Disaster Spotlights Need for International Action

 September 23, 2001

By Kim Cranston and Laura Mcgrath Moulton
San Jose Mercury News

Since World War II, humanity has mastered extraordinary challenges. We can orbit the earth. We can transplant organs. We can travel faster than sound, and we can communicate across the globe almost instantaneously.

We can commit global suicide, too. The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., are stunning, sickening proof of humanity’s capability to reduce the best of what we are to rubble, smoke and death.

But the horror of the past days also contains a seed of hope, in the immediate and unstinting spirit of cooperation that has animated the nation. Just as individual Americans are reaching out to help one another, so we must realize that most of the world stands ready to help the United States root out the evils which threaten us all.

Any technology can become a weapon of death in the hands of a group bent on destruction. One technology, however, threatens destruction on an even vaster scale. We already have enough deployed nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over, and the number of people with the potential to make nuclear weapons or obtain them clandestinely is constantly increasing. If Tuesday’s terrorists had managed to use even a crude nuclear device instead of airliners, the death toll would be in the millions.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, it is natural for Americans to want to withdraw from the rest of the world by drawing close to loved ones and fortifying our homes. In spite of this gut desire, however, the United States cannot become a fortress-state that tries to influence world policy by remote control. We are vulnerable in ways that no military defense can ever fix — vulnerable because of the very freedoms that make us great — and a target because of the intense love and hate our nation inspires around the globe.

Nevertheless, we must remember that most of the world is horrified by the attacks on New York and Washington and wants to work with the United States to permanently prevent more of this madness. Furthermore, the international community has proven that, given sufficient will power and capability, it is able to tackle the most pressing problems, including the threat of nuclear weapons.

Internationally and bilaterally negotiated treaties kept two enemies from using their most potent weapons during over 40 years of serious, albeit cold, hostilities. Since 1968, 187 nations have promised to work to eliminate nuclear weapons through the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Many nations (though not the United States) are willing to end nuclear testing. The countries of the Southern Hemisphere have created a virtual nuclear weapons-free zone.

We have no choice but to build on these precedents to create a broader, empowered international framework for addressing our shared threats. The existence of nuclear weapons has given individuals the power of life and death over all of us. A collective power, enabling the united force of nations to counterbalance the threats from individuals and small groups, is necessary for our preservation.

For instance, we might opt for an international authority, created on democratic principles and endowed with specific, limited jurisdiction over global threats: a United Nations with clarity, mandate and muscle. We don’t want a global dictatorship backed by violence, so finding a balance between strength and integrity will be paramount.

Whatever we do, though, we must do it with all deliberate speed, if only to honor the memory of all those who died on Sept. 11. The threats from alienated and angry groups and nations will become more dangerous without firm action; two nations (India and Pakistan) have obtained nuclear weapons in the past five years, and at least three more are probably hoping to do so within the next decade.

At the same time, the overwhelming enmities that dominated the globe during the Cold War are gone. There is a general feeling of wary cooperation with only a few, tiny nations and groups bucking the trend.

Before the Sept. 11 disaster, it seemed that the Bush administration was considering dropping out of the internationalist movement; let us hope that it will now realize that the whole world must work to end the threats aimed at our nation and the globe. To the list of human capabilities in the 21st century, let’s add: We can make world peace and security a reality.

Kim Cranston is chairman and Laura McGrath Moulton is program officer for the Global Security Institute.

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