For Obama's second term, a call to arms control

From gun control to nuclear-weapons cuts to drone warfare, Obama's second term may be highlighted by a need to define new concepts of security for instruments of aggression.

South Korean activists rally Feb. 3 against North Korea's possible nuclear test. The signs read "North Korea's nuclear test is disaster of humankind" (in red) and "The enforcement of a nuclear test is the end of Kim Jong-un."

President Obama’s second term has barely begun and yet it seems already to have one theme: What will be done about instruments of aggression?

Consider these examples:

The mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., has forced Mr. Obama to embrace an ambitious agenda of gun control. His critics, meanwhile, are pushing him to show restraint in his use of Predator drones against terrorists in civilian areas. The White House also plans to aggressively combat foreign cyberattacks on American computers while the Pentagon is designing a capability for offensive cyberwarfare.

Then there are the instruments of aggression that probably command the president’s closest attention: nuclear weapons.

His campaign rhetoric in 2008 was strong in seeking “a world with no nuclear weapons.” But little was done during his first term toward that goal except the New START treaty. Yet according to reports about his 2013 State of the Union message, Obama plans to cut the number of US nuclear warheads by about a third and work closely with Russia to reduce its atomic arsenal.

What binds together concerns over all these tools of force is the need to better defend the moral and legal arguments behind their continued existence or the methods of curbing them.

Take, for example, the concept of deterrence. It is cited as a rationale by those arguing to keep current nuclear stockpiles as well as by gun-rights advocates. In a world in which more than half the population lives in a nuclear-armed country, it might seem justifiable to hang on to nuclear weapons. The same reasoning could apply to keeping a gun in the home or to carry one when traveling.

Yet the possession of both nukes and guns comes with a risk of mass slaughter, especially when those who are unstable, aggressive, or arrogant might not be deterred. Over time, millions of innocent people have been killed by these weapons. At some point, a moral argument must be made to put limits on them. Deterrence should be seen only as a transition to a more peaceful, weapons-lite world.

Many countries have implemented successful gun control. Likewise, the moral arguments against biological and chemical weapons became so strong during the 20th century that it led to near-universal agreement on treaties that greatly curb their use.

Over the four decades since the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty came into effect, however, the campaign against nuclear weapons have weakened. With more countries obtaining nuclear capability, the treaty’s “grand bargain” now seems obsolete – namely, that nations with such weapons would steadily give them up while those without such weapons would not seek them. Obama’s antinuclear agenda is wisely timed to counter this backsliding.

Another concept in need of attention is proportionality in warfare in order to avoid indiscriminate harm.

How much care does the CIA really take to avoid hitting civilians with drones? The policy isn’t clear to Americans, let alone Pakistanis.

Or take cyberattacks originating from China. How much will Beijing tolerate or even direct these attacks before it realizes the response it may provoke from other countries on its own computers?

These are not easy questions to answer. Persuading people that the possession of weapons isn’t in their interest is a long-haul project. “Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding,” Albert Einstein once said.

Obama’s second term may be remembered for coming to terms with these various devices that do damage. New concepts of security must be asserted, ones that are based on humanity’s acceptance of a reverence for life and the dignity of the individual.

Over the centuries, violence has been successfully reduced in most societies, but only when enough people adopt concepts of peace instead of aggression.

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