Blog Post - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Contemporary Steps Toward Genuine Peace

| June 07, 2023

In “A Strategy of Peace,” President Kennedy outlined a gradual evolution toward genuine peace, a dynamic process to bridge the evident divide between the two major nuclear powers of the day. Over fifty years later, President Obama’s address in Prague echoed many of Kennedy’s core themes: the danger posed by the continued existence of nuclear weapons and the need for cooperation in the face of seemingly intractable differences. Both speeches were products of their time, with distinct assessments of the most vital steps to move toward genuine peace. Certain goals maintained their significance across the decades, such as the aim to curtail or end nuclear testing and check arms racing. Nevertheless, Obama’s address introduced new challenges, including the growing threat of nuclear proliferation, concerns surrounding a nuclear-capable Iran, and the dangers of nuclear terrorism.

What are the current essential steps toward genuine peace? Many of the two presidents’ shared priorities remain imperative. Public restatement that even limited nuclear use would lead to disastrous humanitarian consequences is undoubtedly a critical priority, especially in light of Russia’s nuclear threats. The ratification of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, an unfulfilled measure for both Kennedy and Obama, continues to offer a more comprehensive route to guard against the renewed threat of proliferation and the return to widespread nuclear testing. However, perhaps the most pressing issue, the absence of communication between the three major nuclear powers, highlights the importance of the two presidents’ most powerful message: steps toward genuine peace should be sought out regardless of the level of enmity between nations. The New START treaty, a notable success of the Obama administration, partially remains in force even though negotiations on a follow-on are unlikely. The fragility of the existing arrangement necessitates renewed dialogue to sustain and build on one of the few barriers to a new arms race. While the absence of communication with China on nuclear issues poses an obstacle to arms control and risk reduction, efforts to identify areas of shared interest constitute a crucial step in the hope of more comprehensive cooperation.

Despite the evolving priorities in the pursuit of peace over time, Kennedy and Obama’s speeches demonstrate the need for decisive presidential action, particularly when the scale of division between states is seen as a fundamental barrier to progress. This pursuit of cooperation does not require supporting unjust acts or endorsing a nation’s leadership. Instead, recognizing that the existence of nuclear weapons continues to pose an existential threat is sufficient to seek out new measures toward genuine peace. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Hartwell, Matthew.Contemporary Steps Toward Genuine Peace.” Reflections on John F. Kennedy's 1963 American University Commencement Speech, June 7, 2023,

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