Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Unmentionable

The silence is deafening. Not once has a professional journalist raised the question about the issue in all the debates of either party. If any citizen broached a concern about it in close encounters with candidates during the primaries, it’s news to me.

I’m speaking, of course, about the plans of the United States government to spend upwards of a trillion dollars over the next few decades to renew our already bloated nuclear arsenal.

In the long, painful history of war, every weapon invented has eventually been used. There is no reason nuclear weapons will be any different—sadly we witnessed this in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But wait, maybe there is a reason it could be different with nukes. That reason is a ray of hope and sanity: computer models suggest that a war that used as few as .05% of nuclear weapons in the world’s arsenals could cause worldwide climate change and subsequent famine. What makes this hopeful, and not a further nightmare?

Because the absolute negativity of nuclear winter is something all nations share as the context of negotiation toward less and less rather than more and more, or newer and newer, weapons systems. Our military rationalizes renewal by saying they are developing smaller and more precise nuclear weapons. This only makes more likely the possibility of crossing the nuclear threshold in the midst of battle. The hope that escalation can be controlled is a mirage.

Many of us have serious reservations about letting someone like Mr. Trump anywhere near such weapons. The truth is that they are way too powerful for any human, no matter how smart or professionally trained, to use as a strategic tool.

Obsolete establishment logic goes like this: the only way to make sure these horrendous weapons will never be used is for the U.S. to possess overwhelming nuclear superiority. Politicians cling to this unworkable status quo because disarmament plans with teeth are a political third rail. Admitting the futility of nuclear strategy suggests to the electorate appeasement or cowardice, leaving aside the threat to the bottom line of weapons manufacturers. Dr. Ashton Carter, our Secretary of Defense, recently gave a speech to the Commonwealth Club firmly declaring the unavoidability of the trillion-dollar upgrade.

We don’t have to be experts to see that this is nonsense posing as sober-sided necessity. Carter’s confident assertion only becomes an incentive for other nuclear powers to keep up. We build, they build, toward an inevitable omega-point of misunderstanding, misjudgment, and mass death.

Meanwhile where is that trillion dollars really needed, if we are to have any realistic chance of preventing tragedy? Wouldn’t it be to mitigate the effects of global climate change, the disruptions of which strategists predict will be the major cause of future conflicts? Wouldn’t it be to accelerate the process of global transition to sustainable energy and agriculture? A trillion would be more than enough.

Whether in Russia or China, in Israel or North Korea, in India or Pakistan, in Britain or the U.S., the empire of deterrence has no clothes. The U.S. should lead by example and begin to cut back on present levels of armaments, instead of doing just the opposite as the primary driver of a race toward the ever-receding goal of superiority.

We should participate vigorously in existing conferences on nuclear weapons built around helping the nine present nuclear powers to live up to our obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. We should aggressively advocate for new conferences, weapons sales bans, and weapons-free areas. Twenty-four American cities or counties, points of common sense in a sea of darkness, have declared themselves nuclear-free zones.

The community of nations—and without nuclear weapons we would indeed be more of a community—choosing together to turn away from certain mass death and toward life for all will be a useful precedent for finding solutions to other international challenges including global climate instability.

Let’s mention the unmentionable, and urge candidates to tell us where they stand on nuclear weapons renewal as a crucial test of our national vision.