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Nukes and the Global Schism

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The United States boycotted the U.N. negotiations to ban — everywhere across Planet Earth — nuclear weapons. So did eight other countries. Guess which ones?

The international debate over this historic treaty, which became reality a week ago by a margin of 122 to 1, revealed how deeply split the nations of the world are — not by borders or language or religion or political ideology or control of wealth, but by possession of nuclear weapons and the accompanying belief in their absolute necessity for national security, despite the absolute insecurity they inflict on the whole planet.

Armed equals scared. (And scared equals profitable.)

The nine nations in question, of course, are the nuclear-armed ones: the U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain, France, India, Pakistan, Israel and . . . what was that other one? Oh yeah, North Korea. Bizarrely, these countries and their short-sighted “interests” are all on the same side, even though each one’s possession of nuclear weapons justifies the others’ possession of nuclear weapons.

None of these countries took part in the discussion of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, even to oppose it, seeming to indicate that a nuke-free world isn’t anywhere in their vision.

As Robert Dodge of Physicians for Social Responsibility wrote: “They have remained oblivious and hostage themselves to this mythological deterrence argument that has been the principal driver of the arms race since its inception, including the current new arms race initiated by the United States with a proposal to spend $1 trillion in the next three decades to rebuild our nuclear arsenals.”

Among the nations — the rest of the planet — that did participate in the creation of the treaty, the single vote against it was cast by the Netherlands, which, coincidentally, has stored U.S. nuclear weapons on its territory since the Cold War era, to the befuddlement even of its own leaders. (“I think they are an absolutely pointless part of a tradition in military thinking,” former Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers has said.)

The treaty reads, in part: “. . .each State Party that owns, possesses or controls nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices shall immediately remove them from operational status and destroy them, as soon as possible . . .”

This is serious. I have no doubt that something historic has happened: A wish, a hope, a determination the size of humanity itself has found international language. “Prolonged applause broke out as the president of the negotiating conference, Costa Rican ambassador Elayne Whyte Gomez, gaveled through the landmark accord,” according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “‘We have managed to sow the first seeds of a world free of nuclear weapons,’ she said.”

But nonetheless, I feel a sense of cynicism and hopelessness activated as well. Does this treaty sow any real seeds, that is to say, does it put nuclear disarmament into motion in the real world, or are her words just another pretty metaphor? And are metaphors all we get?

Nikki Haley, the Trump administration’s U.N. ambassador, said last March, according to CNN, as she announced that the U.S. would boycott the talks, that as a mom and daughter, “There is nothing I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons.”

How nice.

“But,” she said, “we have to be realistic.”

In years gone by, the diplomat’s finger would then have pointed to the Russians (or the Soviets) or the Chinese. But Haley said: “Is there anyone that believes that North Korea would agree to a ban on nuclear weapons?”

So this is the “realism” that is presently justifying America’s grip on its nearly 7,000 nuclear weapons, along with its trillion-dollar ‘modernization’ program: tiny North Korea, our enemy du jour, which, as we all know, just tested a ballistic missile and is portrayed in the U.S. media as a wildly irrational little nation with a world-conquest agenda and no legitimate concern about its own security. So, sorry Mom, sorry kids, we have no choice.

The point being, any enemy will do. The realism Haley was summoning was economic and political in nature far more than it had anything to do with real national security — which would have to acknowledge the legitimacy of a planetary concern about nuclear war and honor previous treaty commitments to work toward disarmament. Mutually Assured Destruction is not realism; it’s a suicidal standoff, with the certainty that eventually something’s going to give.

How can the realism manifest in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons penetrate the consciousness of the nuclear-armed nine? A change of mind or heart — a jettisoning of the fear that these insanely destructive weapons are crucial to national security — is, presumably, the only way global nuclear disarmament will happen. I don’t believe it can happen by force or coercion.

I therefore pay homage to South Africa, which played a crucial role in the treaty’s passage, as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reports, and happens to be the only country on Earth that once possessed nuclear weapons and no longer does. It dismantled its nukes just as it went through its extraordinary transition, in the early ‘90s, from a nation of institutionalized racism to one of full rights for all. Is that the change of national consciousness that’s necessary?

“Working hand in hand with civil society, (we) took an extraordinary step (today) to save humanity from the frightful specter of nuclear weapons,” said South Africa’s U.N. ambassador, Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko.

And then we have the realism of Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing on August 6, 1945. Recounting the aftermath of this horror recently, which she experienced as a young girl, she said of the people she saw: “Their hair was standing on end — I don’t know why — and their eyes were swollen shut from the burns. Some peoples’ eyeballs were hanging out of the sockets. Some were holding their own eyes in their hands. Nobody was running. Nobody was yelling. It was totally silent, totally still. All you could hear were the whispers for ‘water, water.’”

After the treaty’s passage last week, she spoke with an awareness I can only hope defines the future for all of us: “I have been waiting for this day for seven decades and I am overjoyed that it has finally arrived. This is the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.”

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Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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