Why aren’t the candidates for US President talking about nuclear war?
[The following op-ed by IPPNW co-president Ira Helfand and PSR board member Maureen McCue appeared in the DesMoines Register on 23 November.]
When the Cold War ended, we pretty much stopped worrying about nuclear war, but the weapons didn’t go away. More than 15,000 are left in the world today, 95 percent in the arsenals of the U.S. and Russia. Seven other countries have nuclear arsenals as well.
We know of at least five major incidents in the last 35 years when either Washington or Moscow prepared to launch nuclear war in the mistaken belief that it was under attack by the other side. Now, for the first time in 25 years, rising tensions between the U.S. and Russia have been accompanied by nuclear saber-rattling. In defense circles, concern is growing that we could stumble into a direct armed conflict with Russia. Such a conflict could escalate out of control and nuclear weapons could be used.
Clearly, we should not be complacent about nuclear war. So why aren’t the candidates talking about nuclear war? Here are a few questions we should ask them:
Under what conditions would you, as commander-in-chief, order the use of nuclear weapons?
This question is particularly important because of new scientific research that shows that even a very limited nuclear war would cause catastrophic effects across the globe. Just 100 “small” nuclear weapons, less than 1 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenals, would, if detonated over urban targets, disrupt climate worldwide and trigger a global famine that could kill up to 2 billion people. No civilization in human history has withstood a shock of this magnitude and there is no reason to expect that ours would. The use of our nuclear arsenal would essentially be an act of suicide. We have a right to know if the men and women who would be president contemplate using these weapons.
Do you support current efforts to negotiate a new treaty banning nuclear weapons?
The United States is legally obliged, under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to negotiate in good faith for the total elimination of all nuclear weapons. This month, 128 nations voted at the UN to begin a process to prohibit nuclear weapons under international law. The U.S. voted against.
This policy has to change. The United States should not disarm unilaterally. But it can and must lead a process that brings together all nine nuclear weapons states to negotiate a verifiable, enforceable nuclear weapons convention with a plan and timeline for dismantling all of them.
Do you think the U.S. should spend $350 billion dollars over the next decade to modernize and maintain our nuclear forces?
The Obama administration has proposed that we spend this enormous sum, and independent sources suggest the total for maintaining and modernizing the nuclear arsenal will top $1 trillion over the next 30 years. We already have over 7,000 nuclear weapons, 1,000 of them deployed on hair-trigger alert. One hundred of these warheads will destroy our civilization. Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend that money on the real needs of our people, to improve health care and education, to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure, and create a sustainable economy for our children?
It is in America’s national security interest to eliminate the nuclear arsenals of all other countries. To do this, we must be willing to lay down our nuclear weapons along with everyone else.
Negotiating a nuclear weapons convention will not be easy, but we have no alternative. We have been living on borrowed time since the beginning of the nuclear era. Our luck will not hold out forever.
This is the greatest challenge before the United States today. Let’s make sure the candidates for president tell us how they will handle it.