I've just returned from Hiroshima where Nobel Peace Laureates gathered for a three-day summit to renew their efforts to achieve the elimination of nuclear weapons. After hearing testimonies of hibakusha, or survivors of the atomic bombings in Japan, as well as a slate of inspirational speeches from international advocates and experts, the Laureates concluded that "the use of a nuclear weapon against any people must be regarded as a crime against humanity and should henceforth be prohibited", and they called for negotiations on a universal treaty banning them, as has been done with other weapons of mass destruction and indiscriminate effect, such as chemical and biological weapons.
Yet back in the United States, small, modest arms control efforts are being thwarted by a debate that sounds like an echo from the Cold War. A few Senate Republicans are setting up roadblocks against ratification of START, the new treaty with Russia that would limit both of our deployed weapons to 1,550 each and maintain important verification and inspection mechanisms. Anti-START op/eds abound, laden with all sorts of ludicrously misleading assertions and flawed assumptions.
Despite the fact that Republican leadership was essential in bringing into force the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the INF Treaty (eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons), START I (the foundation of the Treaty at issue today), the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Biological Weapons Convention, and others, currently a small but significant number pundits and politicians are using partisan politics to push a US unilateralist anti-arms control agenda. They strongly disagree with Presidents Obama and Reagan, the latter of whom understood that nuclear weapons "are good for nothing but killing" and who came wondrously close to abolishing them at the 1986 Reykjavik Summit with President Gorbachev. Influential writers such as Charles Krauthammer fail to understand, as Nobel Laureates like former South African President F.W. de Klerk, the Dalai Lama, Mohamed ElBaradei, Jody Williams, Mairead Maguire and Shirin Ebadi do, that nuclear weapons pose more of a problem than any problem they seek to solve.
Krauthammer, in a recent op/ed in The Washington Post, makes the dangerous assertion that, since Russia is not an existential threat to the United States anymore, such a treaty with them is not beneficial. Such a shortsighted view misses the real point of START. Through strengthening the rule of law, utilizing what is described in the US Constitution as the "supreme law of the land,"--treaties--norms are set, confidence is built, verification is established and safety enhanced. These steps are necessary if we are ever to get the sword of Damocles that hangs over modernity removed. The use of a nuclear weapon by accident, design or madness keeps the threat real and present.
Over 20,000 of these horrific devices in existence cannot be lightly denied by cynical rhetoric. The fact is that nuclear weapons, in anybody's hands, are an existential threat to humanity. In a world fraught with terrorism, rogue regimes, shifting alliances and growing interdependence--to say nothing of human error--nuclear weapons pose, flatly, an unacceptable risk.
START will not cripple our existing defenses, nor is it, as Krauthammer preposterously suggested, an act of unilateral disarmament. 1,550 warheads, many of which are many times larger than those that destroyed the city where the Laureates just gathered, is still a high enough number to destroy the world, even a few times over. In other words, START does not abolition make. It is, however, a small, sensible and important security-enhancing step to take in the right direction.
The Nobel Peace Laureates emphasized the compass point that must direct our deliberations: "To ensure that the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki never reoccur and to build a world based on cooperation and peace, we issue this call of conscience. We must all work together to achieve a common good that is practical, moral, legal and necessary - the abolition of nuclear weapons."
See the Hiroshima Declaration: http://www.nobelforpeace-summits.org/final-declaration/
See also: "The Process of Zero," World Policy Journal, Winter 2009: http://www.gsinstitute.org/gsi/docs/WPJ_2009.pdf