Could Donald Trump accidentally be the best friend of the nuclear disarmament movement? This may sound like Dr. Strangelove-level madness, but the prospect of the Republican presidential candidate anywhere near the nuclear launch codes could be a pivotal movement for public awareness, and it comes at a critical time for the movement to ban those weapons.
Consider, first, that the disarmament movement, although well-organized and determined, has done its important work largely in the dark for the past three decades. It's just not an issue that electrifies the public, even if it should. As former U.S. defence secretary William Perry writes in his recent book, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, "Our chief peril is that the poised nuclear doom, much of it hidden beneath the seas and in remote badlands, is too far out of the global public consciousness. Passivity shows broadly."
Now, consider that Mr. Trump has made this existential threat – Russia and the United States each have nearly 2,000 weapons deployed and ready to launch – not so much theoretical as terrifyingly real. This week, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough created a stir when he said he had heard that a "foreign policy expert" was briefing Mr. Trump, and the presidential candidate mentioned nuclear weapons, asking, "If we have them, why can't we use them?"
Cue gasps around the world. The Trump campaign has since denied the exchange took place. But they can't deny that Mr. Trump did not know, in December, what the nuclear triad of U.S. defence constituted (it's the delivery system of missiles, bombers and submarines.) In March, at an MSNBC town hall, Mr. Trump uttered the jaw-dropping statement, "Somebody hits us within ISIS, you wouldn't fight back with a nuke?"
There is an upside to this bizarre ignorance about the most destructive weapons the planet has ever known, which is that people may become properly terrified and do something about it. As Hillary Clinton said, "A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons."
This is a critical moment for the disarmament movement, and activists in Canada and abroad are pushing for broad public support for a nuclear ban. In September, the United Nations' open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament will present its final report, hopefully laying out a path toward a convention banning these weapons for good.
The eight nuclear powers (North Korea is the ninth) will try to block this. Canada, which has traditionally sided with it large and domineering American friend on nuclear-arms issues at the UN, could instead take a leading and ground-breaking role toward a more stable and peaceful world, as it did with the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines in 1997. (Last year, Canada was one of only 29 countries refusing to endorse a humanitarian pledge to seek a weapons treaty at the UN, along with the United States and Britain, also a nuclear power. Meanwhile 139 countries supported the pledge. Seventeen abstained, including the nuclear states India, Pakistan and China.)
More than 800 members of the Order of Canada have supported the campaign by Canadians for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, and the group Science for Peace has started a national letter-writing campaign to persuade Canadian lawmakers. This may take some doing: In a letter to the president of Science for Peace, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion wrote, in part: "Canada supports practical and politically viable approaches to nuclear disarmament that are inclusive of all stakeholders, especially the nuclear-weapons states."
In other words, don't hold your breath. As long as the disarmament issue remains at the back of the public consciousness, nothing will change. In early August every year, the world briefly stops to remember the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then moves on again. This might be changing, though: There were powerful protests last month as British lawmakers voted to renew the Trident nuclear submarine defence, and alarm bells when the failed Turkish coup threatened Incirlik Air Force base, where the United States stores some of its nuclear weapons.
Mr. Trump's disastrous recklessness may cause people to reach for the smelling salts, but let's not forget that he is only a potential threat, while both Russia and the United States are moving, in real time, to refurbish their nuclear arsenals.
It's worth keeping in mind the words of Mr. Perry, who witnessed the devastation of Japan as a soldier stationed there after the Second World War: "I believe that the risk of a nuclear catastrophe today is greater than it was during the Cold War – and yet our public is blissfully unaware of the new nuclear dangers they face." That's a scary message, but fear can be a great motivator, at the right time.