The United States’ approach to international relations may work if the country ever finds itself in the two simultaneous and unlikely land wars in Asia and Europe that our military planners have envisioned in their budget requests. But that approach seems wildly ill-conceived, if the goal is to lessen the human toll that will be caused by an array of new threats—from climate change and fast-spreading viruses to the technologies behind cyber hacking and information warfare—that are undermining trust in institutions and have the potential to stop whole societies in their tracks.
Today, the United States is on the cusp of spending somewhere between $1.2 and $1.8 trillion over the next 30 years on new nuclear weapons, a large portion of which is unnecessary from a military security point of view and could be better invested elsewhere.
Back in the 1960s, African American leaders recognized that money spent on weapons reduced resources that could be distributed domestically. In 1967, Martin Luther King pointed out that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” It is the same argument that has compelled many African American leaders to advocate for nuclear disarmament.
Today, well into a new century, the United States government appears to be deaf to such common-sense arguments. But citizens could demand a different path. The pandemic provides important lessons that we would do well to heed. These include: inequities in public health make societies less, not more stable; prevention is always cheaper than reaction; science matters, and just because you can’t see a problem—germs in the air, say, or increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—doesn’t mean it is inconsequential; and individual action can make a big difference, whether the action be social distancing, demonstrating for social justice, reducing one’s carbon footprint, or demanding a rethink of our current nuclear strategy. As we deal with the COVID pandemic, breadcrumbs are being laid out for us, showing the way toward better decisions about how to use our resources in this no-longer-new 21st century. Shouldn’t we follow them?
A placard carried by a woman walking by my house just now reads “Disarm Dismantle Defund.” I suspect it was written with the police department in mind, but it is equally applicable to our broader national security paradigm, especially as it applies to nuclear weapons and their limited ability to combat a growing set of global challenges. Our current strategies and investments are anachronistic and do not seem to be making us safer. Twenty years in, isn’t it time to acknowledge the century we live in?