Is the world about to blow itself up? The question may sound overly dramatic, but anyone who reads a January 6 Politico article about William J. Perry, the former defense secretary and a widely respected military technology expert, is likely to take it seriously.
Perry is on a crusade to shake up our lackadaisical attitude toward the threat of nuclear weapons. As he points out, it's not that a catastrophic accident or nuclear war are likely. But if one were to occur, the consequences would be unimaginable.
This is obviously not a popular topic for discussion. I suspect most Americans don't worry about the question. I doubt it comes up at the family dinner table or when we meet with friends at the local restaurant. An entire generation has come of age after the end of the Cold War, when many of us thought we were putting this threat behind us.
I'm not suggesting people should panic, or that they should fall into depression over the risk we face. But I do think we should address the question seriously, search for a proper response, and insist our political representatives take meaningful action.
One reason is that the U.S.-Russian relationship is at its lowest point in many years, and the United States and Russia possess over 93 percent of the world's nuclear warheads.
Our conversations with the Russians over arms reductions, which took place over a period of decades, have stalemated, and tensions are high. Russian President Vladimir Putin has boasted of plans for strengthening his nuclear arsenal, reminded us that Russia alone has the capability to destroy America, and shown aggressive tendencies in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere.
Donald Trump, the new American president, has suggested he would welcome a new nuclear arms race. He has said it might not be a bad idea for Japan and South Korea to possess nuclear weapons for their own defense. Trump exhibits a tendency toward impulsiveness, not a quality we should want in the man with his finger on the nuclear trigger.
The nuclear weapons club has grown to nine nations, including archrivals India and Pakistan. North Korea, isolated and belligerent, has produced several nuclear bombs and claims it is ready to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile "at any time, at any place." There are also a lot of fanatics in the world who are searching for ways to kill their enemies, including us. Their fondest dream, I suspect, would be to get their hands on fissile material.
We have lived with nuclear weapons for over seven decades, but that doesn't mean our successful deterrent efforts and our luck will continue. We have had some close calls in the past. The most dramatic example was the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when people in the know thought it was likely U.S. and Soviet missiles would launch and a world conflagration would ensue.
In 1979, a watch officer with the North American Aerospace and Defense Command reported that a computer showed 200 Soviet missiles had been launched toward the U.S. It turned out to be an error, fortunately caught in time to avert a counterattack.
Thanks to the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and various arms control agreements, we have made considerable progress in checking the nuclear threat, reducing the worldwide number of nuclear bombs from a peak of 70,000 to the current total of about 15,500. But progress has come to a halt, and it could be reversed.
The more nuclear weapons there are, and the more tense the international environment, the greater the risk that a miscalculation or even a computer glitch could lead to the ultimate nightmare of a nuclear weapon being used in anger.
A nuclear explosion could upend the world. The 9/11 attacks cost nearly 3,000 American lives, but they also disrupted our country, bringing huge changes in government and private institutions, our way of life and our sense of security. A nuclear explosion would be orders of magnitude worse.
According to one estimate, if a nuclear bomb detonated on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol, it would kill the president, the vice president, many members of Congress and about 80,000 additional residents of and visitors to Washington, D.C. If a bomb went off in New York or Los Angeles, the damage would be similarly catastrophic.
Yet as the Politico article says, we seem to be sleepwalking into another nuclear arms race, one with potentially disastrous consequences for not only America but the world.
The questions that arise from all of this are: How do we reduce the risk, and how do we make the world safer from a catastrophic explosion? For the average person, those questions are likely to produce a sense of helplessness, a "What can I do about it?" feeling.
A good place to start is by contacting our representatives in both the executive and legislative branches of government. We should ask them specifically what they think about this threat and what they're doing to address it. We should find out whether it's high on their list of priorities. If it isn't, we should ask: Why not?
It is rather rare these days to hear a politician talk about nuclear weapons and the threat they represent. Constituents should confront their representatives and force them to move the topic to a priority place on their agenda.
We can't quantify the risk of a nuclear war or accident, but the risk is real. We should be keenly aware of it and do all we can in our corner of the world to make sure it is not ignored. No issue is of more consequence to the security of our country and the future of the world.