The phrase “nuclear option” was widely used a few weeks ago to refer to a dramatic change in the rules of the U.S. Senate. The word “nuclear” was chosen to convey just how significant the consequences of using that parliamentary “option” may be.
Let’s think for a moment about some of the assumptions conveyed by this phrasing. By exercising the “option of going nuclear,” we recognize that an extremely powerful action has been taken, yet we also believe that we will live to see another day.
The unfortunate unconscious correlation is that some believe we can also survive “going nuclear” with real nuclear weapons.
Shortly after he was elected president, Donald Trump tweeted that the United States “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.” The next day he followed with: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
These are such troubling times for so many reasons. Each threat is urgent, crying out for our attention. It’s exhausting to respond to all of them, which leads many of us to turn away, to find meaning in our day-to-day tasks and comfort in family and friends.
Yet as a physician concerned about the health of all of us living on this fragile planet, I must intrude and raise alarm. We must pay attention to the most dangerous “nuclear options.”
Actual nuclear risks are growing on a daily basis, while our current national leaders are doing nothing to reduce that threat. Instead, our leaders are engaged in an acrimonious process that is accelerating a new nuclear arms race, one that will waste hundreds of billions of tax dollars.
Critics are painting President Trump into a corner for his cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin during his election campaign. Yet the net effect of attacking President Trump for being too soft on Russia only serves to stir up fear of Russian aggression – a fear that then seems to justify building more nuclear weapons.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as President Trump, are all stoking these fears. In such a state of mind, it’s easy to sell the concept that nuclear weapons will make us more secure. They will not. Tragically, just the opposite is true.
Now President Trump has launched a cruise missile attack in Syria. He’s dropped a massive conventional bomb on Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan. And he’s escalating tension with North Korea over their nuclear program.
All of his rhetoric and actions suggest that use of nuclear weapons is a plausible option “to be kept on the table,” whereas the reality is that such an action would amount to committing global suicide.
The nine nuclear weapons states possess over 15,000 warheads, with the bulk of those in U.S. and Russian arsenals. A single one of them can destroy a city, killing millions. Even worse, reports by Physicians for Social Responsibility document that a so-called limited nuclear war anywhere in the world would damage the global climate and agricultural production so severely that billions would starve.
This brings us back to a metaphor from the 1980s: an American and a Russian in a lifeboat far out to sea, with 6 inches of gasoline filling the bottom of the boat. Each has a book of matches and threatens to light one and throw it at the other. Yet both know the whole boat will go up in flames. Will it matter if one has five matches and the other has eight? If one has newer matches than the other? If others from North Korea or India or Pakistan climb aboard with their smaller books of matches?
Current plans supported by both Republicans and Democrats call for rebuilding all of our nuclear weapons delivery systems – new land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers and submarines – at a cost of over $400 billion over the next 10 years. This is an unacceptable and colossal waste of precious tax dollars.
Our elected leaders have gotten lost in an arcane game of brinkmanship, putting the lives of all of us at risk. When it comes to nuclear weapons, there is only one option that will result in a survivable outcome: to reduce our nuclear stockpiles, not to rebuild them.
For the sake of our children and future generations, Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King must refrain from joining the crowd accelerating the new nuclear arms race. Instead, let’s urge them to spend our tax dollars wisely on those resources that provide real national security – on first responders, schools, health care, education, housing and updated infrastructure.