By William D. Hartung, Commentary, Monday, November 21, 2016
This year’s presidential election raised an issue that we don’t talk about much these days: the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. The issue has come up in a number of contexts.
There was a debate about Donald Trump’s fitness to be in charge of the nuclear arsenal at all. Hillary Clinton was said to have serious questions about the Pentagon’s plan to build a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, missiles and submarines, at an eye-popping price tag of $1 trillion over the next three decades.
Trump has made a wide range of assertions on the nuclear issue, from claiming that he would nuke ISIS to arguing that he either would or wouldn’t be the first to use these devastating weapons in a crisis.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.
Hopefully this focus on the issue will spark a national conversation about whether we need nuclear weapons at all.
Why has the nuclear issue faded from public consciousness in recent years?
Denial is no doubt one part of the problem. Why think about the existence of weapons that can end life as we know it, especially if many people feel there is nothing we can do about the problem?
There are additional factors that play into the lack of focus on the nuclear issue. Other urgent issues vie for our attention, from climate change to income inequality to police violence. And many people have more than enough on their plate just dealing with the problems of everyday life, from putting food on the table to trying to improve local schools.
While all of these reasons make a certain kind of sense, they don’t justify putting the nuclear issue on the back burner. Nuclear weapons are costly, dangerous and unnecessary. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has warned that we are on the verge of a new global nuclear arms race, and is particularly concerned with the destabilizing potential posed by the Pentagon’s plans to build a new nuclear-armed cruise missile.
The new documentary “Command and Control” discusses how frighteningly close we have come to an accidental detonation of a nuclear warhead on a number of occasions. This threat remains, albeit with a lower probability than was the case at the height of the Cold War.
The risk of a regional nuclear war may have actually increased since the end of the Cold War, with ongoing disputes between rivals like India and Pakistan increasing the prospect of a nuclear exchange.
A recent study by Physicians for Social Responsibility estimates that a nuclear war between India and Pakistan could put up to 1 billion people at risk from the initial blast itself, the impacts of radiation and the likelihood that such a conflict would provoke widespread famine.
All of these reasons combined make a compelling case for directing our attention toward the consequences of the possession of large numbers of nuclear weapons.
President Barack Obama has made important progress in his two terms in office. He negotiated a treaty with Russia that will reduce each side’s deployed nuclear weapons by one-third; helped seal a historic deal to dismantle Iran’s nuclear weapons program, a welcome alternative to calls in some quarters to go to war over the issue; and brought international attention to the need to secure nuclear weapons and bomb-making materials to keep them out of the hands of terrorists. But far more needs to be done.
A good start would be to reduce our own bloated nuclear arsenal. A study co-authored by an analyst at the Air War College has determined that 311 nuclear warheads would be enough to deter any nation from attacking the United States with weapons of mass destruction. We currently have nearly 5,000. Cuts by the United States could provide leverage to press other nuclear powers to follow suit.
Citizens seeking to take action on the nuclear issue need not reinvent the wheel. National organizations like Women’s Action for New Directions, the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Peace Action, which has a chapter in the Upper Hudson Valley, have long worked to reduce the nuclear danger.
It’s time that we start listening to and supporting them.