The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should have convinced the world that nuclear weapons must never be deployed again. But 77 years later, the threat of the unthinkable is on the minds of global leaders and citizens alike.
Flash points span countries and continents. Including the Mideast, where nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and Iran are stalled as ascendant hard-liners push the theocracy toward an unholy alliance with Russia, all the while rushing to quell a potent protest movement at home. While there's still a chance that the Biden administration will re-enter the pact that the Trump administration abrogated, it seems more likely that Tehran will turn toward developing a nuclear weapon.
Meanwhile, in East Asia, an already nuclear nation, North Korea, shot a missile over northern Japan on Tuesday, triggering warning alarms locally and alacrity globally that Pyongyang was once again escalating its rocketry along with its rhetoric.
And most notably in Europe, where Russian President Vladimir Putin directly threatened the use of nuclear weapons in a defiant diatribe announcing annexation "elections" in four stolen Ukrainian territories as well as the conscription of at least 300,000 additional troops.
Ukrainians under occupation, many voting amid armed Russian soldiers, passed the sham referendums. Meanwhile many Russian men voted, too, but with their feet, scurrying for Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Georgia or any other former Soviet state or European nation that would grant them refuge from the front lines of a losing war.
Putin's threat risks the most serious "prospect of Armageddon" in 60 years, President Joe Biden gravely said on Thursday, in the wake of Putin saying "this is not a bluff."
The world shouldn't bluff, either, in condemning Putin's menace as well as spelling out the consequences of using nuclear weapons.
But it should not threaten a nuclear response in kind.
"It's very important that we do not counter this with threatening to use nuclear weapons back, because all we do is legitimize these threats, and show that this is normal behavior, which it is not, so we have to be responsible," said Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
Five years ago this week, ICAN, a can-do nongovernmental organization with the quixotic, but correct, goal of abolishing nuclear weapons, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Fihn and her colleagues have built on their unexpected laureate status to advance a United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which has been signed by 91 nations and ratified by 68 of them.
The Kremlin's bellicosity is "just really increasing the threat levels and increasing the danger of this escalating into nuclear war," Fihn said, speaking from Switzerland.
"It really does send shock waves throughout the world," continued Fihn. It shows "how incredibly vulnerable we are to the few individuals at the head of these nuclear-armed states that we are basically at their mercy when they have these weapons." Which in turn, she said, "really throws the whole nuclear-deterrence theory upside down in many ways, because nuclear deterrence was about creating stability and peace.
"Well, it doesn't really feel like there's a stable and peaceful [world]."
That, it doesn't. Instead, it seems like dictators' anger is yielding to madness that could become catastrophic.
"This is really what's lying underneath nuclear weapons as a security strategy. This option is always there for a leader with nuclear weapons to use these weapons as a tool to enable them to act with impunity, to enable them to invade another country, to enable them to get away with whatever they feel like doing," Fihn said. "This is what really we've been warning about for the last decade."
This, at a time when some thought the warning should wane.
"For many years, we've heard people say, 'why are you working on nuclear weapons? The Cold War's over. It's an old-fashioned issue. Do they even exist? It's not something we need to care about anymore,'" Fihn said, adding: "And this has obviously shown people that the threat is still here, and it's actually getting worse."
Getting it better won't be easy. No nuclear-armed state has signed on to the U.N. treaty. But progress wasn't immediate either on prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons, which are now subject to U.N. treaties.
Despite the instantaneous international cachet the Nobel bestowed, Fihn is quick to acknowledge that "the big problems and the challenges and the structural issues that we have remain." But she said that "it gave us a huge confidence boost and the platform attention. So we were really able to mobilize a much bigger movement. And to get that kind of recognition for the work gives us strength to tackle those problems, even though it's very long-term work."
But ever the optimist, Fihn said that past inflection points like the Cuban missile crisis or controversies over the Strategic Defense Initiative were followed by a "huge period of disarmament."
ICAN and other nonproliferation organizations are already pressing their case. And even if those groups are small their impact can be big, Fihn said.
"We were just a bunch of regular people, just completely normal, with small budgets and little workshops," Fihn said, "and we managed to do something that got the Nobel Peace Prize. And to me, that's also a signal that we shouldn't underestimate just working together as communities. You don't have to be a president or prime minister to make a difference in this field. And to be able to share that with people has meant a lot."
A lot to ICAN, certainly. But to people worldwide as well, a sentiment sensed by Fihn as she reflected on the impending announcement of this year's laureate.
"Right now, I think people are feeling so demoralized around the world and feeling hopeless that things are just getting worse; a lot of people are scared of this war, climate change, increasing inequalities, pandemics, it just feels like all the huge challenges are just piling up. And we give too much attention to the bad things and very little attention to when things are actually working, when we're solving problems, when we've avoiding problems, to peace negotiations," Fihn said.
"We need to tell the stories more, so I would really encourage whoever wins it on Friday to be open on sharing the stories on how this happened. Because I think people really need to feel hope today and feel like it's possible to achieve good stuff even though it feels really dark and difficult."
Indeed, the world would benefit if the three laureates from three countries acting against Russian repression hear, and heed, Fihn's words and allow this year's Nobel Peace Prize to amplify their vital message.