10/18/2013 - 10:52

When fear is rational, but harmful

In his Round Three essay, Siddharth Mallavarapu—responding to my earlier assertion that now is the time for action toward disarmament, not further arguments in favor of it—wrote that "action cannot be divorced from argument." He is correct, and I may have overstated my case in my earlier essay. Indeed, the best approach toward abolishing nuclear weapons is vigorous action backed up by sound arguments.

The existence of nuclear weapons constitutes a psychological threat to everyone on the planet. This also applies to other weapons of mass destruction—biological and chemical—which, though their destructive potential is less than that of nuclear weapons, are easier to produce. Weapons of mass destruction do not distinguish between military and civilian targets, and no one can truly feel safe as long as they endure. It is damaging to the human psyche to face the constant threat that a nuclear-armed state, through madness, accident, or miscalculation, might initiate a nuclear war, or that terrorists might gain access to nuclear weapons. Robert Mtonga wrote in Round Two that advocates for disarmament must provoke rational fear in others, and he is correct. But no one benefits from a situation in which fear is rational and necessary.

Of course, the existence of WMD carries consequences beyond these psychological considerations. For example, the existence of weapons of mass destruction means that nations must exert strict control over their borders; otherwise, illicit flows of goods might allow nations to become nuclear proliferators or grant terrorists access to dangerous materials. This high level of control hinders trade. It discourages tourism. It presents an obstacle to cooperation among nations.

Scourge of war. More than two decades after the Cold War ended, the world's nuclear arsenals still contain more than 17,000 warheads (including those that are retired but not dismantled). These weapons, which have been used in warfare twice, have the potential to destroy human civilization at any time.

As I discussed in Round One, using nuclear weapons would contravene international humanitarian law. The weapons' mere existence goes against the grain of the United Nations Charter, whose first stated aim is "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war." The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has discussed the "unspeakable human suffering [nuclear weapons] cause, … the threat they pose to the environment and to future generations, and the risk of escalation they create." The Movement has determined that "any adequate humanitarian response capacity" is lacking. From the perspective of most people in my region of Latin America, the use of nuclear weapons would be nothing less than a war crime. So developing countries—which would suffer the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear detonation even if they were not the targets of an attack—must exert sustained disarmament pressure on countries that maintain nuclear arsenals.

During the March 2013 conference in Oslo on the humanitarian impact of nuclear detonations, representatives from a number of nations emphasized that the only guarantee against the use of nuclear weapons is their complete elimination. In February 2014, a follow-up conference is scheduled for my own country of Mexico. This will provide the world another opportunity to work toward abolition of nuclear weapons. The work must take the form of both argumentation and concrete action.