This article was originally published as an interview in The Moon.
Given the history of military spending and engagement on the part of the United States, it may seem naïve to think that Americans are ready to change course—or begin again—on issues of peace and disarmament. But as I write this, there is promising political support to put military spending on the table in order to move toward balancing the federal budget. Even more important, the public is realizing that nine years of war in Iraq and eleven years of war in Afghanistan have accomplished very little for the cost of the lives lost and destroyed and the trillions of dollars spent. We’ve tried controlling the world through military means and it has failed.
Failure forces us to find new ways of resolving conflict—by turning enemies into friends. We need to apply the example of a conscientious adult who tells a frustrated child to “use your words, not your fists,” because any war in the Nuclear Age has the potential to become a nuclear war with uncertain, but surely catastrophic, consequences.
As humans, our primary responsibility is to pass this beautiful planet on intact to new generations that will follow us. Hopefully, it will not require an apocalypse to move humanity toward creating a saner and more just world. This is why we have imaginations. We don’t need to experience a nuclear war or the melting of the Arctic ice to understand that the consequences would be catastrophic.
The threads that humanity might use to create a more peaceful world are our desire for justice, our love of beauty, our appreciation for our planetary home. There can be no peace without justice, and there can be no justice in a world divided between the very rich and those too poor to enjoy even the necessities of life. All human beings, regardless of borders, are entitled to the basic rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These cannot be relegated to historical values or aspirational values; they must be values we live by now.
We must repudiate the so-called “realists” who have led us to the brink of disaster through strategies and technologies of mass annihilation. We must reclaim the power of choice: we can follow these realists over the cliff, or we can step back and assert our humanity. We can stop basing our perceived security on the threat to murder hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people.
We have seen the face of absolute war – war from which there is no recovery, no survival. Is that the world we wish to pass on to our children and grandchildren? Surely most people would say No, and rebel against the path we are on. This will not be easy, but it is certainly possible. All it requires is awakening to our nuclear dilemma – one in which we are both potential victims and executioners.
Our challenge is to find our way out of the Nuclear Age. We need leaders who can help us find a new path to a better world. Each of us has the potential to be such a leader. Peace leaders use the tools of persuasion and nonviolence. They lead with discipline, but their power derives from the heart and is based upon empathy, compassion and love.
Although new beginnings can arise from the ashes of bad endings, where nuclear war is concerned, it would be far preferable for a new beginning to arise from new wisdom. I agree with Albert Einstein, who warned, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
Where better to find new wisdom than in the hearts and voices of young people?
I’ve always thought that if the young were to take up the cause of ridding the world of nuclear weapons, they would be successful where adults have failed. Too many adults believe that nuclear weapons are tied to peace and security. Young people can more clearly see that nuclear weapons undermine security for all—and particularly for those with longer future horizons. If enough young people were to raise their voices for the abolition of these weapons, I think that the public, political leaders and the international community would have no choice but to listen and act.
Success will require far greater public engagement, political will and international cooperation than we are accustomed to, but the alternative is unthinkable. That’s why I believe the beginning of peace is near…in fact, is now.
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.