The Nuclear Age began with the utter destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Survivors of these bombings have borne witness to the death, devastation, pain and suffering that resulted from the use of nuclear weapons. They have given ample testimony to the horrors they experienced. Their most powerful and persistent insight is: “We must abolish nuclear weapons before they abolish us.” The “we” in that statement is “humanity” and the “us” is “all of us.”
The weapons used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were small compared to the thermonuclear weapons subsequently developed, including those in today’s nuclear arsenals.
The use of only one or two percent of the more than 15,000 nuclear weapons in modern nuclear arsenals would likely destroy civilization and could destroy much of life on Earth. Rather than engaging in serious nuclear disarmament efforts, however, all nine nuclear-armed countries are in the process of modernizing and upgrading their nuclear arsenals.
It is clear, but not widely considered, that today’s nuclear arsenals threaten all we love and treasure, make humans an endangered species, and undermine our stewardship of the planet.
A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, some 1,800 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the United States and Russia remain on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired within moments of an order to do so. This is literally a disaster waiting to happen.
Nuclear trouble spots are intensifying across the globe, but particularly in relations between former Cold War adversaries, U.S. and Russia, leading some analysts to describe the situation as a new cold war.
Expanding NATO membership to Russia’s borders, in spite of promises not to do so, has been among the major factors causing deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations.
The U.S. has deployed missile defense installations on military bases of NATO members close to the Russian border. The Russians view missile defenses as dangerous dual-purpose technology (with offensive as well as defensive capabilities), and these installations are heightening tensions between Russia and the West.
Similar tensions are developing in East Asia as a result of the deployment of U.S. missile defense installations in that region, viewed by China as undermining its minimum deterrent force and helping to drive the modernization of the Chinese nuclear arsenal. Tensions also remain high in South Asia and the Middle East.
Against this backdrop of danger and uncertainty, the nuclear disarmament obligations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are not being fulfilled by the nuclear weapon states that are parties to the treaty, thus breaching the treaty and violating the bargain of the treaty. In a bold action, the tiny Pacific Island state, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, brought lawsuits in 2014 against the nine nuclear-armed countries for breaching their obligations under the NPT and/or customary international law to negotiate in good faith for an end to the nuclear arms race and for nuclear disarmament.
Among the nine nuclear-armed countries and those countries under the “nuclear umbrella” of the United States (the 28 NATO countries and Australia, Japan, Republic of Korea and Taiwan), there appears to be little political will for nuclear disarmament and the public in these countries seems to be largely complacent.
The Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists stands at three minutes to midnight, close to doomsday. And yet, humanity is experiencing the “frog’s malaise.” It is as though the human species has been placed into a pot of tepid water and is content to calmly stay there treading water while the temperature rises to the fatal boiling point.
As Noam Chomsky analyzes the situation, “Nuclear weapons pose a constant danger of instant destruction, but at least we know in principle how to alleviate the threat, even to eliminate it, an obligation undertaken (and disregarded) by the nuclear powers that have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.”
Humanity stands at the edge of a nuclear precipice. Our choices are to do nothing or to back away from the precipice and change course. We can remain complacent, and thus unengaged, in the face of the threat, or we can become engaged and demand the elimination of nuclear weapons before they are used again by mistake, miscalculation or malice. There is no meaningful middle ground.
How is humanity to shoulder the moral burden for species survival that is our collective responsibility in the Nuclear Age?
We must change the discourse on nuclear dangers and the actions that follow from it.
We must awaken, create and build a movement that is powerful enough to achieve the political will to end the nuclear era.
The movement must have one simple demand that resonates across the globe – a world free of nuclear weapons. This must be conveyed to political leaders as an urgent and essential goal for assuring the future of humanity. Once the goal is widely accepted, steps along the way must be agreed upon. Meaningful steps would include:
The Nuclear Age is a time of great challenge. We must raise the level of our moral and political engagement to assure that globally we are able to control the power of our destructive technologies. Youth must lead the way in creating a new human epoch that is characterized by the seven C’s: compassion, commitment, courage, conscience, creativity, cooperation and celebration.
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). He is the author and editor of many books on peace and nuclear weapons abolition, including “Speaking of Peace: Quotations to Inspire Action.”