• The greatest threat to the future of mankind?

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    JAIME J. YAMBAO

    UNLESS rebuffed by the US Congress like it did with his repeal of Obamacare, President Trump’s proposal to boost the budget for nuclear weapons production could make him the greatest threat to the future of mankind. Not climate change. Not terrorism.

    Already America’s 5,500 strategic nuclear weapons possess enough destructive power to destroy Planet Earth at least five times over; some experts estimate up to 50 times over.

    The US and Russia own 95 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads, with Russia slightly ahead. But the two powers have been reducing their stockpiles under the US- Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Obviously not a candidate for the Nobel Peace prize, Trump has announced his wish to renegotiate the new START and be at the top of the nuclear heap, not only numerically but also in lethalness.

    Trump’s desire to be absolutely No. 1 could conceivably trigger a new nuclear arms race among the nuclear powers today. This could also encourage new aspirants for the exclusive nuclear circle as the race further accentuates the basic flaw of the Non-Proliferation Treaty: its discriminatory nature. The nuclear powers as of July1968, the time of signing of the NPT, are exempt from the ban the treaty imposes.

    Sanctions have not prevented states from violating the NPT. India with an economy large enough to go autarkic considered the sanctions imposed on it after its nuclear tests “meaningless.” Sanctions against Pakistan were dropped as soon as its cooperation was deemed essential by the US in the latter’s Afghan wars. For all the sanctions slapped on it, North Korea has so far conducted nuclear and missile tests at relentlessly short intervals that the risk of a nuclear detonation being made either by the US or North Korea today is considered the highest since the Cold War.

    Small wonder that the world has not been too happy and content with the NPT. In accordance with the decision of the majority last year, the UN General Assembly a few days ago launched a conference to negotiate a new legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons in line with previous treaties prohibiting chemical and biological weapons, landmines and cluster munitions.

    Customary international law makes no mention of nuclear weapons because they are of a later invention. But as their immediate and longer term effects were demonstrated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons clearly fall under the weapons prohibited by customary international law—weapons which are of a nature to strike at military objectives and civilians without distinction.

    It was the monitoring of the effects of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that showed how a single nuclear bomb detonated over a large city could kill millions of people, bring unimaginable suffering to survivors and their future generations, and cause catastrophic and long-term damage to the environment. The use of tens or hundreds of nuclear bombs would be cataclysmic, severely disrupting the global climate and causing widespread famine. The UN conference serves to negotiate a treaty that would for the first time explicitly and universally prohibit nuclear weapons. The ban would include the five permanent members of the Security Council.

    For all its defects, the NPT by the number of countries subscribing to it manifests the desire of the vast majority of countries around the world (almost 200) to ban nuclear weapons. One hundred fifteen countries are also part of nuclear weapons-free zones which cover Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the South Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Africa. While a majority of UN members are participating in the conference. The United States and its allies have boycotted it, calling it an unrealistic exercise. One US ally, the Philippines is not in that boycott. Its own Constitution bans nuclear weapons.

    Given Trump’s pledge to make America great again in nuclear weapons and given the ongoing efforts in the United Nations to negotiate a ban, it appears that the world is at a historic juncture. To ban or not to ban…

    With the US boycotting the conference, one cannot be sanguine about what any resulting treaty can amount to. The colossal nuclear stockpile of the US will be outside the ban. Would a label or reputation as a rogue leader matter to Trump? Probably not. The United States anyway has a history of not ratifying landmark treaties and not learning any lesson from the disastrous consequences of its non-ratification.

    Trump is one damn determined fellow. This is shown by the fact that to make a significant increase in his defense and nuclear weapons budget, he has to make drastic cuts in components of the federal budget that contribute significantly to national security. Trump is also one narrow-minded fool. Said a New York Times

    “[T]he armed forces are a vital component of the national security tool kit, but so are diplomacy, economic engagement, and post-conflict reconstruction. The use of military force should always be a last resort, and the balanced application of other, less costly tools of national power helps prevent wars and crises from arising in the first place.”

    The reason the US gave for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing millions of civilians, was to stop the war and prevent further US military casualties. The nuclear bomb has been associated to this day with caring for the lives of America’s soldiers. It has been noted that Trump counts on the customary popularity of defense with legislators to get his budget passed. Trump may get the additional more powerful nuclear bombs that he wants.

    What makes people nervous about this prospect is that in the few weeks he has been in the White House, Trump has done little to dispel the notion engendered by the election campaign that his short-fuse temperament may willy-nilly unleash a nuclear cataclysm. His issuance of orders without much consultation with appropriate agencies, his all-bluster-and-wind assaults on mass and social media grounded on “alternative facts” are far from reassuring of a man close to the nuclear button.

    It seems that under the protocol concerned, the US President, contrary to the popular imagery, does not actually press his finger on the button. He issues an order to a War Room in the Pentagon where officials are bound by law to execute the order. There is an anecdote related in the Internet of one such top brass fired for asking whether he should follow an order to release nuclear bombs coming from an insane President. The US President has the sole authority to use nuclear weapons. The Pentagon must simply obey his command. Theirs not to question why…

    Jaime J. Yambao is a retired Ambassador of the Philippines

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