I wonder how many people realize that the chances of nuclear war did not fall significantly with the end of the Cold War. A deliberate nuclear war, while a real risk, was always the outside chance. The worst danger — an accidental nuclear launch — is probably more likely today than it was prior to the fall of the Soviet empire.

I see a cloud in your future

Neither the U.S. nor Russia have taken their missiles off hair trigger alert, and Russia’s command and control system is deteriorating. When the old war criminal McNamara, leftist Noam Chomsky, pacifist and anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott, and the right-wing libertarian Cato Institute all worry about the same problem, maybe we should also.

Aggravating this, the U.S. is engaged in talks with Poland and the Czech Republic to put a “missile defense” system in their territories. “Missile defense” systems are useless, of course, as defense against missiles. Even in rigged tests they fail as much as they succeed. They can be fooled by tricks as simple as Mylar balloons.

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But they are a quite useful as first-strike weapons. Russia won’t be at all nervous at such first-strike weapons on their border, right? The U.S. is well known for a calm and measured approach to foreign policy. So we’re not increasing the chance of an accidental launch by them even a little bit. After all, we would have no objection if Russia placed a similar system in Cuba.

One nuclear war could do a whole lot more damage than the worst consequences of global warming. (Except that nuclear war could be one consequence of resource shortages due to global warming.) While unmitigated climate change would probably end technical civilization, a full scale nuclear war could exterminate the entire human race.

Nuclear war is the most dramatic danger, but conventional warfare does quite a bit of damage too. To take one example: According to the Lancet, the U.S. invasion of Iraq killed around 650,000 more people than leaving it in peace would have. That was almost a year ago. Given the rate of escalation in the death toll, that could be close to a million by now. At any rate, we can add to that millions of Iraqis in refugee camps both inside and outside Iraq.

Part of me is reluctant to talk about the economic and environmental cost of all this. Complaining about smoke from a burning baby, or the expense of the firewood, seems rather beside the point.

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But one could argue that the number of people killed directly by war is greatly exceeded by the number that could be saved if we devoted war resources to better purposes. For example, a small fraction of the $700 billion officially proposed as part of the U.S. Pentagon budget could provide clean drinking water, minimal wastewater treatment, and basic food rations, vitamin and mineral supplements, and really minimal medical care sufficient to help save hundreds of millions of lives. A fraction of the U.S. military budget could end starvation, malnutrition due to deprivation, and eliminate cases of sickness that are caused by lack of clean drinking water, basic waste disposal, and medical care on the level provided by a school nurse in the U.S.

When it comes specifically to global warming, Don Fitz points out that the military sector is one sector where we can make emission reductions of more than 100 percent. As a pacifist, he essentially argues that 100 percent of military spending is waste, and that the damage wars do bring the total up well beyond that.

Even without accepting his premises, his case holds up. For example, as non-pacifists we may accept that some military spending is needed as protection on grounds that it is hard for any nation be pacifist until all nations are pacifist. But we can still point out that most military spending in the world is not for defense, but for various degrees of intimidation and empire building. The U.S. spends five times as much as any other country on earth on its military, and more than the rest of the world combined is an extreme case, but it applies to some degree to almost every military on this planet.

Fitz also includes things like veterans’ benefits and interest on military debt as part of military spending. From a moral point of view this is fair enough; both are costs of war. But even if peace on earth came tomorrow and every military budget dropped to zero, veterans have already earned their benefits and we still owe any money we borrowed for war spending. So while we might avoid incurring new costs in these areas, we will still be paying for the veterans of today’s wars 70 years from now, and will be paying interest on any money borrowed until it is repaid.

Still, even if we can’t eliminate all military spending, most nations (especially the U.S.) could eliminate most military spending without encountering any danger from doing so. If the U.S was to reduce its military spending by 80% or so, and stopped attacking other nations, it is quite true that reduced human misery and reduced environmental costs would exceed direct savings by many times.

Ending the wars we are currently fighting is the immediate priority, along with preventing expansion into Iran. But in the long run, U.S. insistence on running an empire, on an absolute right to tell everyone else what to do, is what has to be ended. The idea that we are the “essential nation” — that we can decide the course of history because we see farther than others — is a myth that has grown too dangerous to hold on to.

And just because the U.S. is currently the most dangerous nation does not mean the world can afford to accept replacement hegemons. Somehow, humanity has to outgrow empires and essential nations. We can’t afford the U.S. foot on the world’s neck any more, but we can’t afford a new European empire, or a new Chinese lead alliance, or any of the other replacement candidates either. We don’t have to wait to win this to tackle major crisis like global warming, or global poverty, or the threat of nuclear war. But we won’t be able to tackle any of them without taking steps in this direction. A world of constant war and ever-growing disparities between the rich and everyone else is not one in which we will make much progress.