‘All Countries Have a Stake’: Dr. Kennette Benedict Talks Nuclear Security and Global Responsibility

People and nations worldwide cannot be assured of their safety as long as nuclear warheads remain ready for launch. How do we address the unspeakable dangers of nuclear war in today’s political climate? Dr. Kennette Benedict speaks about current and future nuclear security considerations in light of global responsibility and democracy.

Changwook Ju: As a politician and public policy scholar, what do you feel are your responsibilities in informing the world about the dangers of nuclear weapons and their spread?

Dr. Kennette Benedict: I take these responsibilities very seriously because nuclear weapons are the most destructive technology on Earth. Most of the nuclear weapons that exist now have anywhere from 60 to 400 times the destructive power of the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. The damage to human life and society that these weapons can cause is unlike any other weapon. The only defense that we’ve devised is to hold our population hostage to the nuclear weapons, and the main way we deal with nuclear weapons now is through norms and standards of behavior. Nuclear weapons are not asteroids from outer space or a volcano that we have no control over. Presumably, we have control over nuclear weapons, so it seems like the height of madness to have them.

So I consider it a grave duty to discuss the destruction these weapons can cause and inform the general public about the deterrence-based doctrines we’ve developed in the United States, Russia, China, and other countries. Deterrence theory really doesn’t make much sense when you’re talking about nuclear weapons. Nuclear deterrence means that the only time you would use nuclear weapons would be to deter other countries who have nuclear weapons. Logically, you don’t need nuclear weapons to deter others if no one has them. Policy makers want to keep all these facts and underlying mechanisms secret, and they have done that. I think that’s wrong. So I feel like I have more of a responsibility to talk about it.

Changwook Ju: Numerous treaties and conventions require nuclear-weapon nations to reduce or eliminate their nuclear arsenals, but it seems that non-nuclear nations perceive an unwillingness in them to do so, and this may provoke the development of their own nuclear weapons. Could you comment on this? What are some possible approaches for tackling the lack of commitment to nuclear disarmament?

Dr. Kennette Benedict: We have a treaty in place, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was signed and entered into force in 1968 and 1970, respectively. Because the treaty was developed during the height of the Cold War, it seemed unrealistic at the time for the U.S. and the Soviet Union, along with countries who had already handed in their weapons, to actually talk about disarmament.

When the Cold War ended in 1991, it seemed like the perfect time for people to really talk about disarmament, and many did. The U.S. and Russia did manage to collaboratively reduce their nuclear weapons, from almost 70,000 between them to now about 15,000. That’s a dramatic decrease in the space of 20 years.

Sometimes we forget how much progress we’ve made since the end of the Cold War. Many countries—for instance, India, Pakistan, and China to some extent—thought, “The U.S. and Russia are decreasing their weapons but will never give up the idea of their nuclear weapons. So we’re going to build up a supply for ourselves.” In my mind, an opportunity was missed at the end of the Cold War to take the NPT seriously. The process stalled, and it seems that we lost sight of them.

But since 1946, especially in the early days, there have been almost constant talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union about tackling the problem of nuclear weapons. Out of those talks, for instance, came the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Even the NPT, and the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972, and the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993 were the result of scientists, lawyers, and political leaders coming together behind the scenes.

The point is that we need to have those kinds of talks going on all the time. I do want to talk about the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This treaty was put to the vote on July 7, 2017, and 122 out of 124 countries voted in favor of it. This is the latest idea, and it sets the new standard to actually prohibit nuclear weapons. It’s not that some countries can have them and others can’t—no one can have them.

The idea was to get people in countries where there are no nuclear weapons to understand that they have a stake as well. All countries have a stake. The fallout from even a small exchange of nuclear weapons, say, between India and Pakistan, would likely cause a blotting out of the sun’s rays, and probably worldwide famine, over the space of a decade. Temperatures would fall, and agricultural production would collapse in most parts of the world. It would not only affect India and Pakistan, but the rest of us.

What the new treaty means in practical terms is that people can protest and say, “These are illegal weapons,” as people did in getting rid of land mines. The international community could then come in and do something about it. It may seem naïve, but it is important to understand that seemingly impossible things have happened in the past, and that they may happen in the future.

Changwook Ju: It seems there has been some international wrangling, but also some progress, regarding nuclear disarmament and disarmament generally. Do you think disarmament can be achieved without compromising national security?

Dr. Kennette Benedict: This is a question that the United Nations took up in 1945, when it was first established. The UN Charter refers not only to nuclear disarmament, but to general disarmament as well. That was after World War II, so the devastation of the war was on people’s minds, so they wanted to get rid of weapons. It’s still an aspiration that many people have, and there is a yearning for peace and disarmament almost everywhere. We look at the wars in Syria and Africa, and we think of those as horrible. We look at photographs of Mosul. The killing is devastating and heartbreaking to most people.

