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A Tight Grip on Our Nuclear Toys

“Everyone wants to play with the big boys, and the only way to become one of the big boys is to have nuclear toys.”

Attention Planet Earth! Attention Planet Earth! It is time to grow up.

The words are those of Mohamed ElBaradei, then director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, from a 2005 interview, several months before he and the agency were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. They remain eerily relevant in 2019, summing up as they do the puerile recklessness that is in the process of regaining its grip on geopolitics. Nuclear weapons treaties are withering on the vine and proliferation threatens a triumphant return.

Hello, omnicide. We may not be as lucky as we were in the Cold War era, when the consequences of nuclear accidents and political brinkmanship were relatively contained and the victims of nuclear development were limited to the people who lived near test areas like the Marshall Islands, Kazakhstan or the Nevada Test Site in the western United States. Nuclear stockpiles have shrunk, not grown, and nuclear-armed nations number nine.

This is still insane, of course. That number should — must — find its way to zero, as declared by the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was passed by a United Nations vote of 122-1 in 2017 but still awaits actual ratification by 50 countries (32 have ratified it so far). Hope-inspiring as that treaty is, the big boys — who boycotted the U.N. vote two years ago — still control the game, and led by the USA, they are pulling out of the treaties that constrain them.

“After the recent death of the treaty covering intermediate-range missiles, a new arms race appears to be taking shape, drawing in more players, more money and more weapons at a time of increased global instability and anxiety about nuclear proliferation,” Steven Erlanger wrote recently in the New York Times, referring to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, which the Trump administration pulled out of.

Since then. Trumpica has also indicated it wants to dump the New START Treaty, brokered by Barack Obama with the Russians in 2011, which expires in February 2021, shortly after the inauguration of whoever is the next president. New START limits the two countries’ “strategic arsenals” (not their “tactical arsenals”) to 1,550 weapons each — still enough to, uh, destroy the world and all, but . . .at least they bring the concept of limits into the nuclear discussion, putting, you might say, a parental check on the big boys and their nukes.

Thus, writes Erlanger: “The dismantling of ‘arms control,’ a Cold War mantra, is now heightening the risks of a new era when nuclear powers like India and Pakistan are clashing over Kashmir, and when nuclear Israel feels threatened by Iran, North Korea is testing new missiles, and other countries like Saudi Arabia are thought to have access to nuclear weapons or to be capable of building them.

“The consequence, experts say, is likely to be a more dangerous and unstable environment, even in the near term. . . .”

He then quotes Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear analyst and president of the Ploughshares Fund: “If there’s not nuclear disarmament, there will be proliferation. If big powers race to build up their arsenals, smaller powers will follow.”

In other words, global leadership is adolescent in nature. Big boys rule and lust for power takes control of the brain, especially power in a competitive context. If you represent the interests of a nation-state, you could easily become consumed by the hostile environment in which those interests are trying to establish themselves. And the interests of the planet as a whole (e.g., survival, a future) could easily disappear as anything but idealistic, ignorable abstractions. Disarmament? Give me a break. Not when regional powers, as Erlanger also writes, are “challenging American hegemony.”

Add to this the transnational, corporate interest in militarism. There’s no money in peace, which is seen mostly as a black hole, the lull between wars. Money doesn’t start to flow until the bullets and the bombs start to fly. If you’re opposed to war, the real enemy isn’t Russia or China’ it’s the military-industrial complex (which can smell, for instance, the trillion-plus-dollars earmarked for an upgraded nuclear arsenal).

So what we have right now is a world in which the public’s natural desire for peace is diverted to the status of impossible, at least until we destroy our enemies and secure our hegemony; and the growing global peace movement remains utterly marginalized. How much time do you think will be devoted to the issue of denuclearization, let us say, in the looming presidential race?

All of which leads me back to the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, the seven courageous peace activists who were arrested last year after they cut through the fencing around the Kings Bay Naval Base, in St. Mary’s, Ga., the Atlantic home port of the country’s Trident nuclear missile-carrying submarines, and entered the base without permission. There, they poured out vials of blood (their own) on the grounds, hung up signs and issued an indictment of the U.S. military for violating the 1968 U.N. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Their trial, during which they were not allowed to present their case on the global danger of nuclear weapons, recently ended. To no one’s surprise, they were found guilty and await sentencing.

“. . . and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

And Isaiah 2:4, the 3,000-year-old cry for peace, remains irrelevant.

More articles by:

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

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