Sunday, August 08, 2010

Sixty-five years into the atomic era

On January 14, 2010, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the hands of its symbolic Doomsday Clock back to six minutes before midnight.

It only took Eleanor Roosevelt two days after the bombing of Hiroshima to enunciate realities we still haven't taken to heart. In her August 8, 1945 newspaper column, she wrote:

The only safe counter weapon to this new power is the firm decision of mankind that it shall be used for constructive purposes only. This discovery must spell the end of war. We have been paying an ever increasing price for indulging ourselves in this uncivilized way of settling our difficulties. We can no longer indulge in the slaughter of our young men. The price will be too high and will be paid not just by young men, but by whole populations.

In the past we have given lip service to the desire for peace. Now we meet the test of really working to achieve something basically new in the world. absolute need exists for facing a non-escapable situation. This new discovery cannot be ignored. We have only two alternative choices: destruction and death -- or construction and life! If we desire our civilization to survive, then we must accept the responsibility of constructive work and of the wise use of a knowledge greater than any ever achieved by man before.

Realist international relations commentator Professor Stephen Walt recently described the paradox that nuclear weapons states do not act as if having the bomb makes them secure -- in fact the United States, Russia, China, Israel, Pakistan and India seem ever more urgently intent on building up their conventional military power. Walt concludes:

The lesson I draw from this is that nuclear weapons have very limited value. A handful of survivable weapons makes it very unlikely that another state will attack you directly or try to invade and take over your country. That's about it. And states certainly don't need thousands of warheads in order to obtain these effects. In short, if we're going to keep spending a lot of money on conventional forces and conducting geopolitics much as we did before 1945, we might as well save some money and move to a "minimum deterrence" posture.... And by acknowledging that nuclear weapons are neither the be-all and end-all of international security or a potent talisman of great power status, we might make it easier for potential entrants into the nuclear club to decide that it's not worth the trouble or the cost.

Like most people on the left side of things, I find President Obama's administration frequently disappointing. But I have to give the guy credit for understanding and announcing the urgent necessity of reducing the danger of nuclear war. Not only does not he not indulge in testosterone-poisoned cowboy posturing, but he has actually insisted that we need to work for a nuclear weapons-free world. And in his usual deliberate, measured (half-baked?) way, he's signed a new START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) with Russia, though Republicans will probably stall the agreement in the Senate. (By Constitutional mandate, treaties require a two-thirds vote there, probably rendering any international agreement impossible.)

Obama's attention to tamping down the danger of nuclear war is certainly one good reason to work to keep the other guys out of the majority in November.

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