While peace has always been a desired yet seemingly utopian goal, in the Nuclear Age it has become an imperative. Peace, along with environmental protection, upholding human rights and the alleviation of poverty, stands as one of the foremost imperatives of the 21 st century.
The creation and use of nuclear weapons was a watershed moment in human history. We obtained weapons which, for the first time, had the capacity to destroy the human species and most other life on the planet. With this power came new responsibility, the responsibility of people everywhere to wage peace. One of the most insightful men of the 20 th century, Albert Camus, noted this almost immediately after the bombing of Hiroshima . “Before the terrifying prospects now available to humanity,” Camus wrote, “we see even more clearly that peace is the only battle worth waging.”
During the Cold War, powerful nations relied heavily on nuclear deterrence for security. This was a strategy fraught with danger since nuclear deterrence always had grave problems. The success of deterrence was dependent upon avoiding miscommunications, miscalculations, accidents and human irrationality in times of crisis – a nearly impossible task. Deterrence always demanded greater perfection of humans and our systems than we are capable of assuring, particularly in situations where there is zero tolerance for error.
If nuclear deterrence had problems during the Cold War standoff, its problems dramatically increased in the post-Cold War period. Deterrence simply has no value when applied to non-state extremist groups. It is impossible to deter those who cannot be located or who do not care about the consequences of their acts. The most powerful nuclear arsenals in the world cannot provide an ounce of security against a terrorist group armed with a single nuclear weapon. A truth that has been difficult for the leaders of nuclear weapons states to grasp is that nuclear weapons have far greater utility in the hands of the weak than in those of the strong.
If the most powerful weapons in the world cannot provide security to the most powerful countries in the world, what are we to do? We must chart a new course toward the creation of a peaceful and nuclear weapons-free world. Because of its history and its economic and military power, the United States must be a leader on the path to peace if we are to achieve peace.
Waging Peace requires a new way of viewing the world. There is no longer room for policies of US exceptionalism. All nations must adhere to international law, and no nation can stand above the law, including the US . If peace is an imperative of the Nuclear Age, the way to peace is through the strengthening and enforcement of international law, applied equally and fairly to all.
The United Nations Charter was created to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” by leaders who had lived through the two devastating world wars of the 20 th century. The Charter prohibits war except in self-defense or upon authorization of the UN Security Council. It is neither lawful nor wise to engage in preventive war, attacking another nation on the assumption that nation may be considering an attack on you. Such actions by powerful nations not only lead to the tragedy and misery of war, but set a precedent that could result in international chaos.
The United States takes pride in its long-standing ethic of abiding by the law and of upholding the principle that no man stands above the law. The law of the land, according to Article VI, Section 2 of the US Constitution, includes treaties duly signed and ratified by the United States , including therefore the United Nations Charter. We share an obligation to uphold the UN Charter and to help maintain its provisions limiting the use of force.
Governments do not always do the right thing, nor what is lawful. It is the responsibility of citizens to hold their governments in check and to hold their leaders accountable when they violate the law. The great lesson of Nuremberg after World War II was that no leader, no matter how high his position, stands above international law, and if leaders violate that law, they shall be brought to account. Today, the Principles of Nuremberg have been brought into the Nuclear Age by the creation of an International Criminal Court. Although some 100 countries, including nearly all US allies, are parties to the treaty establishing the Court, the United States withdrew its signature from the treaty and has actively opposed the Court. This represents a great failure of US leadership in the world.
To make the United States a leading force in the global effort to achieve peace in the 21 st century will require a great effort by US citizens. It will require us to step forward and demand of our government an end to international lawlessness and the active promotion of peace and human rights throughout the world. Peace cannot stand without justice, and justice cannot stand without an active citizenry promoting it. There must be one standard for all, and that standard must be justice for all, as called for by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Peace is an ongoing process. It begins with the first step and it does not end. We, all of us alive today, are the gatekeepers to the future. The world we bequeath to our children and grandchildren will depend upon our success in building a more peaceful and decent world. Some 50 years ago, Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein issued an appeal in which they concluded, “Remember your humanity and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise ; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.”
Let us remember our humanity, choose hope and peace, and accept our own share of responsibility for waging peace now and throughout our lives. Each of us by our daily acts of peace and our commitment to building a better world can inspire others and help create a groundswell for peace too powerful to be turned aside.
David Krieger is a founder of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org) and has served as its president since 1982. He is a leader in the global movement for a world free of nuclear weapons and is the author of many books and articles on peace in the Nuclear Age.