A Conversation with Carl Sagan, Part III: Disarmament

(Note: Forty years ago I exchanged letters with Carl Sagan. In his letter, he asked me two questions. The first focused on how we might move people to think more in terms of the interests of the “human species as a whole,” rather than of individual nations. I answered this in Parts I & II.. His second question: “Since the threat of nuclear war is clearly the most likely cause of the imminent end of our civilization, what practical measures could be taken to achieve global disarmament without tempting any nuclear power to a preemptive strike?”)

Dear Professor Sagan, You seek disarmament which is a noble but very ambitious goal, probably too ambitious. Disarmament seeks to eliminate arms between rivals, a tough standard to reach given the absence of any over-arching world government or “watchman,” the primacy of national security in a state’s foreign policy, the lack of certainty in assessing a rival’s intentions, and finally the element of mistrust among states.

Arms control is a more reasonable and achievable goal. Instead of eliminating a class of arms completely, it seeks to limit arms races by setting limits on the number and types of weapons states may possess.

Before your passing in 1996, you may recall the many arms control agreements reached by the US and the Soviet Union after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. After this crisis, my family actually built a modest fallout shelter, but happily we never had to use it. Eventually, there were more than 25 conferences and agreements which lowered tensions, stabilized the military balance, helped to build trust, and reduced the risk of war.

These began with the Hot line Agreement of 1963 and included the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks of 1972 and 1979, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987, and the first two Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START) of 1991 and 1993.

After you left us, there were two more START agreements, 1997 and 2010, and also the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty of 2002.

All these agreements served to curtail the nuclear arms race and stabilize it. Nonetheless, when the Cold War—the state of tension which existed between the US and the Soviet Union since World War II—ended in 1991, the U.S. and the Soviet Union still had an excessive amount of nuclear weapons.

Since the peak in 1986 of about 70,300 nuclear weapons, the sizes of their nuclear arsenals have declined over 80% to about 13,890 in early 2019. (Other countries, possessing much smaller numbers, include France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea.)

Despite this great progress made over decades by the US and Soviet Union/Russia, recent trends are not positive. During this past year, the INF Treaty, controlling nuclear weapons ranging from 300 to 3400 miles, has lapsed. The US accused Russia of violating the agreement with its new 9M729 missile system and also stated concerns about the large number of INF missiles that China, free from any treaty obligations, has built.

In response, Russian stated that it would withdraw from the treaty. President Vladimir Putin stated: “We will wait until our partners are ready to carry out an equal, substantial dialogue with us on this very important topic ….”

In February of this year, the Pentagon announced a new warhead—the first in decades for the US—to counter the alleged Russian threat. This warhead, the W76-2, will sit atop Trident long-range ballistic missiles in submarines.

Expressing the gravity of the situation, that same month former American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov published an essay in the New York Times pleading for the renewal of the New START Treaty, set to expire in February 2021. “Time is critical. Doing nothing while waiting for a ‘better’ agreement is a recipe for disaster: We could lose New START and fail to replace it. The treaty’s agreed limits on nuclear arsenals are too important to be put at risk in a game of nuclear chicken.”

It is not only between the US and Russia regarding nuclear weapons, but also elsewhere, that the trends in arms control are negative: that states are acting more according to the principles of realism and nationalism rather than liberalism. They are turning more to confrontation and power to protect their interests rather than to cooperation, diplomacy and compromise.

 In February the New York Times reported that at least six nations are “fueling mayhem in Libya,” supplying weapons, mercenaries or military advisers to rival factions battling for control of the oil-rich country.”  These states include: the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Egypt, Jordan, France, and Turkey.

In July the Wall Street Journal reported that India and China, two nuclear powers, were locked in an arms race at high altitude. High in the Himalayas they “have been engaged in a competitive military construction spree, expanding bases and building airfields….” In June the tension had boiled over into violence with 20 Indian and an unknown number of Chinese troops dead. This month both sides accused the other of firing gun shots at the other.

In August the New York Times reported that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s party in Japan, celebrating its 75th anniversary of essentially renouncing offensive warfare, has begun to consider whether Japan should acquire weapons capable of striking the missile bases of potential enemies, China and North Korea. 

A few weeks ago, the New York Times also reported on Taiwan’s efforts to upgrade its military forces in response to the increased threat it perceives from mainland China, which has suppressed protests in Hong Kong and has long threatened to use force, if necessary, to prevent Taiwan’s formal independence. President Tsai Ing-wen’s government has responded by increasing Taiwan’s defense budget last year by 5% and has stated its intention to raise it 10% this year.

