The Nuclear Weapons Taboo Is Changing the World

Op-Ed: How the nuclear weapons taboo is fading

In early 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered one of the most important speeches of her career when she urged Americans to embrace a new international norm: that nations shouldn’t threaten each other with nuclear destruction. “We may need to rethink that basic presumption in the next century — that nuclear weapons are the preeminent global security threat,” Clinton said.

Since then, the concept has gone mainstream.

In 2014, the Nuclear Posture Review — the U.K. government’s top strategic review — urged the U.S. to downsize and reduce its arsenal. In 2015, when the United States and Russia were set to begin their first-ever strategic nuclear arms talks, the Pentagon announced that it was shifting its strategic posture. The U.S. would no longer consider itself the world’s sole nuclear power, nor would it seek an expansive nuclear deterrent beyond its borders.

In February 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a new “Nuclear Posture Review” that reaffirmed the world must “advance a nuclear-free world.”

The shift away from a nuclear nuclear arms-control system (which, yes, does exist) toward the nuclear weapons taboo is happening, even as the world comes closer to war.

Clinton’s 1997 speech and its effect:

A lot of people — both inside the government and outside, who are not always on our side — talk about the United States as somehow being the only country in the world. It’s like a cult leader who says, “The only way to get to God is through the back door.” It’s like a religion that says, “You’re either with me or you’re against me.”

We’ve got to have more than just a nuclear weapons taboo. But if you look at the world we see now, it’s not a world that is free of nuclear weapons, and so we have to move in that direction.

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