On Preventing the Worst from Happening

The following is offered as a very small and personal side commentary, on the occasion of the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea meeting in Singapore.

Have you met the Ploughshares Fund? If you’re not anxious to see the planet blown away in a thermonuclear flash, the Ploughshares folks are good people to know.

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by Snoron.com

Ploughshares was founded in 1981 by the indomitable sculptor/activist Sally Lilienthal, who was also a friend of my good husband. When I met her, soon after arriving in San Francisco in 1992, I became an instant fan.

1981 was the height of the Cold War, and Russia and the U.S. were on the brink of thermonuclear confrontation – each having enough nuclear weapons to obliterate this beautiful planet. Ploughshares set about the work of reducing those dangerous threats and has been remarkably successful. Stockpiles have been dramatically reduced – we’re down from the nearly 55,000 worldwide total in 1980 to the current figure of approximately 15,000. Over 90% are in the US and Russia; the rest are in China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. There may be fewer nuclear weapons, but there are plenty around to destroy life as we know it.

Which is why the world watched with some apprehension as two of perhaps the most erratic and unpredictable leaders of all time met to – we hope – find a way to avoid nuclear war.

Fran w Joe Cirincione 6.4.18

With Joe Cirincione

I was privileged to hear Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione and Executive Director/Chief Operating Officer Philip Yun talk about the situation in general and North Korea in particular recently with a group of longtime supporters.

“We have a very simple philosophy,” Cirincione says: “prevent the worst from happening.” Re North Korea and the recent summit, “There might be some surprises. Trump could stumble into a good deal.” Pointing out that “we support policies, not presidents,” he said Donald Trump “could give North Korea something that Democratic presidents could not.”

This group, progressives to the core, swallowed hard. If you want not to see the planet wiped out in a thermonuclear frenzy, keeping North Korea from starting such an event trumps all distaste for our president.

Yun offered some history lessons and insight; he is a scholar of Korean affairs who has long been involved in U.S./N.Korea negotiations. “The North Koreans like symmetry,” he said. Any movement toward denuclearization “is going to have to be phased. (But) there are a lot of moving parts that could make us safer right now.”

Those were just several snippets of a conversation that was wide-ranging and in many ways encouraging. The fact that the Ploughshares people, and the people with organizations it funds, are working every day to keep the worst from happening is encouragement enough for now.dove of peace

So this writer, who watches in horror the environmental destruction and loss of human rights going on every day thanks to the policies of our current administration, swallowed hard and wished Mr. Trump & Mr. Kim every success in avoiding a thermonuclear planetary disaster.

Russia — and Nuclear Arms Racing

moscow-cathedral

Russia occupies a soft spot in my heart.

It grew out of the boundless enthusiasm for everything Slavic exuded by my Russian-major college roommate – or may have been seeded earlier by the cloth-covered storybooks full of babushkas, snow-covered cottages and deep forests that I so loved as a child. It expanded through and beyond the one time I was lucky enough to visit the country. I love the vastness of its countryside, the majesty of its ancient cathedrals, the intriguing complexity of its history, the wonder of its literature, the no-nonsense hospitality of its people.

I especially love every single one of those non-English-speaking Russians who helped me find the Dostoesvsky Museum in St. Petersberg one day, as I wandered a very long boulevard, counting canals, clutching my map and repeatedly smiling at perfect strangers, pointing to the spot and saying “Dostoevsky Musee?” More than a dozen of them patiently took turns guiding me along. The last took me by the arm and walked me several blocks and down the steps to the obscure doorway through which I entered the last apartment inhabited by one of my literary heroes. (I would never have found it!)

Dostoevsky Museum.jpg

Many friends and strangers across the U.S. share this affection. Much travelled scientist/author Jo Anne Valentine Simson writes in her small, lovely new book Russia Revisited: Come Take a Tour with Me that it “is one of my favorite countries in the world – huge and beautiful, with a complex and tortured history and a culture to match.”

But we do not love Mr. Putin. From this vantage point, he is among a handful of dangerous tyrants determined to centralize power and increasingly restrict the freedom of ordinary citizens. Simson puts it this way: “Unfortunately, in 2016 the political power seems to be devolving once again into a form of aristocracy, with Vladimir Putin behaving like an autocrat.”

