This week brought into stark contrast two approaches to nuclear weapons: one, I think is good news, the other not so much. Ever since the 1940’s, the question about the morality and use of nuclear weapons has been one of the most fraught and dangerous questions facing mankind. I say mankind, not just a particular nation, because there are enough nuclear weapons in existence to destroy all life multiple times over. Hydrogen bombs are nothing like traditional incendiary weapons, they can destroy life on a scale that would be catastrophic for the human race.
The good news this week is that the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. In their citation, ICAN was praised “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”
I had the chance to interact with some of the leaders of ICAN in 2015 at the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. They are a dedicated and creative group of people who have devoted great time and effort to rid the world of these horrific weapons. The outpouring of support from world leaders and former Nobel Peace Prize laureates brings the nuclear issue back into our minds at a time when it feels more at risk than it has for a long time.
ICAN reminds us that there is no legitimate use of nuclear weapons, even in war, and even when used after first being attacked by nuclear weapons. Since the USA and Russia are by far the most nuclearized of all nations, let me give an example of why this is not a legitimate use of nuclear weapons. Let’s imagine that Russia attacks the USA and destroys two major cities. This would only require the use of two out of seven-thousand of Russia’s hydrogen bombs. Not only would this cause immediate death of millions of people, but a humanitarian and medical crisis that simply could not be met successfully.
Imagine, then, the decision for the USA. Clearly Russia would have committed an atrocity unmatched in the history of humanity. But would an attack on Russian cities be justifiable? I say that it would not. Since a decision to drop a nuclear weapon would be made by a government official or officials, let’s estimate that the fault for the initial attack rested on 25 people. Would it then be permissible to kill 25 million Russians in a counter-attack to punish the actions of a few? Again, my answer would be no. There is simply no case in which the use of a nuclear weapon would be justified, period.
Now, I mentioned that there was good and bad news this week. The good news is that ICAN is being recognized for their effort to ban nuclear weapons from all nations of the earth. The bad news is that nuclearization is happening right now. And with the risk of the nuclearizing of Iran and North Korea, the world gets that much more dangerous.
In the Fall of 2015, Iran was on the path to getting a nuclear weapon. After the treaty was signed between Iran, the United States, UK, China, France, Russia, and Germany, Iran has shipped out its nuclear fuel to Russia, dramatically reduced its centrifuges used to create weapons-grade uranium, and has begun work to change one of its major nuclear plants to no longer be able to produce weapons-grade plutonium. If you remember back just a few years, the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons seemed like a given. We have since not heard much about Iran’s nuclear program because it has dramatically scaled back its nuclear ambitions in return for the ending of sanctions.
However, this week the Trump administration has hinted that it will pull out of the treaty with Iran. Since this wasn’t a bilateral treaty, no one knows exactly what will happen (since all the other nations will still be part of the treaty). But the one thing we can know for sure is that the world will get less safe. We will have the question of Iran’s nuclearization back on the table. This is a step in the wrong direction.
Add to this the cryptic statements from President Trump like, “This is the calm before the storm” and his tweet about North Korea saying, “Only one thing will work.” These are incredibly destabilizing actions and not only guarantee that North Korea will speed up its nuclearization–they also increase the chance that North Korea will use one of these weapons.
No country has given up its nuclear weapons or nuclear ambitions through military threats or attacks. The only path to peace and decreased nuclearization in North Korea and Iran is careful, intelligent, and hard-fought diplomacy. We should all hope that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his negotiators are up to the job, and that they are not further undercut by tweets from President Trump. Nuclear war is so catastrophic, so dangerous for all life on earth, that we must all work to rid the earth of these weapons.