The second should be more consequential but probably won't be.
Today, the "United Nations Conference to Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, Leading Towards Their Total Elimination" met--as it has all week--in their second round of discussions. More specifically, the conversation addressed General Assembly resolution 71/258 of 23 December 2016. The United States was not there, but then neither were the other 8 countries which have nuclear arsenals.
The fact is that 120 countries did attend these symposiums and that matters morally. As the New York Times reported there is an outright intention to shame non-participants and it should give us assurance that world opinion is not complacent when super powers toy with whether to re-strengthen and re-deploy nuclear capabilities. Donald Trump has an avowed policy to insure that the U.S. is "at the top of the pack", and, further, he sees no reason to monitor poliferation; more countries should have such capability, he thinks.
That's the baseline of loose talk on this subject which is giving veteran diplomats heartburn and speaking directly to the question of war with Russia, Iran, or any other nation state with a nuclear arsenal. It presents an unthinkable outcome. The recent heightened tension between North Korea and the United States presents an intellectual test-case for what the tragic aftermath of a "regional nuclear war" might look like. Beyond decimating the northwest Pacific (and making it uninhabitable for part of a century) the refugee crisis would be on a scale we have never seen. The economic consequences would tilt the remainder of the world into a depression. This is clearly unknown territory.
It's not a place we ever want to go or be part of creating.
So where does that leave us on war with Russia? Because an escalation of hostilities is a possibility in any of the flash points of Syria, the Ukraine, and even fly-overs in the Baltic Sea there must be a means to match those occasions with mechanisms to stand down any confrontation. Without such aids it is easy to slip into a spiral of hostility. A recent hotline used to avoid such confrontations in airspace over Syria has been voided by the Russians after the U.S. downed a Syrian jet. The Russians have further declared any aircraft west of the Euphrates River now to be an open target. To paraphrase Second Timothy, chapter three, we are living in perilous times.
But we are not helpless. Indeed, it requires us to live with sharpened acuity and a higher sensitivity to belligerent talk...because we know where it can lead. In the realm of diplomacy between nations where the currency of raw power is often used with impunity this might seem naive. But it is the specter of nuclear weapons that requires that we attend to this level, modest as it might seem. Indeed, the bomb has the chastening power, like death, on one's life. When one understands what death is, it defines and enlarges the days you live. Oddly, nuclear weapons and its horrendous consequences, re-directs us to honor the discourse and words we use with each other.
There's a postscript here. Currently both Houses of Congress are investigating Russian sponsored hacking and disruption of the 2016 presidential election. If it is confirmed that this did take place (and it seems so) what are we to do? Despite the above advisory about an embargo on belligerent conversation we are not sentenced to a benign response. Curiously, Augustine's advice on "Just War" can be informative but with limitations.
(Earlier in this blog I defended "Just War" as a matter of principle, but no more. The lethal battle areas today make collateral casualties so inevitable as to eclipse the luxury of using this description. In short, no war is a "just war.")
"Just War" could at least be informative when gauging what is an affront and to measure and match a response. Please note that the use of force is off the table but if the United States can verify that its essence--the very electoral process it uses to renew itself--has been compromised then an appropriate assertive response might be justified. This brings us into the murky water of what that response might be. Just because a retaliatory cyber-attack is shrouded in the ether, is it not aggressive, destructive, and hurtful if, say, a power grid is compromised and hospitals lose power?
Above, I said that "Just War" principles were "informative" but beyond being a grid for measure we must be exceptionally careful when employing those principles as permission to employ force. Thankfully our founders have concocted a warren of checks, balances and extended conversation intended to coax better responses. Most times that has been reliable and this Republic's salvation. But not always.
At the end of the day--as Thomas Jefferson often said--it is the people who convene in civilization and it is by their standard that a government rises or falls. In the final analysis it is the people who require an elevated tone in their government and sanity among nations.