Game changers: How the next generation can tackle the nuclear weapons problem

By Natalya Wallin | August 31, 2015


In the 1983 sci-fi gem “War Games,” a kid hacks into a US Air Force supercomputer to play what he thinks is a game and inadvertently almost starts a nuclear war. The punchline is that the supercomputer runs through every possible scenario of the Global Thermonuclear War simulation and finally quits, concluding: “The only winning move is not to play.”

Nuclear warfare would be futile. According to a 2012 article in the Bulletin entitled “Self-Assured Destruction: The Climate Impacts of Nuclear War,” even a “small” nuclear war would threaten agriculture around the world. Along with the United States and Russia, almost all nuclear states have the power to cause this profound devastation. Bottom line: Use of nuclear weapons is an option that should never be on the table.

So how do we change the game? That’s a challenge for the next generation, my generation, to tackle. And we’re going to have to figure out how to do it our way, somehow flipping the whole issue of nuclear weapons on its head and focusing on something inventive.

Ready or not… Millennials will inherit large stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and those of us who are starting careers as policymakers, public servants, and politicians will have to decide what to do with them. Yet for most of us, questions about nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament are background noise. The topic pops up in our Twitter feeds in relation to #IranTalks or in old movies set in the Cold War era but, even for the politically aware and socially conscious among us, nuclear weapons talk is not really our thing.

We are entrepreneurs, innovators, techies, startup people. We want to collaborate at the cutting edge of green tech, energy, and transportation; we want to be part of new movements and ideas for social impact—everything from using technology to address extreme poverty to smart initiatives to protect the environment. We don’t want to look back at old problems, archaic ideas, political baggage, and doomsday headlines that we feel powerless to do anything about.

Having grown up with the shock of 9/11, the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, and a world forever impacted by the threat of terrorism, we are weary of war and violence in the headlines and all the political posturing that comes with it. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the luxury of ignoring the conversation on nuclear non-proliferation. Whatever conflicts exist between nations and peoples, humanity can’t afford to be wrong on the global issue of nuclear weapons.

Know when to fold ‘em. Given the high stakes, one might hope that the world’s nuclear powers would not only be working to prevent nuclear proliferation but also racing to get rid of existing nuclear arsenals. Of course, that’s easier said than done. As the lack of consensus at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference earlier this year highlighted, a world free of nuclear weapons seems to be little more than wishful thinking at present. I do see promising signs, such as Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comment that the United States’ current stockpile of 4,714 nuclear weapons is still “way too many,” and the use of diplomacy with Iran to prevent nuclear proliferation. These applaudable efforts notwithstanding, much work remains to be done in the international arena. Tony deBrum, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Marshall Islands, summed it up well at the 2015 NPT Review Conference when he said, “Perpetuating the status quo, patting ourselves on the back and expecting accolades for making zero progress at this NPT Review Conference is totally unacceptable to all peoples and all nations. Surely we can and must do better.”

The challenge is not just how to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons; nuclear powers also have to make difficult decisions about their existing nuclear arsenals. This is precisely the issue that the Marshall Islands flagged in a case filed last year in the International Court of Justice. The tiny nation, which bore the brunt of US nuclear testing from 1946 to 1958, contends that the nuclear powers have violated their legal obligation to disarm and are instead modernizing their arsenals. But of course the reality is that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is not truly enforceable, so it’s unlikely that anything will change without real political will and creativity from our current leaders—and ultimately the next generation.

Changing the game. It is time for my generation to take an active interest in nuclear non-proliferation. DeBrum recently stated that “No one can keep a straight face and argue that 16,000 nuclear weapons are an appropriate threshold for global safety.” I think most people would agree, but how will my generation respond? Are we going to get fed up with the politicized debates surrounding nuclear weapons and look the other way? That’s not how we deal with other pressing needs of the day. Let’s get creative.

People my age are inspired by the potential for breakthrough, not by scary rhetoric. One of the best ways to get younger people interested in, and invested in, tackling the immense challenges surrounding nuclear proliferation and disarmament would be for initiatives and forums like the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) to host competitions for the best ideas for safe, alternative, transformative uses for these old technologies and materials.

Students across the country put in long hours building teams and preparing ideas in hopes of being invited to present at the annual Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) event, where students and representatives meet with experts and celebrities to work on innovative solutions to urgent global challenges. CGI U offers the potential of monetary reward and the opportunity to network with potential donors and prospective partners. But the amazing thing is that teams of students put in weeks of unpaid work because they want to be there, to be part of a community driven to do something meaningful.

I see potential to generate fresh ideas from the next generation on a range of daunting challenges if the focus is on creative problem-solving and innovating for the future. We don’t have to be stuck with old nuclear arsenals and mindsets. Getting Millennials and their successors to care deeply about what to do with nuclear weapons could be a real game changer.

Together, we make the world safer.

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