to their downfall while ordinary US citizens struggle to save their jobs and their homes.

Obama will be judged not just by his management of the domestic economy but by how far he meets his commitments to tackle climate change and end the war on terror.

During his campaign, Obama often spoke of his vision of a nuclear-free world and his commitment not to develop new nuclear weapons.

This chimes with the growing support across the world for a global treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons.

Former statesmen such as George Schultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn have renewed their calls for steps towards a nuclear-free world in the Wall Street Journal this month.

Across the world, opinion polls have shown widespread support for such an international treaty, including 70 per cent support in the US.

In November, UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon published his Five Steps To A Nuclear-free World.

Since then, Global Zero has been launched, bringing celebrities and major world statesmen and women into the campaign and broadening its appeal.

Further hope that Obama may actually carry out his pledges came from the appointment of John Holdren, a Harvard professor with a long record of support for nuclear disarmament, as science adviser.

And, since being sworn in, the new administration has set out the aim of a nuclear-free world as one of its key foreign policy objectives on the White House website. So far, so good.

But the key to opening up a new disarmament process is constructive negotiations with Russia to make deep bilateral cuts in nuclear weapons.

And, for Russia, there will be two related stumbling blocks - missile defence and the expansion of NATO.

Obama has been ambiguous on the issue of missile defence.

The appointment of Robert Gates as defence secretary does not inspire confidence. From his early career at the CIA to his position as defence secretary for Bush, Gates has been a major advocate of missile defence.

The prime contractors Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are likely to fight hard to stop the programme being cancelled.

The other problem is the expansion of NATO.

Obama has stated that he supports the recruitment of Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance, despite clear opposition from many European NATO members.

The depth of Russia's concern about NATO encirclement was exposed by the short war in Georgia last August.

The appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state could harden Obama's position on NATO expansion.

Bill Clinton's administration oversaw the first round of NATO expansion which resulted in the accession of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in March 1999 and Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia five years later.

As US senator, Hillary Clinton voted in favour of NATO expansion and co-sponsored a resolution in favour of NATO entry for Ukraine and Georgia.

Obama has emphasised diplomacy and working with allies as an alternative to the confrontational unilateralism of the Bush era.

NATO would seem to be a key vehicle for that - a vehicle in which 26 states of Europe and north America can be bound into an agenda set by the US and add some 'legitimacy' to the future threat or use of military power.

NATO is increasingly acquiring an offensive role and the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine would provide a gateway to the Black Sea and the Caspian.

But the world has changed. Today, even the 'soft power' of President Obama cannot be sure of holding sway in the alliance.

For the past six years, NATO has been divided and paralysed because of deep differences over the war in Iraq, the role of an EU army, the commitment of individual nations to the fighting in Afghanistan and over current plans to expand NATO.

These cracks could widen if the new administration insists on expanding NATO at the expense of relations with Russia.

If Obama really wants to make progress towards a nuclear-free world, he will have to halt missile defence and the expansion of NATO.

That huge wave of activism which swept him to power is needed now more than ever.

Reprinted from the Morning Star Alan Mackinnon is chairman of Scottish CND. www.banthebomb.org www.scotland4peace.org