The distractions of the Trump presidency, even including Russian attempts to hack our democracy, have swamped events that may in the long run be of far greater historical significance. A primary example is the historic ongoing U.N. conference concerning the prohibition and eventual abolition of nuclear weapons— and our own nation’s unwise boycott of same.
From the New York Times: “’There is nothing I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons, Ambassador Nikki Haley told reporters outside the General Assembly as the talks began. ‘But we have to be realistic. Is there anyone who thinks that North Korea would ban nuclear weapons?’”
For the 130 nations who voted to support just such a ban and put nuclear weapons in the same category as chemical weapons, land mines, and cluster munitions, realism clearly means something very different from what it means to Ambassador Haley.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in private correspondence back in 1823 that the Declaration of Independence was intended to "place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take."
For the vast majority of the global community who are “taking an independent stand,” “the common sense of the subject” is that nuclear weapons have become an unworkable response to the great challenge of world security.
Even if one grants reluctantly that for decades in the past nuclear weapons have played an important role in preventing a third World War, the historical lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 does not bode at all well for a future in which deterrence continues to work perfectly.
The stakes are simply too high. The technological complexity not only of the weapons possessed by the nine existing nuclear powers, but of the electronics of command and control and communication connected to the weapons, are so complex as to dwarf utterly the complexity of the safety systems that failed in such disasters as the reactor failures at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Controlling these fallible, perhaps hackable, systems are hundreds of thousands of humans with a tendency to misinterpret incoming data according to their own prejudices and fears.
Ambassador Haley’s tragic realism is presumably based in the necessity of maintaining deterrent credibility. In other words, if the United States participated in the talks, it would allow adversaries like North Korea’s leaders to question the credibility of our willingness to destroy them utterly either if they make unwise aggressive moves, or even if they merely continue to pursue the goal of deterrent parity out of concern that we are an existential threat to them—a mutually paranoid echo chamber that leaves out the desire of both sides to survive.
130 nations have moved beyond the obsolete logic of nuclear deterrence, and this must be counted a moment of enormous import for the history of the nuclear age—an age that has only two possible endings: planetary annihilation, or the complete, reciprocal, verifiable abolition of all nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia and other nations who boycotted the conference or voted against its laudable aims will have to answer to the billions of citizens in the supportive nations who will exert an ever greater moral force upon the nuclear holdouts.
A further performative contradiction of nuclear deterrence as a foundation of international security is the possibility of nuclear winter. Scientists have devised sophisticated computer models that show how small a number of nuclear detonations it would take to upload enough soot and ash into the upper atmosphere to transform global agriculture for a decade—effecting inherent defeat upon the nation that initiated the attack, upon all the other nuclear powers, and upon the 130 nations who have already realized that nuclear deterrence is a labyrinth with no exit.
The last dimension of these weapons that cries out for more discussion is their cost. The United States is planning to spend over a trillion dollars over the next three decades to modernize our weapons systems. 130 nations already understand full well that resources on that level redirected to meeting genuine human and environmental challenges could provide a far more stable security foundation than the deterrence system. Speaking only of meeting needs in the United States, with that kind of money we could easily supply free health care from cradle to grave
for every American.
Our founders felt the need to explain clearly in the Declaration, out of a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind,” exactly why we broke away from Great Britain more than two centuries ago. The vote against nuclear weapons by 130 nations represents a new declaration of interdependence, equally an affirmation of common sense. If our country still respects the opinions of such a majority, it should be a good deal more forthright than Ambassador Haley has been so far as to why we are not ourselves joining efforts to end the abomination of nuclear weapons.