February 1, 2017
By Michael Drohan
The problem of nuclear weapons and their abolition has received new urgency with the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. On December 22, 2016 he issued the following tweet: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” The following day he told MSNBC “Morning Joe” host Mika Brzezinski on the phone: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all,”
It is difficult to know if Trump really means what he says but on the face of it, his comments are very alarming. Nuclear weapons are not something that one can speak about in a light-hearted manner, given the unthinkable consequences of the use of even one of the approximately 15,000 nuclear bombs that are now possessed by the nuclear states. It is no exaggeration to say that the survival of all life, human and non-human, is in great peril because of the threat they pose.
We have had many near mishaps, among which the 1962 Cuban missile crisis between the US and the Soviet Union is only the most dramatic. Were it not for the second officer in command of a Soviet submarine, Vasily Arkhipov, countermanding the order to fire a nuclear torpedo, it would have been Armageddon. The order came because of the US recklessly using depth charges to blow up Soviet submarines armed with nuclear weapons. The hero to whom our survival is due is not Kennedy or Khrushchev or McNamara, but the lone figure Arkhipov.
In the days of Trump, the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis is a sobering tale of the fallibility of even apparently level-headed world leaders. It is not just once but on several occasions that Donald Trump has said that he would countenance the use of nuclear weapons. In a conversation in August 2016 with Chris Matthews, he said in regard to the Middle East “if ISIS hits us, would we not hit back” presumably with nuclear weapons. He talks of “leaving nothing off the table”, alluding to the nuclear option. He even has invoked the “madman theory” of Richard Nixon, namely being “unpredictable” so that leaders of other countries might consider him crazy enough to even use nuclear weapons should they threaten the US.
In response to the clear and present danger that the Trump election presents, there has been a flurry of measures to cope with the perceived crisis. One of these measures is a sign-on appeal of the Ploughshares Fund asking President Obama to take nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert before he leaves office. They point out that if he did so, the incoming President could try to reverse the order but it would take Congressional approval, which could well fail. In any event, the hair-trigger alert of nuclear weapons is a relic of the Cold War which should have been long since put to rest. Despite thousands of signatures on the petition, President Obama has taken no action to date.
A historical development regarding nuclear weapon use and possession occurred on October 27,2016 in the UN disarmament and international security committee. Perhaps sensing the imminent danger posed by remarks of the Presidential candidates, the UN Conference on Disarmament passed a resolution to begin negotiations on banning nuclear weapons in 2017. Eight nations possessing nuclear weapons (US, Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India and Pakistan) voted against the resolution; N. Korea voted for it; 123 nations in all voted for the resolution, 16 voted against and 38 abstained. This is the first time such a resolution was passed in 71 years since the first atomic bomb was used and is a hopeful sign that awareness is growing of the magnitude of the threat posed to humanity by both the possession and possible use of nuclear weapons. The US was adamantly opposed to the resolution. The US Ambassador to the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Robert Wood, said “the ban treaty runs the risk of undermining regional security.”
The UN Conference on Disarmament resolution occurs within the context of developments on the banning of nuclear weapons which have taken place in the last three years. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was adopted in 1970 by the UN and has had a review every five years (quinquennial review). Article 6 of the NPT had a trade-off between the nuclear weapons states and the non-nuclear states. The non-nuclear states pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons but the nuclear states in return pledged to get rid of their arsenal of nuclear weapons. The reality, however, is that the nuclear states did not hold to their end of the bargain and showed no signs that they ever would. In frustration, the non-nuclear states took the initiative and started what is called the “Humanitarian Consequences Initiative” in 2013. This measure takes the abolition movement away from the Security Council to the General
Assembly. Could 2017 be the year of total abolition despite the Trumps of the world?
Michael Drohan is a member of the editorial collective and the TMC board