Co-authored by Jessica West, program officer at Project Ploughshares.
Tick, tock: the Doomsday clock measured by The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved 30 seconds closer to midnight (meaning: global catastrophe) -- from three minutes to two minutes, 30 seconds. Not since the 1950s has midnight been so close. Why the move? Scientists point to the growing threat to humanity posed by nuclear weapons, including a potentially lethal Trump-nukes-Twitter combination.
On December 22, president-elect Trump tweeted: "The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes." These words set the world atwitter about the possible implications. Ostensibly aiming to clarify his intentions, Trump bluntly responded on MSNBC: "Let it be an arms race."
The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 22, 2016
This statement is alarming, especially because Trump's statements on nuclear weapons during the election campaign were confusing and uninformed. And not only the timid are afraid. Former U.S. Secretary of Defence William J. Perry expressed his own terror in a cover story for Politico earlier this month.
President Obama's 2009 "Prague speech," which notably outlined a vision for a world free of nuclear weapons, is a reminder that words and actions are not always aligned. The disarmament community welcomed the "Obama moment" with cautious optimism and the "hope that real change is in the offing for U.S. approaches to nuclear weapons and the treaties and agreements that are intended to control and eventually eliminate them."
Soon after the Prague speech, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for "the promise of what might be." But the promise did not materialize.
U.S. president Donald Trump at the White House Jan. 27, 2017. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
As the New York Times recently pointed out, Trump's seemingly dangerous tweet about the U.S. nuclear arsenal can easily be interpreted as a continuation of a central theme of Obama's Prague speech: "As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defence to our allies."
Nonetheless, Obama's vision for a nuclear-free world reinvigorated the global movement to ban nuclear weapons. Words can inspire action by others.
President-elect Trump is now the president. He has been briefed on how to quickly order a nuclear strike in an emergency, an experience described by a former White House chief of staff as a "haunting rite of passage." The actual process is fraught with the potential for deadly error -- the Norwegian Rocket Incident of 1995 being one of many close calls. Was the gaining of such knowledge and power sobering for president Trump? We don't know.
As with Obama, Trump's actions might not line up with his words. But so far, his actions are worrying. Reports from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons suggest that the United States has urged fellow NATO members to boycott UN negotiations to ban nuclear weapons, to be held later this year.
The clock is ticking. Nuclear weapons threaten us all.
Trump's rhetoric on the U.S. nuclear arsenal, combined with his threats to dismantle the nuclear deal with Iran, is definitely having an impact. While some call for nuclear disarmament, others seem intent on increase their nuclear capabilities. Certainly, the disincentive for other states to limit their nuclear weapons capabilities (think North Korea) is now much stronger.
Where can we hope to find progress? This year will see the start of the first formal international negotiations on nuclear disarmament, in response to a remarkable agreement reached last year at the UN General Assembly to seek a legal prohibition on nuclear weapons. Even those who voted against the resolution (most nuclear-weapon states and their allies, including Canada) can make positive contributions to the process and show faith in multilateral practice.
In recent years, a renewed focus on the catastrophic humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons has been the primary catalyst and rallying point for multilateral political action on nuclear disarmament. A former mayor of the city of Hiroshima has invited president Trump to meet with survivors of the atomic bomb.
While a legal prohibition on nuclear weapons would no doubt be welcome, the international community still needs to work toward collective security arrangements that do not rely on nuclear weapons. Russia's recently proposed dialogue with the Trump administration on strategic stability might provide the right opening for discussions on an international system based on common security, not the threat of nuclear annihilation.
The clock is ticking. Nuclear weapons threaten us all. Two minutes, thirty seconds and counting. Unless we act decisively, we may soon be staring the doom of midnight in the face.
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