On Sunday, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons will receive the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for drawing attention to the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.”

The award comes not only as the United States is perhaps as close to nuclear war as it has been in decades, but also as many Americans have adopted a casual indifference to the costs of using nuclear weapons, most notably – and worrisome – among them President Donald Trump.

Since the United States used two nuclear bombs to end the Second World War, American presidents have taken seriously their ability to wipe out hundreds of thousands of civilians with a single order and a single bomb.

What’s more, once the postwar arms race between nuclear powers was recognized for what it was – a road to Armageddon – those powers have focused on decreasing the number of warheads and holding firm the number of countries with nuclear capabilities. Rogue actions by North Korea notwithstanding, they have been successful.

From a combined high of around 70,000 nuclear warheads in the mid-1980s, the United States and Russia now command 7,000 apiece. The next highest stockpile belongs to France, with 300.

Under the 2010 New START Treaty, both powers have agreed to deploy no more than 1,550 each. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty requires the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France to move toward disarmament while other countries agree not to pursue nuclear capability.


All of these actions were taken under the mutually agreed upon wisdom that, the more weapons there are, the more likely it is that escalating tensions or a misunderstanding between superpowers would end catastrophically, or that a warhead would be diverted into the wrong hands.


But that wisdom is being questioned by President Trump, who entered office with less of an understanding of the United States’ nuclear arsenal and its history than any chief executive since the Manhattan Project, along with an immense – and often misplaced – trust in his own judgment above those of generals and diplomats. As such, his statements have diverted from decades of American foreign policy.

As a candidate, Trump said he was open to other countries developing nuclear weapons. As president-elect, he tweeted that the U.S. should “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” and told MSNBC that he was willing to restart the nuclear arms race.

As president, he has threatened to rain “fire and fury” upon North Korea, and bragged that his executive order has made the American nuclear arsenal “now stronger and more powerful than ever before,” a logistical impossibility given his short time in office, and a statement that is not backed by any evidence.

Worse, he has indicated again, now with the power of the presidency, that he wants a larger stockpile of nuclear weapons.


To understand how unnecessary that is, and what ignorance that statement betrays, turn to an analysis conducted for The New York Times by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Federation of American Scientists that looked at the 4,000 active U.S. nuclear warheads (the remainder are set to be dismantled).

With that stockpile, the United States could wipe out more than a quarter of the population of Syria, Libya, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Russia and China, and still have more than 2,800 warheads left.

In China alone, the attack would kill 320 million people living in 368 population centers. Tens of millions more would be dead, too, in the Middle East and Asia. And we’d have enough warheads left over to do it two or three more times.

Given the realities, it’s hard to understand why the president would want to expand the United States’ nuclear capability, or why he sees fit to overstate our capability, or abandon policies that focus on deterrence and disarmament.

Maybe it comes from a place of ignorance or ego, as one report said Trump was dismayed to find he oversaw an arsenal far lighter than earlier presidents.

Perhaps he believes it will allow him to negotiate from a position of strength, or that it will keep his opponents guessing that he may strike first, even if he never intends to.


But while empty threats may work in real estate deals, they can be dangerous in areas of international diplomacy, where in times of great tension it doesn’t help for one side to think the other is irrational, or quick on the trigger.


It is because of Trump’s statements, his “rhetoric and the lack of respect for expertise,” that earlier this year the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the symbolic hands of the Doomsday Clock to two and a half minutes to midnight, the closest its been since 1953. (The Bulletin did not have time to move the clock, a measure of how close the planet is to imminent destruction, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.)

That’s after a report issued late last year by the Nuclear Threat Initiative found that with mounting points of tension across the globe, “the risks of miscalculation or accident and escalation are unacceptably high.”

World events and now the presidency of Donald Trump have returned the issue of nuclear weapons and war to the forefront, and raised hard questions.

Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Rep. Ted Lieu of California, both Democrats, have brought legislation that would limit a president’s ability to launch a first-strike nuclear attack, while preserving his necessary ability to respond to an attack. It deserves discussion, if only to bring the dangers of a first strike into the open.

ICAN, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, also helped pass a treaty through the United Nations signed by 122 countries – though not the nuclear powers – that calls for the prohibition of nuclear weapons.

That is unlikely to occur anytime soon, but it is a starting point for a discussion on how to continue to lower the number of warheads worldwide, and move toward a safer world.

At one point in the not-so-distant past, it was a given that the use of nuclear weapons – or even an arms race alone – was a failure of diplomacy and a threat to world peace. That consensus appears to be in peril, and with it millions of lives.

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