With the danger of nuclear war growing, we can no longer afford to ignore the existential threat these weapons pose. Relations between the United States and Russia are the worst they have been since the Cold War. Relations between the United States and China are at their lowest point since the 1970s. North Korea has acquired nuclear weapons. Tensions between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan are high.
Authorities such as former Defense Secretary William Perry believe the danger of nuclear war is greater than it was during the Cold War, an assessment shared by the panel of experts at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who have set their iconic Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been.
There’s a path out of this madness.
Fifty years ago, the United States and the four other nations that then had nuclear weapons signed the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and promised to engage in good-faith negotiations to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.
In the five decades since, they have all flouted their obligation to rid the world of their nuclear weapons. Four other nations have joined the “nuclear club,” and all nine nuclear powers are now engaged in ruinously expensive efforts to upgrade their nuclear forces and maintain them for decades to come, thereby diverting vast resources needed to combat COVID, the climate crisis, and other critical problems.
The countries that wisely chose not to build nuclear weapons have had enough. On July 7, 2017, 122 countries met at the United Nations and voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Next Friday, the treaty, having been ratified by more than the requisite 50 countries, will formally enter into force.
None of the nine nuclear-armed states have joined this historic effort to abolish nuclear weapons, and the United States, under both Presidents Obama and Trump, has pressured NATO countries and other allies like Japan, South Korea, and Australia to actively oppose the treaty. The nuclear-armed states realize that the TPNW is a serious threat to their plans to maintain their nuclear arsenals indefinitely, and that is precisely why we should applaud the TPNW’s entry into force and work to get all nations to ratify it.
In the years right after the end of the Cold War, there was a sense that the nuclear danger had passed and the elimination of these weapons was no longer urgent. Now, however, new scientific studies have shown that a nuclear war would be even more catastrophic than previously believed. Climate scientists have established that, as first predicted during the Cold War, a large-scale nuclear war between the United States and Russia would in fact trigger a nuclear winter and would kill the vast majority of humanity. Even a limited nuclear war, for example between India and Pakistan, could cause enough climate disruption to trigger a global famine that would put 2 billion people at risk and end modern industrial civilization.
Here in the United States, the Back From the Brink Campaign has been organized to bring about fundamental change in US nuclear policy, turning the country away from the false assumption that nuclear weapons protect us. These weapons are the greatest threat to our existence and must be eliminated before they eliminate us. Back From the Brink calls on the United States to welcome the TPNW as a positive step toward nuclear disarmament and to begin negotiations with the other nuclear-armed states for a verifiable, enforceable, time-bound agreement to dismantle their weapons.
The Biden administration has the opportunity to reverse the ill-conceived nuclear policies of the past and seek the true security of a world without nuclear weapons. For the sake of our children, let us all work to make sure that it takes this step.
Dr. Ira Helfand is co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and a member of the international steering group at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Nate Goldshlag is a longtime activist and former treasurer of Veterans for Peace.