President Ronald Reagan once asked, "Cannot swords be turned to plowshares? Can we and all nations not live in peace?" A few months later Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbachev and signed a treaty eliminating short- and medium-range nuclear missiles.
Despite this treaty, both the United States and Russia still have thousands of nuclear weapons. India, Pakistan, China, Israel, North Korea, Great Britain and France each possess these weapons of mass destruction. With this reality looms the constant threat of nuclear war, accident, or terrorist theft.
Even if we are fortunate enough to avoid nuclear catastrophe, we still lose. Every dollar spent on nuclear weapons means less money for other valuable programs, such as the fight against hunger and poverty. For as President Dwight Eisenhower said, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."
And this "theft" continues. In May the group Global Zero issued a report predicting that the world will spend over $1 trillion on nuclear weapons and related costs over the next decade. The report, led by retired Gen. James Cartwright, calls for the United States to reduce its own nuclear arsenal to 500-900 weapons, while seeking global negotiations for other nations to reduce their stockpiles.
A key line from the Global Zero report reads, "At a time of global economic stagnation and acute budgetary pressure on governments, the world can ill afford to lavish scarce resources on nuclear forces." Nuclear weapons are the most expensive brand of "swords."
The energy of nuclear weapons can be diverted to peaceful uses. This was the ambition of President Eisenhower when he made nuclear arms control a priority with his Atoms for Peace speech. Ike's initiative brought together Russian and U.S. scientists at a 1955 conference in Geneva on the peaceful uses of atomic energy and led to the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1957.
In 1991 the United States started a Cooperative Threat Reduction program with Russia as the former Soviet Union disintegrated. The plan is also called the Nunn-Lugar Initiative, named for its founders Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar.
The idea was to first secure nuclear weapons and material in former Soviet states such as Ukraine and Belarus. It was critical that these weapons not fall into the wrong hands during the dramatic fall of the Soviet Union.
Next was to beat these swords into plowshares. Under Nunn-Lugar, former nuclear weapons fuel was diverted into peaceful uses such as powering energy plants. The Megatons to Megawatts program is an example of how Russia and the U.S. have cooperated. International Science and Technology centers were created to employ former nuclear scientists, using their talents for peaceful work.
Nunn-Lugar should be fully expanded to other countries, and India and Pakistan come quickly to mind.
Pakistan recently conducted nuclear missile tests. Meanwhile, UNICEF says that some 10 million Pakistani children suffer from malnutrition. Many of these children will suffer lasting physical and mental damage.
Pakistan has also undergone significant flooding in recent years, and the poor have suffered most from this catastrophe. They need food, shelter and medicine, not spending on nuclear weapons.
India has also tested nuclear missiles while its children suffer from malnutrition. And India and Pakistan may provoke each other into an even more costly arms race and more suffering for their people.
In 2009 a resolution was introduced in the U.S. Congress to encourage nuclear disarmament and to use the savings to expand Nunn-Lugar to reach more countries such as Pakistan and India. This Global Security Priorities Resolution also called for additional savings from nuclear disarmament to be diverted to the fight against global hunger.
This sounds like common sense, but it did not pass Congress.
The United States spends an estimated $52 billion a year on nuclear weapons. The other nuclear powers are also pouring their treasuries into their nuclear ambitions. But nuclear weapons cannot bring us peace. What can save us is dismantling this weapon of mass destruction and converting it to the benefit of mankind.
(William Lambers is the author of “Nuclear Weapons and the Road to Peace.”)