Fiction with an edge

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Trillion Dollar Question - Richard Branson & Jeff Skoll

As entrepreneurs who have built successful global businesses, we were appalled to learn recently that world spending on nuclear weapons is now forecast to amount to more than $1 trillion during the next decade. According to experts at Global Zero, of which we are founding members, spending is rising even as governments around the world are being forced to cut back on programs that would boost our economies and improve our global quality of life.

Recently a growing number of national-security leaders and experts, many of whom have served in positions of responsibility for nuclear arsenals and policies, have been telling anyone who will listen that nuclear weapons, whatever value they may have had during the Cold War, do not address today’s security threats and are, in fact, a catastrophe waiting to happen – potentially used in a conflict in South Asia or elsewhere, launched accidentally or by cyberattack, or acquired by terrorists. This group includes notable former Cold Warriors such as George Shultz, secretary of state under US President Ronald Reagan, veteran nuclear-arms negotiator Richard Burt, and Malcolm Rifkind, a cabinet minister under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain.

We agree, and now we know that, in addition to posing a great security threat to the world, these arsenals are bankrupting our future.

The economic opportunities sacrificed by this wasteful spending on Cold War relics are enormous. If the $1 trillion to be spent on nukes over the next 10 years were instead invested in research, education, cutting-edge technology companies and job retraining for the 21st century, this huge sum would help lift the world economy out of the quicksand and raise global living standards. Our misplaced priorities are stifling innovation and entrepreneurship, the greatest source of dynamism in the world economy.

We are committed to sound environmental policies and investments, and are dismayed that, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, governments’ current annual spending on nuclear weapons worldwide is three times greater than all annual spending, by governments and corporations combined, on clean-energy research and development.

The country whose nuclear arsenal is growing the fastest, Pakistan, is also one of the least able to afford it. Pakistan’s dizzying nuclear build-up, involving the construction of multi-billion-dollar plutonium factories, will more than double its arsenal in the next decade, from 125 weapons to more than 250, according to the World Security Institute. It will surpass the United Kingdom, France and others to achieve the third-largest stockpile in the world.

These weapons, located in a region plagued by violent extremists, are sapping resources from the nation’s economic development, thus accelerating the fraying of its social fabric and governance. Pakistan’s GDP per capita is less than $3,000 and its unemployment rate is 15 per cent. The country can ill afford its nuclear adventure.

In response, the World Security Institute reports, India is expanding its stockpile from 25 nuclear weapons to 100 in the next 10 years. Its per-capita GDP is below $3,500.

The misplaced priorities that lead governments in developing countries to unproductive investment in such self-destructive weapons is distressing and worrying. The worst offender of all is of course North Korea, an impoverished nation with shiny new nukes but a per-capita GDP of less than $2,000. North Korea sits near the very bottom of the world’s economic-disaster list, churning out nukes while its citizens starve.

The policies of the wealthy nuclear-weapons countries also defy common sense. Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia continue to maintain thousands of nuclear weapons in a dangerous, accident-prone posture of launch-ready alert. Our countries, the United Kingdom and the United States, are wasting about $60 billion per year on outdated weapons and an outdated strategy, according to a Global Zero analysis based on methods developed by the Brookings Institution.

Our governments are now considering huge new investments in these anachronistic weapons, while cutting education, job creation, clean-energy development and more.

The UK must decide in 2016 whether to spend as much as $40 billion – the latest estimate from Defense Minister Liam Fox – to build four new nuclear-missile submarines to replace its aging fleet. The United States is spending nearly $1 billion this year on long-lead technological components for a Trident submarine replacement program that will cost the struggling US taxpayer more than $100 billion to build, while producing a fleet that, according to the Arms Control Association, would operate from 2030 until 2080!

Most countries – 183, to be exact – do not have nuclear weapons. Thus far only nine remain in the grip of an irrational and self-destructive attachment to them, continuing to squander precious resources on weapons whose security liabilities far exceed their perceived benefits.

The news about the enormous financial cost of nuclear weapons adds to the urgency of the Global Zero Summit that took place June 22nd and 23rd in London. At the summit, international leaders and experts outlined an agenda to bring all the nuclear-weapons countries to the table for the first time in history and to begin negotiations on global nuclear-arms reductions, ultimately leading to their elimination.

During the Summit, citizens from around the world launched a campaign calling on governments to cut nuclear weapons instead of the things we really need, such as job creation, public safety and education.

It is imperative that governments listen to what these national-security experts and citizens say. Nuclear weapons undermine global stability, and their cost inflicts a huge toll on the world’s economy and on the quality of life of its citizens.

The deficits are a severe challenge, but they also are an opportunity to re-examine priorities and think anew about old practices. If governments look at the facts and apply common sense, we hope that they will choose to do away with the weapons of the past, instead of cutting essential investments in our economic recovery and our future.

© 2011 Richard Branson

Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

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