Everything on our small planet affects everything else. This interdependence is more a harsh reality than a New Age bromide. A diminishing few may still deny human agency in climate instability, but they can hardly pretend that diseases, or wind-driven pollution, are unstoppable by national borders. Even Donald Trump would not be able to build a wall that stopped the Zika virus, micro-particulates wafting from the coal plants of China, or the flow of radioactive water from Fukushima.
It is especially urgent that we understand the bizarre interdependence that arises from the reality that nine nations possess nuclear weapons. It no longer matters how many nuclear weapons a given nation has, because detonation of such weapons by any nation, even a relatively small portion of the world’s arsenals, could result in a “nuclear winter” that would have planet-wide effects.
We have reached a wall, not a physical Trump-style wall, but an absolute limit of destructive power that changes everything. The implications even reverberate back down into supposedly smaller, non-nuclear conflicts. The late Admiral Eugene Carroll, who was once in charge of all American nuclear weapons, said it straight out: “to prevent nuclear war, we must prevent all war.” Any war, including such regional conflicts as the ongoing border dispute in Kashmir between India and Pakistan, could rapidly escalate to the nuclear level.
Clearly this notion, understandable enough to a layperson like me, has not sunk in at the highest levels of foreign policy expertise in our own and other countries. If it had, the United States would not be committing itself to a trillion-dollar upgrade of its nuclear arsenal. Nor would Russia be spending more on such weapons, nor India, nor Pakistan.
The analogy with America’s gun obsession is inescapable. Many politicians and the lobbyists to contribute to their campaigns, defying common sense, advocate for an expansion of rights and permits to carry guns into classrooms and churches and even bars, arguing that if everyone had a gun we would all be more secure. Would the world be safer if more countries, or God forbid all countries, possessed nuclear weapons—or would we be safer if none did?
When it comes to how we think about these weapons, the concept of “enemy” itself needs to be mindfully re-examined. The weapons themselves have become everyone’s enemy, an enemy much fiercer than the most evil human adversary imaginable. Because we share the reality that my security depends upon yours and yours upon mine, the concept of an enemy that can be effectively annihilated by superior nuclear firepower has become obsolete. Meanwhile our thousands of weapons remain poised and ready for someone to make a fatal mistake and annihilate everything we cherish.
The most implacable adversaries are precisely the parties who should be reaching out and talking to each other with the most urgency: India and Pakistan, Russia and the U.S., South and North Korea. The difficult achievement of the treaty slowing and limiting the ability of Iran to make nuclear weapons is beyond laudable, but we need to augment its strength by building webs of friendship between U.S. and Iranian citizens. Instead, the status quo of mistrust is maintained by obsolete stereotypes reinforced by elected officials and pundits.
As important are treaties of non-proliferation and war-prevention, networks of genuine human relationship are even more crucial. As the peace activist David Hartsough has written about his recent trip to Russia: “Instead of sending military troops to the borders of Russia, let’s send lots more citizen diplomacy delegations like ours to Russia to get to know the Russian people and learn that we are all one human family. We can build peace and understanding between our peoples.” Again this may sound like a bromide to the political and media establishment, but instead it is the only realistic way our species can get past the wall of absolute destruction that contains no way out on the level of military superiority.
Reagan and Gorbachev came very close to agreeing to abolish their two nations’ nukes in their conference in Reykjavik in 1986. It could have happened. It should have happened. We need leaders with the vision and daring to push all-out for abolition. As a citizen with no special expertise, I cannot understand how a person as smart as President Obama could go to Hiroshima and hedge his statements about the abolition of nuclear weapons with mealy phrases like “We may not realize this goal in my lifetime.” I hope Mr. Obama makes as great an ex-president as has Jimmy Carter. Set free from the political constraints of his office, perhaps he will join Mr. Carter in robust peace initiatives that use his relationships with world leaders to seek real change.
His voice will be crucial, but it is only one voice. NGOs like Rotary International, with millions of members in thousands of clubs in hundreds of countries, are our safest, quickest way to real security. But for organizations like Rotary to really take on war prevention as it took on the worldwide eradication of polio, rank-and-file Rotarians, like all citizens, must awaken to the degree to which everything has changed, and reach across walls of alienation to supposed enemies. The horrific possibility of nuclear winter is in an odd way positive, because it represents the self-defeating absolute limit of military force up against which the whole planet has come. We all find ourselves up against a wall of impending doom—and potential hope.