The man who sips his espresso below Habsburg imperial stucco doesn’t have in front of him any of the numerous newspapers Austrian cafés offer their customers. Before him are printouts from the Internet which he marks up with yellow magic markers and red pen exclamation points.
The topic the excerpts deal with the view held by many political analysts that lately the chances of a nuclear war have increased significantly and that the consequences of so-called “surgical” (selective) nuclear strikes are trivialized horrendously. The conclusion of one article merits a double underline: “The number of reported near-accidents caused by mistakes, misjudgments, technical problems etc. shows that nuclear disasters were more often prevented by good luck rather by than rational action.”
Ambassador Alexander Kmentt, born in 1965, Head of the Department for Disarmament, Arms Control and Nonproliferation in the Austrian Foreign Ministry, is reading an analysis of the subject, that haunts him every day. ”Security through nuclear deterrence remains a chimera and an ultimately irresponsible Russian roulette with the safety and survival of all mankind,” he says.
From 2006 to 2011 Kmentt worked for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) organizing forums and informing a public that has become woefully accustomed to the threat of nuclear death. In 2014, after 15 years of resisting “potential nuclear death”, he told a journalist: “The main findings are obvious. Take the consequences of nuclear weapons use – for health, the environment, the social fabric, the economy and food security. The consequences for all of these areas are significantly larger than we ever thought; some studies indicate that they might be far worse than the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
One near-lethal incident has been almost erased from our collective memory. On September 29, 1983, Soviet colonel Stanislav Petrov saw on his screen something that after all that he had learned could only be a NATO nuclear missile attack on Russia (it was not). We are still here because Petrov happened to be a man for whom “It looks as if …” was not enough to push the button that would set off a nuclear holocaust. Kmentt likes to ask how many more near accidents and risks like that the world is willing to accept.
By now many countries consider non-proliferation as an advanced form of hypocrisy. The established nuclear powers compensate and overcompensate their (low) numerical reduction of nuclear warheads: by designing faster, more precise and brutal weapons. There is no such thing as “the wrong weapons in the right hands”, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon so aptly put it.
Ambassador Kmentt, diplomat of a small country that decided against the so-called peaceful nuclear power on November 5, 1978, has become one of the most effective advocates for a nuclear-free world. In December 2014, the US. Arms Control Association elected him “Arms Control Person of the Year”.
He orders another espresso, gathers together the stack of papers and answers my question about his plans for the rest of the day: “I’ll repeat myself. It has been said a hundred thousand times, but it must be said again and again.”