Editor's note: This document reflects the discussions at the symposium, “The Fierce Urgency of Nuclear Zero: Changing the Discourse,” held in Santa Barbara, California, on October 24-25, 2016, and also takes into account the changed political landscape in the United States following the election of Donald Trump, which occurred two weeks after the symposium. The symposium was sponsored and organized by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Initial endorsers of this statement include: Rich Appelbaum, Jackie Cabasso, Paul K. Chappell, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg, Richard Falk, Mark Hamilton, Kimiaki Kawai, David Krieger, Peter Kuznick, Robert Laney, Judith Lipton, Elaine Scarry, Jennifer Simons, Daniel U. Smith, Steven Starr, and Rick Wayman. A full list of symposium participants, along with videos, audio, and transcripts of presentations, are available at www.wagingpeace.org/symposium-fierce-urgency.
Humanity and the planet face two existential threats: environmental catastrophe and nuclear annihilation. While climate change is the subject of increasing public awareness and concern, the same cannot be said about growing nuclear dangers arising from worsening international circumstances. It’s time again to sound the alarm and mobilize public opinion on a massive scale. Our lives may depend on it.
More than a quarter of a century since the end of the Cold War, some 14,900 nuclear weapons, most an order of magnitude more powerful than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, 93 percent held by the US and Russia, continue to pose an intolerable and increasing threat to humanity and the biosphere. Recent studies by atmospheric scientists show that a nuclear war between India and Pakistan involving 100 Hiroshima-size atomic bombs dropped on cities could produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history. A drop in average surface temperatures, depletion of the ozone layer, and shortened agricultural growing seasons would lead to massive famine and starvation resulting in as many as two billion deaths over the following decade. A full-scale nuclear war between the US and Russia would result in a “Nuclear Winter,” triggering a new Ice Age and ending most complex life on the planet.
The danger of wars among nuclear-armed states is growing. There is hope that such wars can be avoided, but that hope, while the essential basis of action, is not sufficient to end the nuclear threat facing humanity and complex life on this planet. Hope must give rise to action.
The United States is poised to spend $1 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize its nuclear bombs and warheads, the submarines, missiles and bombers to deliver them, and the infrastructure to sustain the nuclear enterprise indefinitely. The other nuclear-armed countries—Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea—are modernizing their nuclear arsenals as well.
Rising tensions. Tensions between the United States/NATO and Russia have risen to levels not seen since the Cold War, with the two nuclear giants confronting each other in Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and Syria, and an accelerated tempo of military exercises and war games, both conventional and nuclear, on both sides.
The US, the only nation with nuclear weapons deployed on foreign soil, is estimated to have 180 nuclear weapons stationed at six NATO bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. In June 2016, the largest NATO war games in decades were conducted in Poland. The exercises came weeks after activating a US missile defense system in Romania and ground breaking for another missile defense system in Poland. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that there would be “action in response to guarantee our security.”
In October 2016, Russia moved nuclear-capable Iskander missiles into the Kaliningrad territory bordering Poland and Lithuania, signaling its response to NATO, while claiming it was a routine exercise.Russian officials have previously describedthe role that the 500 km-range Iskander system would play in targeting US missile defense installations in Poland.
In mid-December 2016, the Obama administration announced plans to deploy troops in Poland, the Balticm states and Romania. According to the US commander, this would send “the very powerful signal” that “the United States, along with the rest of NATO, is committed to deterrence.”
In Syria, with perhaps the most complex war in history raging, the US, Russia and France are bombing side-by-side and sometimes on opposing sides.
Adding to the conflicts among nuclear-armed states, the US, with its “pivot” to the Pacific, is facing off against China in seas where other Asian nations are contesting Chinese territorial claims. India and Pakistan remain locked in a nuclear arms race amid mounting diplomatic tensions, border clashes and rising military budgets. And North Korea, refusing to heed strong international condemnation, continues to conduct nuclear weapons tests. It has even announced an intention to test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States.
These potential nuclear flashpoints are ripe for escalation. An accidental or intentional military incident could send the world spiraling into a disastrous nuclear confrontation. A great danger is that the rulers of one nuclear-armed state will miscalculate the interests and fears of another, pushing some geopolitical gambit to the point where economic pressures, covert actions, low-intensity warfare, and displays of high-tech force escalate into regional or general war.This vulnerability to unintended consequences is reminiscent of the circumstances that led to World War I, but made more dangerous by US and Russian policies of nuclear first-use, keeping nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, and launch-on-warning.
The Trump presidency. During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s nuclear weapons rhetoric was cavalier, suggesting deep ignorance. No one knows what he’ll do in office, but US national security policy has been remarkably consistent in the post-World War II and post-Cold War eras, despite dramatically changed geopolitical conditions and very different presidential styles. The threatened use of nuclear weapons as the “cornerstone” of US national security policy has been reaffirmed by everypresident, Republican or Democrat, since 1945, when President Harry Truman, a Democrat, oversaw the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
According to the Trump transition website: “Mr. Trump will ensure our strategic nuclear triad is modernized to ensure it continues to be an effective deterrent…” This is essentially a continuation of the Obama administration’s policy. Trump’s ominous December 22, 2016 tweet – “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capabilityuntil such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes” – seemed to indicate an intention to increase the level of reliance on the nuclear threat.
