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Democracy and disarmament are rooted in humanistic ideals

March 2, 2020

Guest Commentary

by Jason Sibert

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

This fact has rarely been noted in the mainstream media. Naturally, the headlines are filled with predictions on the 2020 US election, the left-wing and right-wing populist movements that are rattling the democratic world, and the geo-political tug-of-war among China, the United States, Russia, the UK, and European Union. Some worry that the way of life we call the democratic republic is fading from our sight.

Few are talking about how the ideals of the democratic republic and nuclear arms control treaties like the NPT are connected. The humanistic ideals of a democracy were born in the ancient Greek city-states and reappeared in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Advocates of this form of government believe in the power of human reason to solve the problems of governance—governing was not the province of an elite. Arms control, including nuclear arms control, draws on the same idea, as it states that we can use reason to control destructive man-made technology. We don’t have to let our destructive technology destroy us.

The right-wing populism of the Donald Trump Administration represents a threat to democracy because Trump flouts the institutions of democracy. This can be seen in the recent impeachment fiasco, when most Republican senators would not vote to impeach the current president or even vote to have witnesses at the trial.

The 1968 NPT (which entered into force in 1970) was signed by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Administration just a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which came close to igniting a nuclear war between the two Cold War superpowers. The treaty required all signatories to work for a world free of nuclear weapons. At the height of the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Russia had 66,000 nuclear warheads. Today, the US and post-Soviet Russia have about 14,000. Both countries—as well as the other nuclear-armed states—have backpedaled on the promises of the treaty in recent years.

In US domestic politics, Trump presents himself as a savior of the people who will tear down a system that is oppressing them and he will break rules and ruin the republic when doing it.  His style of politics replaces the use of human reason, stressed in humanism, with an unusual amount of belief the abilities of a leader.

In foreign affairs, Trump sees a world that is taking advantage of the US on trade and other issues. One can see this in his approach to arms control. The last arms control treaty between our country and Russia was the New START treaty, which Trump has said the US might not renew. On a similar note, he has withdrawn from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed to with Iran, and the Paris Agreement on the global climate.

The absence of constraints increases the possibility of a costly nuclear arms race and an actual nuclear war. Some have called for an end to the madness. Pope Francis has condemned the possession of nuclear weapons and former Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev has warned that nuclear weapons “need to be destroyed to prevent World War III.”

But the issue is just not about “our democracy.” The US has sometimes served as an example of democratic government for other countries. The French Revolution occurred when some in France were unsatisfied with the monarchy and wanted a democratic form of government, and they used the American Revolution as their model.  Some in Africa were turned away from Communist propaganda when they saw the civil rights movement make big gains in the 1960s. Serving as a model for democratic ways has become harder as the US has become the face of right-wing populism and is seen as opposed to arms control and the abolition of nuclear weapons.

A new movement can be born, following in the words of Gorbachev and Francis, to celebrate the ideals of humanism.  This movement should be international in scope. It would have chapters in countries around the world. Organizations such as the Red Cross should be a model. Information travels faster than in previous decades via the internet. So, building the movement would be an easier task. The movement should be ecumenical and include people with a variety of viewpoints on a variety of issues; the only glue that tapes them together would be a defense of humanist culture.

The costs of a loss in this ideological war is too high.  Right-wing populism must be defeated if humanism and its accomplishments are to be saved.

Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis. 




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