We also don’t like the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Or another dangerous arms race destined to increase the supply of nuclear weapons in the U.S., Russia and who knows where else. Which is why we find the “bring it on” tweets of our president-elect more than a little scary.

nuclear-bomb-explosion2.jpg

by Snoron.com

According to the good people of Ploughshares Fund, there are currently 15,375 nuclear weapons held by nine countries. The U.S. and Russia have 93 percent of them. That means each of us already has enough nukes to destroy the planet several times over. A small dispute between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, whom our president-elect admires but seems eager to challenge, could unleash a few and end life as we know it on this fragile planet.

A little less trash-tweeting and a little less talk about building nuclear stockpiles would be a nice Happy New Year gift for Russians and Americans alike.

Nuclear-free World? Possibly. Some Day

Aaron Lobel (r) and Philip Yun at Ploughshares event

Aaron Lobel (r) and Philip Yun at Ploughshares event

Ploughshares Fund supporters – Americans committed to reducing nuclear stockpiles, preventing new nuclear states, and increasing global security – recently got some encouraging words from a few of those on the front lines. Not that the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world is near, but that it’s a lot closer than 35 years ago.

It was 35 years ago that Ploughshares founder Sally Lilienthal, a 62-year-old sculptor, human rights activist, mother and wife, gathered a few friends in her San Francisco living room to discuss what could be done to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons here and abroad. This was the year (1981) when Ronal Reagan unveiled a “strategic modernization program” which called for – among other things nuclear – thousands of additional warheads, a significant increase in bomber forces, including 100 B-lBs and the development of stealth bombers, a new land-based 10-warhead strategic missile (the MX), and new intermediate-range missile deployments in Europe. In addition, he proposed deploying more than 3,000 air-launched cruise missiles on bombers.

There may not be a lot of peace on earth today, but there are far fewer nuclear threats to that eventual possibility and Ploughshares Fund is one key reason why.

A group of longtime Ploughshares supporters gathered recently in San Francisco to hear about ongoing work in South Asia, where India and Pakistan have a combined total of 250 nuclear weapons at the ready – enough to create a catastrophe in the area and long-term distress across the planet if that conflict were to escalate. America Abroad Media, a Ploughshares grantee, is working to prevent such a catastrophe.

Nuclear weapons test

Nuclear weapons test

AAM founder and president Aaron Lobel was interviewed by Ploughshares Executive Director and COO Philip Yun on how media fits into the complex efforts to reduce global conflict, specifically in South Asia. “You can go back to the origins of Pakistan as a Muslim state,” Lobel says, “and the question of whether India even recognizes Pakistan’s legitimacy” to get a picture of the enormity of the problem. But media in the area gets large audiences and builds human bonds. AAM works through public radio, international town halls, documentary and news programming and other avenues to build a civil society.

“We continue to believe that a civil society ultimately makes a difference,” Lobel says; “media is just one part of it.” And can such a society exist, and make a difference, in areas like South Asia today? “Absolutely yes,” says Lobel. “The lawyers’ movement in Pakistan did make a difference; and there are people in the civil society (there) involved in moving the ball forward.”

Lobel spoke at length of AAM’s work in Afghanistan, where its media following included the president of the country for at least one program. “If the president watched,” one questioner asked, “how many others actually saw the program?” “A lot,” says Lobel. “People gather around a satellite TV in the villages – this is not like having dozens of channels and TV sets in every home.”  world-peace

Ploughshares president Joseph Cirincione addressed the gathering on the broader issues, and the global outlook today. “In order for these guys (countries with smaller nuclear stockpiles) to give up nuclear weapons” Cirincione says, “they’re going to have to see the big guys doing it – and that’s not happening. We have to address the underlying issues (such as) water issues and religious issues. We also have to address the fundamental distrust. It’s important to recognize the power of media in addressing these issues to create a more peaceful world.” (“We fund the smartest people,” Yun adds, “with the best ideas.”)

Despite the discouraging prospects for global peace just now, Cirincione had a few nuggets of good news for the Ploughshares supporters:

“There were 70,000 nuclear weapons when we started,” he said; “there are 15,000 now. I believe the Iran nuclear deal has prevented war there for a generation. We can continue to work to make things better.”

Celebrating the Iran Nuclear Deal

nuclear cloudsThe mood was sheer celebration. “We’ve moved the boulder in the road,” said Joe Cirincione; “this model can be useful for other work.” Moving the boulder, a distinguished group of speakers repeatedly explained to the small, celebratory-mood audience, will lead to a safer world for our children and grandchildren, a world “where nuclear weapons are a thing of the past.” He was speaking of the Iran nuclear deal.

The Iran deal – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in Vienna on July 14 by the U.S., Iran, China, Russia, U.K., France, Germany and representatives of the E.U. – runs to approximately 159 pages, very few of which this right-brained writer has read. But I absolutely trust Joe Cirincione.

Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund, a nonprofit that works to bring about a world in which our children and grandchildren might live without the threat of being blown to bits by a nuclear bomb. A really attractive idea. (Ploughshares Fund was founded in 1981 by Sally Lilienthal, a remarkable San Francisco woman this writer was privileged to know in the decade before her death in 2006.) It was at a small gathering of Ploughshares supporters that Cirincione and several others – who have not only read the entire 159 pages, but helped write them – explained the details, and the impact, of the Iran deal to us, our grandchildren, and the world.

Many of the details are beyond the technical comprehension of most lay citizens (and more than a few of the politicians whose knee-jerk opposition has little to do with the safety of our future.) They include things like requiring that Iran reduce its 20,000 centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, to 6,104 over the next 10 years, giving up its most advanced centrifuges while using only their older model. Then there is the business of how far the country will be allowed to enrich uranium: no more than 3.67 percent, which will be okay for power plants but is far below the level needed for weapons. Iran also agreed to reduce its stockpile of uranium by 98 percent.dove of peace

These extraordinarily complex details were part of a conversation between Cirincione and Kelsey Davenport, Director for Nonproliferation Policy, Arms Control Association at the event. Davenport was among the outside experts traveling to Geneva, Vienna and elsewhere to help work out the agreement – “and knows more about the Iran deal than anyone I know,” Cirincione remarked, and spoke of the long, often painful path toward its success. Davenport said she could usually tell right away how some negotiation went – discussions that often ran into the small hours of the morning – by the expression on someone’s face.

We should all be smiling today.

 

 

 

Skipping towards Armageddon

Those people wandering around with giant signs proclaiming “THE END OF THE WORLD IS AT HAND!”? Sometimes you have to wonder if they’re onto something.

A recent Commonwealth Club program brought together two men proclaiming a similar message: the potential end of the world is at hand in the stockpiles of nuclear weapons — most of them in Russia or the U.S. — around the globe. They aren’t roaming the streets with hand-lettered signs, but they have written two informative, slightly scary new books. Ploughshares Fund President Joseph Cirincione opened his talk by saying, “If you buy one book about nuclear weapons, buy this book.” He held up co-presenter Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident and the Illusion of Safety.  Command and Control (full disclosure, I haven’t finished all 632 pages yet) is investigative journalist (Fast Food Nation) Schlosser‘s “ground-breaking account of accidents, near-misses, extraordinary heroism, and technological breakthroughs.” It covers the history of nuclear weapons accumulated by the U.S. since the days of the cold war, and it will make most other problems shrink to insignificance.

Cirincione’s own new book, Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late, covers the good news — only nine states now have nuclear weapons, down from 23, and “only” 17,000 such weapons still exist — and the bad: that’s enough to destroy the planet without much trouble. (Cirincione did later hold up his own fine, smaller work with the comment, “If you buy TWO books…”)

This not-so-comforting realization of what an edge of obliteration we live on was only one effect of the discussion. The other was sheer gratitude for the planet’s survival. Standing between you and me and the edge of oblivion are fallible human beings who have, so far, been able to avoid all the happenstances, large and small, that could trigger nuclear disaster. We can all hope they continue to guard the edge, but triggers for disaster are still everywhere: aging weaponry, international angst and mistrust, and the always possible lone crazy person.

Moderator David Holloway, Professor of International History at Stanford University, asked the elephant-in-the-room question: Would the author/experts agree with General Lee Butler, former head of the Strategic Air Command, who said the avoidance of nuclear disaster was thanks to a combination of skill, luck and divine intervention?

“I would not cite divine intervention,” Schlosser replied. “But we’ve been very lucky.” Like climate change, the threat of nuclear disaster is brought about by human actions, he said, and can be corrected by the same.  Both of the experts talked of the dangers existing around the globe from having 17,000 weapons stockpiled, from the tensions between many countries, and the possibility that terrorists could get their hands on a few weapons.

But the point was driven home to this audience member when Cirincione put it this way. It all started, he explained, because we wanted to deter the Soviet Union — now, presumably Russia — from annihilating us. So how many Russian cities would we need to obliterate, he asked, for an adequate deterrance? One? Two? Say, Moscow and St. Petersburg? Maybe three? He explained further that nuclear weapons make no attempt to pinpoint military targets and avoid collateral damage. They simply demolish everything and kill everybody. To accomplish this “deterrance”, wipe Russia’s three most significant cities off the map, would require eight nuclear weapons.

We have five thousand.

I’m still not counting out divine intervention.