While Trump’s conciliatory tone toward Russia offers a glimmer of hope for lowering tensions between the two nuclear-armed giants, the firestorm raging around US government assertions that Russia manipulated the US election to help Trump win has immeasurably compounded the difficulties in predicting what will happen next. Trump’s stated aim to tear up the Iran nuclear deal reveals his deficient understanding of international relations, indicating a lack of awareness that this is a multilateralagreement involving all five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, and that Russia and Iran are engaged in cooperative military operations, including against ISIS. Trump’s belligerent attitude toward China, a strategic ally of Russia, and his threat to upend the decades-long US “one China” policy, is another cause for serious concern.
In his farewell address to the nation in 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower warned: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” An earlier version of his warning referred to the “military-industrial-congressional complex.”
We now face the likelihood of a far more military-industrial presidential cabinet. The specter of a Trump presidency with a right-wing Republican House and Senate, as well as a compliant Supreme Court, is chilling to an unprecedented degree. Trump’s appointments and nominations of reactionary, hardliner ex-generals, billionaire heads of corporations, and climate-change deniers are cause for grave concern in both the domestic and foreign policy arenas.
The Cold War concept of “strategic stability” among great powers, although itself never an adequate basis for genuine international security, is foundering. The Cold War and post-Cold War managerial approach to arms control must be challenged. Addressing nuclear dangers must take place in a much broader framework, taking into account the interface between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons and militarism in general, the humanitarian and long-term environmental consequences of nuclear war, and the fundamental incompatibility of nuclear weapons with democracy, the rule of law, and human well-being.
Growing crises. In 2009, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev warned, “Military superiority would be an insurmountable obstacle to ridding the world of nuclear weapons. Unless we discuss demilitarization of international politics, the reduction of military budgets, preventing militarization of outer space, talking about a nuclear-free world will be just rhetorical.”
Nuclear arms control has ground to a halt and the world is backsliding. The growing crises among nuclear-armed states must be defused and disarmament efforts put back on track. Nothing is more important now than to counter the notion that collaborative security with Russia is to be regarded as treasonous or somehow more dangerous than confrontational geopolitics. Peace is an imperative of the Nuclear Age. Starting with the US and Russia, the nuclear-armed states must sit down at the negotiating table and begin to address Gorbachev’s agenda.
It is essential at this time to assert the credibility and the necessity of a transformational approach to nuclear disarmament. We should do our utmost to marshal public discourse to counter the militarization of governments’ imaginations. The use of military force should always be the last option, not just in rhetoric, but in diplomatic practice.
There has never been a greater need for imaginative diplomacy. The cycle of provocation and response must be halted. Nuclear threats must cease. Nuclear weapons modernization programs must be terminated. Military exercises and war games must be curtailed and conducted with great sensitivity to geopolitical conditions. The US should withdraw its nuclear weapons from NATO bases and, at a minimum, stop NATO expansion and provocative deployments. Policies of nuclear first-use, hair-trigger alert, and launch-on-warning must be ended.
In the longer term, military alliances should be dismantled and replaced by a new collective security paradigm. All nations, first and foremost the US, by far the largest weapons exporter, should stop the sale and supply of arms to conflict regions.
Changing the discourse. Changing the discourse involves both language and processes. We need to take seriously our human role as stewards of the Earth and talk about nuclear dangers in terms of potential omnicide. Nuclear weapons are incompatible with democracy. They place vast unaccountable power in a few leaders’ hands, unchecked by the millions of voices that true democracy depends on. We must reject notions of US exceptionalism that exempt this country from respect for the rule of law and the authority of the United Nations. Further, we must revitalize the US Constitution by reintroducing checks and balances into decision-making about war and peace.
Indeed, much of the world does seem to be coming to its senses regarding nuclear weapons. Deeply frustrated by the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament, in December 2016 the United Nations General Assembly voted by a large majority to hold negotiations in 2017 on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, leading to their elimination. The vote represents an historic global repudiation of the nuclear weapons status quo among the vast majority of non-nuclear weapons states. None of the nine nuclear-armed nations supported the resolution, and it is unlikely that any nuclear-armed states will participate in the negotiations.
To realize the full value of a “ban” treaty, we must demand that the nuclear-armed states recognize the existing illegality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons under international law protecting civilians and the environment from the effects of warfare. The governments of these states must finally act to meet their disarmament obligations under Article VI of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and customary international law, and participate in good faith in the negotiations as unanimously mandated by the International Court of Justice in its 1996 Advisory Opinion.
The media have narrowed the boundaries of debate, and the public has virtually no feasible means to engage decision-makers on disarmament imperatives. Yet the need for such discourse has never been more urgent. We reject the apocalyptic narrative and summon the imaginations of people everywhere to envision a vastly different future. There is no inevitability to the course of history, and a mobilized citizenry can redirect it toward a positive future.
An ethical imperative. There exists an ethical imperative to work for the elimination of nuclear weapons. The survival of the human species and other forms of complex life requires acting upon this imperative. We will need to successfully reach out to constituencies and organizations outside the peace and disarmament sphere to inspire and engage millions, if not tens of millions, of people. Education and engagement of both media and youth will be critical for success. Hope must be joined with action if we are to abolish nuclear weapons before they abolish us. The alarm is sounding.