The ghost writer for Donald Trump's book "The Art of the Deal" said recently if Trump becomes president and "gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization." Photo by Pat Benic/UPI | License Photo
WASHINGTON, July 19 (UPI) -- Concern about the dangers of nuclear weapons is nothing new. But with the Republican National Convention in Cleveland about to nominate Donald Trump as its candidate for president, many people are feeling increasingly trapped — a feeling that was intensified this week when the ghost writer for Trump's book The Art of the Deal said, "I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization."
Regardless what you think about Trump, it is certainly true that the world is getting increasingly dangerous. The Islamic State, sudden coup attempts, instability throughout the Middle East, tensions with Russia and China, strongmen replacing democratic rule — across the board there seems to be cause for concern. One Pulitzer Prize winning historian recently wrote a piece with the despairing title, "Nuclear weapons mess: We're all in it together but don't know how to get out alive."
It seems like a genuine conundrum. If everyone really wants nuclear weapons, and if the world is getting more dangerous and human beings are fallible, then somewhere down the road there is a nuclear war waiting for us. This pessimistic view is generally shared by almost all in the nuclear weapons community and by many thoughtful people throughout the world.
But the situation is, in fact, not that dire. It is not time to despair. There are actually sound, pragmatic reasons to reject nuclear weapons. The ideas we use to guide us in thinking about nuclear weapons are actually wrong. The assumptions shared by most members of the nuclear community and that they have assiduously taught the rest of us for 70 years are muddled and mistaken. The reasoning behind our nuclear policy, and the nuclear mindset that generated that reasoning, was developed during a time of intense fear and — like most thinking done when you're terrified — isn't very sound.
But it has been rarely challenged. The anti-nuclear movement has had massive protests, it has had passionate denunciations, it has had dedicated, long-suffering activists, but the one thing it has never brought forward is a serious challenge to the ideas behind the nuclear weapons mindset. The assumptions behind the notion that "everyone wants nuclear weapons" because they are some sort of "ultimate" weapon have simply never been given careful scrutiny.
And in point of fact, it is high time that they were challenged because they are doubtful, problematic and not very realistic. The nuclear mindset is taught in international relations courses and grad schools, and repeated in think tanks and the corridors of government. The media and public mostly repeat the conclusions the experts have arrived at. But the nuclear mindset is grown in an airtight intellectual compartment where uncomfortable facts, new ideas, and obvious contradictions rarely find their way
in. It is carried on in the closed circle of nuclear believers. It is classic groupthink.
And the results are unsound.
Take the oft-repeated notion that "you can't disinvent nuclear weapons." This is an argument that is rarely questioned and is a key element in the argument that disarmament is impossible. It seems plausible on the face of it, but look closer and you'll see there's nothing there. No technology goes away by disinvention. It's an imaginary process. How is it supposed to work? Does a guy in a white coat sit down at a bench and "disinvent" ancient IBM PCs? Technology goes away because people abandon it. It's not about technology, it's about social preference.
Nuclear believers have disguised this argument because they want the assertion that nuclear weapons are desirable dressed up as a law of technology evolution. The disguise is necessary because the idea that "everyone wants nuclear weapons" is easily and powerfully challenged by the facts. More countries have had programs to build nuclear weapons and abandoned them or had actual nuclear weapons in hand and given them up, than have built nuclear arsenals. The "you can't disinvent nuclear weapons" argument is a trick designed to hide a questionable assumption.
The entire nuclear mindset is like this. Dubious assertions about human nature ("decision makers will be more rational in a crisis because they know the stakes are higher") dressed up in jargon and arcane theories. Dicey interpretations of history ("nuclear deterrence has never failed") boldly stated as fact. Of course nuclear deterrence has failed in the past. I know we've never had a nuclear war, but that isn't proof. Imagine that you are driving in your car, your brakes fail, you swerve and weave crazily through oncoming traffic and by some miracle end up unhurt in the field on the other side of the road. Do you then get out of your car and say, "Well, I know my brakes didn't fail, because I didn't end up dead." Just because we've never ended up in a nuclear war, doesn't mean the mechanism of nuclear deterrence has never failed.
It is high time to challenge the nuclear mindset, to understand that nuclear weapons are clumsy, awful weapons rather than "ultimate" weapons, and to see that it's possible to break free from the dilemma. After all, if nuclear weapons are lousy weapons — too big for any practical purpose — then elimination is just common sense. And as we continue to develop "smart" weapons — tiny, accurate, discriminate drones, for example — a world without nuclear weapons looks increasingly possible. Which would you rather have? Smart, small, discriminate, useful weapons? Or big, clumsy, dangerous, not very useful weapons like nuclear weapons?
There does appear to be dark danger ahead. Increasingly, "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." But we can get out of this alive. We are not trapped. As usual, American pragmatism points the way out of the maze. Americans know you don't have to keep tools that are dangerous and too big for any real-world job. That's not dreamy utopian thinking. That's just common sense.
Ward Wilson is director of the Rethinking Nuclear Weapons project of BASIC (the British American Security Information Counsel) and the author of "Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons."