Ira Helfand says a Trump presidency makes it clear the fate of the planet shouldn't be in the hands of one person
He says legislation limiting use of nuclear weapons and a treaty to ban them are both needed
Editor’s Note: Dr. Ira Helfand is a past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and currently serves as the co-president of PSR’s global federation, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1985. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Shortly before noon on Friday a military aide will enter the Capitol with President Obama carrying a leather-covered aluminum briefcase with the information and equipment needed to launch nuclear war. Precisely at noon, control of that briefcase will pass to a man who has been described by scores of security experts in his own party as lacking the judgment, temperament and knowledge to command nuclear weapons.
Once this transfer takes place, the new President will have the ability to launch nuclear war on his own and there is no legal constraint on his ability to do this. During the campaign, many argued that once the election was over, the President-elect would emerge as a more mature and reasonable man. Instead, the Twitter wars have continued, and he has boasted about refusing to attend his national security briefings.
Have we absorbed yet the full meaning of Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear button?
For decades US nuclear policy has been based on the idea that it is essential for our national security to keep nuclear weapons out of “the wrong hands,” that we needed to do whatever we could to keep terrorists and rogue nations from acquiring these weapons. At the same time American policymakers insisted it was acceptable, even beneficial, for the current nuclear powers to maintain their nuclear arsenals, because their leaders were wise and responsible enough to manage these weapons.
Many in the medical and scientific community have long challenged this idea. Nuclear weapons are so dangerous, we have argued, and the likelihood they will be used so great, that no human being, no matter how smart and reasonable, should be trusted with them. No one should ever have the power to destroy the world. When it comes to nuclear weapons, there are no “right hands.”
But whether some people can be trusted with this power has, in a sense, become a moot question, because the United States is about to turn its arsenal over to someone who is clearly unqualified to command these weapons.
So what can we do in this incredibly dangerous situation?
First, we need to take whatever measures we can to prevent an immediate catastrophe. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-California, have introduced the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act, which would prohibit the President of the United States from using nuclear weapons without congressional authorization except when the United States is under nuclear attack. Rooted in the fundamental constitutional provision that only Congress has the power to declare war, this legislation is a wise and necessary step and Congress should move swiftly to adopt it.
But the United States also needs to undertake a much more fundamental transformation of its nuclear policy. Currently the United States plans to spend some $1 trillion over the next 30 years to upgrade its nuclear weapons and to assure that we maintain a nuclear arsenal for decades to come. The election of Trump and the transfer of that nuclear arsenal to his very incapable hands has destroyed the basic tenet of this policy.
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You can’t leave a loaded gun lying around where children can pick it up, and if you can’t make sure there won’t be children around, you have to make sure there won’t be a loaded gun.
The United States needs to accept that these arsenals are simply too dangerous to exist. It must adopt as its highest national security priority the need to eliminate these weapons. It cannot disarm unilaterally but it can, and must, lead the other nuclear powers in a determined effort to abolish nuclear weapons.
This March, negotiations will begin at the United Nations for a new treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. This ban treaty will establish a new international standard that the simple possession of nuclear weapons presents an intolerable danger to human survival. The United States and all the major nuclear powers have opposed this treaty. The United States should change course and embrace this treaty as the next step toward the abolition of nuclear weapons.
The United States should also commence discussions with the other nuclear powers about a more comprehensive nuclear agreement, a nuclear weapons convention, that will set up a verifiable, enforceable process and time line for the elimination of these weapons.
Recent scientific and medical studies have shown that even a limited nuclear war would disrupt climate around the world and trigger a global famine that would put up to 2 billion people at risk of starvation and destroy modern civilization. We owe it to our children and to their children to make sure that never happens.