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USA, Febuary 12, 2018

A gold-plated blueprint for nuclear war

The cover of the 2018 NPR conveys the Trump-brand obsession with gold.

You’d be hard pressed to find a stronger case for the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty than the new US Nuclear Posture Review released last week by the Trump administration.

Not that the gloomy, unreconstructed apologists for US geopolitical, economic, and military dominance who authored this frontal assault on nuclear disarmament intended to make that argument. To the contrary, after portraying a world so relentlessly hostile to US interests that only a multi-billion dollar “recapitalization” of the nuclear weapons enterprise can keep the country’s adversaries from wreaking havoc, the authors dismiss the Treaty as an unrealistic and polarizing diversion that undermines the whole principle of nuclear deterrence.

Of course, they’re right about that last bit, which they know is the whole point. The Trump NPR is not all that different from those of previous administrations in that it endorses nuclear weapons as the gold standard for US security, and offers nuclear deterrence as an unquestionable article of faith. As Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group and others have correctly pointed out, the nuclear weapons programs, priorities, and budgets outlined in the 2018 NPR have mostly been carried over from previous administrations, with the additions of a “low-yield” submarine-launched ballistic missile and a sub-launched cruise missile.

That said, while the Obama NPR at least gave lip service to the idea that a world without nuclear weapons was the ultimate goal, even though the administration thwarted that goal by funding a robust nuclear arsenal that it expected the US would have for another century or so, the “America first” acolytes who have repopulated the Trump administration don’t even pretend to have their eyes on that prize. Their enthusiasm for (US) nuclear weapons pervades this document, which IPPNW co-president Tilman Ruff has called “a blueprint for nuclear war.”

The logic of the NPR is largely unassailable if one accepts its major premises: that nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence have kept the peace for 70 years and will continue to do so over the long term; and that the only way to prevent bad actors (either states or terrorists) from using nuclear weapons is to ensure that the good actors (the US and its allies) have more and better nuclear weapons. Those who have this kind of religious belief in nuclear weapons insist upon making these claims without much evidence of their validity, regardless of how often their beliefs are refuted by reams of evidence.

Ban Treaty proponents also have a set of beliefs: that no state has a right to possess, let alone use, weapons of mass destruction when the consequences of such use will be catastrophic to non-combatant and combatant populations alike; that no state can place the entire world at risk in pursuit of its own security interests, however legitimate those might be; that nuclear weapons are inherently illegitimate because of the existential threat they pose to humanity and, therefore, belong in no one’s hands.

The Ban Treaty prohibits nuclear weapons because the evidence proves they undermine everyone’s security and threaten everyone with extinction. It condemns nuclear deterrence as a kind of global hostage taking with inevitable, catastrophic consequences. These two narratives—the Ban Treaty and the NPR—can’t co-exist, any more than humanity itself can continue to co-exist with nuclear weapons.

The problem for the nuclear-armed states and their suppliers—who have a vested interest in the lucrative contracts that keep the warheads, missiles, aircraft, submarines, and shareholder dividends flowing through the system (the true objective of this NPR and all its predecessors)—is the evidence itself. They can’t dispute it, so they attempt to ignore it, or marginalize it, or claim that it’s only a small part of a much bigger picture.

Yet there is no bigger picture than what’s at stake for the world if and when deterrence fails and nuclear weapons are used in the way that the nuclear-armed states have prepared to use them. That picture was drawn in terrifying detail at the three international conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, which provided the evidentiary foundation for the Ban Treaty:

“[T]he catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons cannot be adequately addressed, transcend national borders, pose grave implications for human survival, the environment, socioeconomic development, the global economy, food security and the health of current and future generations, and have a disproportionate impact on women and girls, including as a result of ionizing radiation.”

In an astonishing “what, me worry?” admission that they’ve been over-selling their product, the NPR’s authors defend their faith in nuclear deterrence even in the face of its inevitable result:

“If deterrence fails, the initiation and conduct of nuclear operations would adhere to the law of armed conflict and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The United States will strive to end any conflict and restore deterrence at the lowest level of damage possible for the United States, allies, and partners, and minimize civilian damage to the extent possible consistent with achieving objectives.”

Breathing that sigh of relief yet? More on this next time.

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