Ira Helfand and Philip Lederer write that the United States faces a fundamental decision about nuclear weapons
The Obama administration is making the wrong choice, and neither major party presidential candidate has spoken out against this policy, they write
Editor’s Note: Ira Helfand, MD is co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Philip Lederer, MD is a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Boston. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.
The growing danger of nuclear war has received scant attention in the election campaign beyond some understandable anxiety at the thought of Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear button. But the United States faces a fundamental decision about nuclear weapons, the Obama administration is making the wrong choice and neither candidate has spoken out against this wrongheaded policy.
At the United Nations last week, 123 nations voted to begin negotiations next year on a new treaty to prohibit the possession of nuclear weapons. Despite President Obama’s inspiring 2009 pledge to seek the security of a world free of nuclear weapons, the US voted “no” and led the opposition to this treaty.
Instead, the administration has proposed spending some $1 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize every aspect of the nuclear arsenal, and made it clear that they want the US to maintain nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future.
Americans like to believe that we have nuclear weapons only in order to deter attacks by other countries. Many believe that these weapons protect us, that possessing them means that they will never be used. The US government views its nuclear arsenal very differently. As the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review made clear, the government believes that nuclear weapons are useful projections of national power that we can use to get our way in the world. Historically, the US has threatened on several occasions to use these weapons against nonnuclear powers.
Mindful of the many times that the world has come perilously close to nuclear war, many in the health community argue for a fundamentally different approach. We believe that an evidence-based understanding of what nuclear weapons actually do invalidates all arguments for continued possession of these weapons by anyone.
Thirty-one years ago, our organizations won the Nobel Peace Prize for educating the world about the medical consequences of nuclear war. The painful message we delivered to audiences around the world had a profound influence on government leaders and helped build an international movement that culminated in the end of the Cold War arms race.
The US and Russia have dismantled tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, but, unfortunately, thousands of weapons remain, and the possibility of nuclear war is growing again. In addition to the growing tensions between Russia and the US, there is a real danger of nuclear war in South Asia, which could kill more than 2 billion people.
In a joint statement this spring, the World Medical Association, the World Federation of Public Health Associations, the International Council of Nurses and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War – representing more than 17 million health professionals worldwide – declared, “The only way to prevent the use of nuclear weapons is to ban and eliminate them.”
The Obama administration claims that it does hope to see nuclear weapons eliminated someday, but that the conditions today are not right. And, indeed, the increased tension between the US and Russia makes it more difficult to make progress toward nuclear disarmament. But it is precisely because of these increased tensions that our leaders must work to make sure that nuclear weapons are not part of the equation.
At the height of the Cold War, tensions were even greater than they are today, but Mikhail Gorbachev was able to understand that the consequences of nuclear war would be so catastrophic that negotiating a stop to the arms race took precedence over all other issues. He reached out to Ronald Reagan, and together they began the process of dismantling these weapons. While they were ultimately unable to reach a final agreement to eliminate them, his nuanced approach to an incredibly complicated situation should not be forgotten.
The next administration needs to reject the dangerous notion that nuclear weapons enhance our national security and base its policy instead on an understanding that these weapons are, in fact, the greatest threat to our national survival. The US cannot disarm unilaterally, but it can join and provide leadership to the international movement for a treaty to prohibit these weapons.
The world desperately needs a leader with Gorbachev’s vision and courage. Let’s hope that the next president of the United States will be just that.