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A ticking time bomb

By David Wilson

Donald Trump’s hate-filled, ignorant and self-aggrandizing campaign for the U.S. presidency has made a mockery of American electoral politics. But in spite of himself, Trump has made one positive contribution to the body politic: he’s got Americans, and the rest of us, worrying about nuclear weapons again.

The Republican nominee has flippantly suggested that he’d use nuclear weapons against Islamic State; that he wouldn’t rule out using them in Europe; that he’d be okay with nations like Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia acquiring nuclear weapons. If he were president, he says, he’d use nuclear unpredictability as a diplomatic bargaining chip — but has demonstrated a breathtaking ignorance of America’s nuclear strategy and arsenal.

Trump’s bully-boy temper coupled with the prospect of him exercising the awesome powers of commander-in-chief have made nuclear weapons a key presidential campaign issue for the first time in decades. Even voters who loathe Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton can’t ignore her warnings about Trump getting his hands on the launch codes. His recklessness plays into a fear that crosses party lines — everyone is afraid of nuclear war.

It’s a fear as old and deep-rooted as nuclear weapons themselves. It was everywhere when I was a kid in the early 1960s. Summer evenings were shattered by the shriek of air-raid drills. Saturday morning cartoons were interrupted by emergency broadcast system tests. My family built and stocked a fallout shelter. 

The bombs we dreaded never came, but the nuclear threat remains dangerously real. Global totals of nuclear warheads have shrunk since the mid-1980s, but more than 15,300 warheads remain at the ready. And development of new warheads continues. The United States is moving toward full production of a precision-guided bomb whose explosive yield can be adjusted up or down according to the target. Russia’s new RS-28 weapon is designed to evade detection while delivering enough warheads to destroy an area the size of Texas. China’s new Dongfeng-41 rocket reportedly has the longest range of any nuclear missile on the planet, capable of travelling 12,000 kilometres in half an hour. North Korea’s recent successful test of a submarine-fired missile convinced defence analysts that it now has the capability to launch a nuclear attack against another country.

Mounting concern over Trump and The Bomb comes as most of the world’s non-nuclear powers are pressing ahead with a bid to rid the planet of the nuclear menace. This past summer, a United Nations working group adopted a report calling for negotiations to begin next year on a legally binding treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. Sixty-eight nations supported the measure, while the five major nuclear powers, including the United States, Russia and China, boycotted the whole process. Twenty-two nations voted No. To the dismay of arms control advocates and groups like the Canadian Council of Churches, Canada was among them, citing our obligations to NATO.

A global consensus on prohibiting nuclear weapons does not mean they’ll be eliminated overnight. But it will begin to de-legitimize them and hopefully stigmatize the states that stoke our fears by continuing to develop and stockpile them. The UN General Assembly will vote on the working group recommendation on Oct. 19, less than two weeks before the U.S. election. Media coverage of the UN vote will refocus attention on the loose cannon that wants to preside over the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It may be the straw that breaks Donald Trump’s back. We can only hope. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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(Photo: cuatrok77/Flickr via Creative Commons)

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