The Twin Horsemen of the New Apocalypse:

Slowly, the nuclear genie escapes from the carefully constructed bottle of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, threatening the world with annihilation.

Inexorably, global warming advances across the decades as temperatures climb, fires rage, glaciers melt, droughts escalate, hurricanes intensify, habitats shrink, species disappear.

These, then are the twin horsemen of the new apocalypse: the prospect of nuclear war and the reality of global warming.

No biblical prophesy this. The pale riders mounted upon these steeds are men, and they wait eagerly at the gate, their time come at last. Arrogance is their vehicle; hypocrisy their fuel.

We are Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds

Imagine a world in which more than twenty-five countries possessed nuclear weapons, instead of the nine that do now. Imagine that number relentlessly growing, decade by decade until a hundred or more nations – all but the very poorest – were capable of detonating a nuclear device and initiating a nuclear holocaust. In such a world, the unthinkable would become the inevitable.

The only reason we’re not living in that world today is that in 1968, the international community seized a rare moment of sanity and produced the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, stuffing the nuclear genie back in its bottle.

Led by Ireland and Finland, 189 states signed the treaty.

The NNPT was supposed to work as follows: Nations who had not yet developed nuclear weapons agreed not to pursue a nuclear arsenal. In return, nations possessing nuclear weapons agreed “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

In short, the treaty was a quid-pro-quo. Nuclear have-nots agreed not to obtain nuclear weapons in exchange for nuclear haves agreeing to take real, verifiable steps to get rid of theirs.

Now imagine a nation that broke this grand bargain, and risked bringing forth death and destruction of biblical proportion. That nation exists. It is US.


At the time of the treaty, South Africa, Egypt, Argentina, Brazil, and several other countries who were actively developing nuclear weapons suspended their programs. Five nations – the US, Russia, Britain, China, and France agreed to suspend active programs and begin negotiations to dismantle their stockpile. Countries capable of constructing nuclear weapons, including Australia, Norway, Japan, New Zealand, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Finland, South Korea, and host of others then had no incentive to initiate programs, and the world was moved a little further from the brink of a nuclear insanity. There have been leaks. Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have all developed nuclear weapons.

But for years, the dream of a nuclear free world was a powerful card the world could play in constraining the spread of this deadly ambition.

No longer.

The nuclear haves – led by the US – have steadfastly ignored their responsibilities under this treaty. Indeed, under Bush, the US has scrapped the ABM treaty, sought funding for a new generation of nuclear weapons, and proposed to resume testing of nuclear devices, even as we’ve insisted that others abandon efforts to produce them. Thus, we approach the world as an arrogant hypocrite, and seem surprised that it is not working.

Climate: the slow-motion nuclear war

Forget wars, famine, pestilence and death. They are merely the stepchildren of global warming.


Consider this. The cumulative energy embedded in all fossil fuels is on the same order of magnitude as the energy that would be released from detonating all of the world’s nuclear devices. So if we burn all of those reserves, in terms of energy, it is the equivalent of an all out nuclear war. But wait, you say, even if we were to burn all those reserves, it would take place over three centuries, hardly the same as a nuclear conflagration.

Fair enough, but try this little thought experiment, and in the words of Aldo Leopold, think like a mountain. In terms of geologic time, three centuries is virtually indistinguishable from an instant.

Over the four and a half billion years the earth has existed, the systems that sustain us have been sculpted carefully from the ether. Life appeared some 3.8 billion years ago – simple procaryotes living off of methane and sulfur. Oxygenators became dominant about a billion years later, and slowly, the orange sky turned blue. Painstakingly, the world we know evolved until a scant million years ago hominids something like ourselves appeared. Homo Sapiens – man the wise – evolved about fifty thousand years ago, and in the last ten thousand years, blessed with a relatively benign climate, we began our march towards civilization.

Now we look through the lens of our own life span and declare three centuries to be a long time. But to that mountain, the blinding death-flash of a nuclear holocaust, and the three hundred year combustion of fossil fuels are less distinguishable, and the consequences may be too. In a very real sense, climate change could play out like a slow-motion nuclear war, sans radioactive fallout.

Just as with the nuclear threat, the US is the biggest impediment to progress, and the biggest cause of the problem. In 2005, the US released 7.1 billion tons of GHGs. To put that in context, the US – with about five percent of the world’s population – emitted about twenty five percent of the world’s greenhouse gasses. Cumulatively, the US contribution to global warming dwarfs any other country’s, and it will do so long after China supplants us as the largest annual emitter.

The Origins of Arrogance

Given the fact that we sit astride this heinous record of disregarding all elements of a sane world, on what basis do we now object to Iran or any country seeking to develop a nuclear capability? Certainly not moral grounds.

How do we, the worlds biggest energy pig, justify our failure to ratify the Kyoto climate accords, and our failure to honor our obligations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which we did sign and ratify?

Do we simply assert that we are different? Special in some way?

A sizable number of neocons take precisely that point of view, referring to the US as the “Exceptional Nation.” Indeed, it is this notion which has animated our foreign policy to one degree or another since the fall of the Soviet Union. Under Bush, it has become an almost religious conviction.

Presumably, this exceptionalism gives us the right to retain our nuclear weapons, expand our arsenal, and prevent anyone else – even those we threaten – from developing them. It could even be used to justify the fact that we continue to spew out GHG at more than six times the global per capita average.

It’s worth examining the roots of this notion of the US as the exceptional nation. It was coined by De Tocqueville in the 1830’s, and predicated on his observation that the US was unique in that it had no feudal tradition, was more centered on rights, merit, religious beliefs, and was more egalitarian. This, according to De Tocqueville, set us apart from the more state-centered societies of Europe, and allowed democracy to flourish here, more than anywhere else.

But it’s a big leap to go from there, to where the neocons would take us – the US as exempt from the civilizing treaties of the global community, by virtue of this exceptionalism.

Of course, the problem with this arrogant stance is that it only works if other countries accept the neocons’ self-designated version of the US as “exceptional.”

If they don’t – and why should they?- then our wholesale rejection of civilizing agreements such as the Land Mine Treaty, the Tobacco Treaty, the World Court, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the Kyoto Climate Protocol looks less like De Tocqueville’s exceptionalism and more like ignorant and arrogant jingoism.

Add to this list of ignominy that the US supports trade agreements that exploit labor and harm the environment and that, under Bush, we have consistently bad-mouthed the UN, essentially ignored the Geneva Conventions, preemptively invaded a sovereign nation, scuttled the chemical and biological weapons treaties, ignored our obligations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (to which we are a signatory) and publicly defended torture (water boarding is defined as torture in our own laws and in international laws) and “rendition,” as well as acted to limit the freedom and rights of our own citizens by subverting both the First and Fourth Amendments, and the necon case for exceptionalism becomes little more than a weak justification for a destructive form of jingoism that does more to limit freedom than champion it.

The Harvest of Hypocrisy

With a record of hypocrisy like this is it any wonder that a foreign policy based on arrogance is a complete failure? Might it not be at least a partial answer to the question, why do they hate us and, more to the point, why do they hate us even more now than they did in 2001? Certainly, arrogance without portfolio is the weakest platform from which to negotiate and lead.

We the People of the United States have a choice about our country’s and the world’s destiny, and we will make that choice in the 2008 elections. On the one hand, we can choose to elect leaders who will continue to act as if we are not subject to the civilizing rules of the international community, while insisting others are. Down this path lies permanent confrontation, continuous wars and occupations, inevitable nuclear proliferation and nuclear brinksmanship, destruction of the climate that has sustained us since we appeared on the planet, a US that is increasingly isolated in the international community, and a world that is hurtling towards nuclear devastation and environmental destruction.

On the other hand, we can choose to be truly exceptional, not simply by honoring our international obligations, but by actively leading the world community toward peace, prosperity and sustainability. This is not only ethically correct, it is strategically smart, and it would make the US a leader in all the ways mere military might cannot.

Imagine a world in the process of destroying its nuclear weapons instead of its climate. Imagine the stature and influence that would accrue to the country leading that effort.

It would have a moral authority that would be unambiguous and undeniable.

Ghandi defeated Great Britain with the that kind of moral authority. Imagine, now, a nation with the military and economic power the US possesses, but blessed with Ghandi’s ethical leverage, too.

Such a nation could walk across the world stage a colossus, and others would be forced to follow. It would be capable of building coalitions, blessed with allies, and capable of being a force for good that would be virtually unprecedented in human history. It would indeed be an exceptional nation.

There is, in fact, only one country capable of becoming that nation. Us. If we were to choose this path, we would truly deserve to be known as the exceptional nation, and it would be others who designated us so, not an arrogant and belligerent claim we made on our own behalf.

That’s the real opportunity cost of the Bush administration and the Republican doctrine; that’s the prize that will be lost if we allow the Democratic Party to be led by men and women of little vision and less courage, more interested in following polls than leading nations.

There is no other country that can deliver us from this apocalypse; there is no other time we can choose to lead. It happens now, or it can’t happen. If we fail to call our nation to meet its destiny, the twin horses of the new apocalypse will ride, and we will sit astride them.

Our votes and our voices will determine which it will be.

This is either the blessing or the tragedy of our time.

John Atcheson’s writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the San Jose Mercury News, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, as well as in several work journals.