I don’t think national security is a matter of guns—it’s a matter of having a strong society where people feel like they are taken care of by their government and by each other. And nuclear weapons don’t really allow that. Neither do any other weapons of war. War is produced by fear of the other, and that fear usually emerges because we’re not talking to each other, and we’re putting ourselves into isolated camps. It would be lovely to think that we could live like Costa Rica, which has no national military force. Costa Rica has shown a way, and nobody invades them. They use the money that they might have spent on weapons for education, medical care, and lots of other things. So there is one example, and who knows? It might be possible.

Changwook Ju: There has been deep concern recently about the fact that the U.S. president can single-handedly initiate a nuclear attack. You suggested in your 2016 article that constitutional alterations should be made to reduce the possibility of one person’s reaction causing a nuclear war. What analytical insights can you offer to support this argument, and what types of changes would you propose?

Dr. Kennette Benedict: The Constitution requires that Congress declare war. In other words, the founders of our country didn’t imagine nuclear weapons. It’s not a surprise that they didn’t anticipate the need for a very quick response to an inter-continental ballistic missile from the Soviet Union or Russia.

But there was some wisdom to this. The founders felt that since it was going to be the people who fought this war for the country, citizens should have a say on whether to go to war or not. The founders had also just fought a War of Independence to get away from the British monarchy and King George III. They felt that if the president was the one who decided about war, then we would be reverting to a monarchy. Their idea was pretty sensible. It was also based on a long tradition of democratic theory, from Aristotle and the Greeks to the Enlightenment in the West, which said that people should be able to participate in the decisions that may ultimately cost their lives.

The Constitution already says that the president is not allowed to start a war, but we’ve forgotten about that. To reinforce that idea, two legislators, Representative Ted Lieu of California and Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts, have introduced legislation that says that the U.S. president has to consult with Congress, and that Congress has to be the one to declare war before the president can use nuclear weapons. The legislation says that the president can only use nuclear weapons without Congress’ permission if it’s a matter of retaliation or we are under immediate threat.

Since World War II, Congress has not declared war, and yet we have fought wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and we are now in Afghanistan. So there is another piece of legislation that may be introduced by Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia and others that says that before we commit our own forces, Congress must declare war. Congress is now beginning to get the idea that they should play a bigger role in deciding when the U.S. should use military forces to conduct war.

Changwook Ju: The responsibility for nuclear weapon decision-making should not fall upon political leaders alone. How would you articulate ordinary people’s stake in addressing the issue? What should they see as their role in establishing a nuclear-free future?

Dr. Kennette Benedict: Leaders are not interested in giving up their own power on these issues, so they don’t want to broadcast the fact that within half an hour, the populations of the United States, Russia, China, and other countries could be completely devastated by nuclear weapons. But we do need to understand what’s at stake in order for us to understand that we as citizens have a responsibility for our own protection and a responsibility to have a say in how and whether we use nuclear weapons.

One of the problems that ordinary citizens have in talking about nuclear weapons is that it’s all secret. Whenever you try to say, as I have in government circles, “Well, this makes no sense. Why do we have these nuclear weapons on this high launch readiness where they can be sent off within a matter of 12-15 minutes?” people will say, “Well, if you knew what I know, then you would see why we have to”—but of course you can’t know what they know because you don’t have the clearance. So the system has been built around the control of weapons, thinking, and secrets.

There’s a new book out by Garrett Graff that talks about the secret sites in the U.S. where leaders will go if there’s a nuclear attack. These are extremely well-fortified sites for only certain members of the military and presidential party, because heaven forbid we should lose control of the decision-making. The rest of us have no place to go, so we would be demolished. In a democracy especially, I really think that’s unfair and unjust because the issue is about whether we’re going to exist.

I think it’s as simple as writing to your congressional members as frequently as you feel moved, to remind them that this is an area where ordinary citizens have not been able to participate and where Congress has given up its responsibility to the president and the military. We can’t call ourselves a democratic republic any longer unless they step up and we all step up. We have channels, we can protest—and in fact, in the U.S. and Europe, we’ve seen protests that have had an effect. In the 1950s, protests helped bring about part of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. In the 1980s, the Nuclear Freeze Movement helped people understand what was at stake, and I would say it helped draw public attention to institutional decision-making in nuclear security issues.

It’s doable. I think the challenge is just getting people to be aware of what implications nuclear weapons can have. There’s a lot of learning to be done, and I’m delighted that the Chicago Policy Review is interested in these issues. They are significant problems we all can be involved in solving—we just have to raise our voices and say something about it.

Changwook Ju
Changwook Ju (MPP’18) is a staff writer for International Affairs at the Chicago Policy Review. He is interested in alliance politics, the causes of war, crisis bargaining, domestic politics and foreign policy, non-democracy, nuclear strategy, and the political economy of conflict. He spent two years in the Republic of Korea Marine Corps as a sergeant, and holds dual undergraduate degrees in Public Policy and Political Science from Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, South Korea.

Comments are closed.