In the final chapter of your book, you make a strong pitch for science, knowledge, and reason to address the problems facing humankind. You state that “… more rather than less knowledge and intelligence seems so clearly the only way out of our present difficulties and the only aperture to a significant future for mankind….” You lament the ways of thinking and “doctrines” shared by others which put faith in other things, e.g., astrology, flying saucers, ancient astronauts, photography of ghosts, scientology, psychic surgery, and “the doctrine of the special creation, by God or gods, of mankind despite our deep relatedness …with the other animals.”

Here you and I differ. The future peace and prosperity of the human species will not be secured by facts, reason, and science alone. It will rest also on our capacity to feel and communicate deeply, to empathize with and trust in each other, and when necessary, to elevate the bonds of common humanity above national or tribal bonds. (This last item is exactly what you seek in your first question to me.) Religion and art enable these better than reason and science. Not just molecules and materials but also hearts and souls.

In your second question you ask for practical measures that might be taken to pursue disarmament. At the international level, we need more communication and more agreements limiting arms.

At the state level, we need more science to verify and enforce the agreements, but also more diplomacy. Perhaps diplomats should not only meet and negotiate with fellow diplomats, but they should also come to know their extended families, especially their children.

At the citizen level, we must choose leaders that have enough liberalism to believe in agreements and enough realism not to be deceived.

Also, we should not only become expert in discovering and counting each other’s weapons, but also become expert in learning each other’s culture and worldview: learn each other’s languages, live in each other’s countries, and know each other personally. This will help us communicate better, avoid miscommunication, and promote mutual respect and understanding.

Lastly, we must continue to believe in peace. Let’s not fall into the pit of fatalism and hopelessness, but continue to sing “Peace Train” with Cat Stevens. “I’ve been smiling lately/Dreaming about the world as one/And I believe it could be/Someday it’s going to come”

“Cause I’m on the edge of darkness/There ride the Peace Train/Oh Peace Train take this country/Come take me home again.”

See also Part I (Wonder & Theory)

and Part II (Nationalism and Liberalism)


Albright, Madeleine and Igor Ivanov. “A Plea to Save the Last Nuclear Arms Treaty.” The New York Times, February 10, 2020.

Blanton, Shannon L. and Charles W. Kegley. World Politics: Trend and Transformation, 17th ed. US: Cengage, 2021.

Gettleman, Jeffrey. “India and China Accuse Each Other of Firing Shots.” The New York Times, September 9, 2020.

Lubold, Gordon. “U.S. Adds Warhead to Nuclear Arsenal.” The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2020.

Mearsheimer, John J. The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.

Miller, Nicholas L. and Vipin Narang. “Is a New Nuclear Age Upon Us?” Foreign Affairs, December 30, 2019.

Myers, Steven Lee and Javier C. Hernandez. “As China Flexes, Taiwan Revamps Its Military. The New York Times, August 31, 2020.

Rich, Motoko. “A Fraught Proposal for a Pacifist Japan: Should It Acquire Missiles?” The New York Times, August 17, 2020.

Sagan, Carl. The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. NY: Ballantine, 1977.

Simmons, Ann M. and James Marson. “Russia’s Exit Unravels Arms Agreement.” The Wall Street Journal, February 4, 2019, A6.

Spindle, Bill and Ann Rajesh Roy. China and India Locked in High-Altitude Arms Race. The Wall Street Journal, July 18, 2020, A7.

Walsh, Declan. “United Nations Effort to Limit Arms in Libya Is Flouted on All Sides.” The New York Times, February 3, 2020.

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4 Responses to A Conversation with Carl Sagan, Part III: Disarmament

  1. Fred,

    I loved your article and totally agree with the goal of some form of international agreement or world government. Certainly getting all nations to submit to a higher authority and stop this ridiculous posturing would end the nuclear fears we have had since the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. Sagan’s idea and your vision for the future is logical and humanistic and in God’s image of love of your brother.

    Unfortunately the national state is more than a political construct. Nationalism on many levels is a reflect of the many and varied differences of the human race. The geographic boundaries are just one part of nationalism as you have taught in your classroom. It is composed of the many differences in common language, religions, common histories, cultures, and races.

    The United Nations since its inception has been a total failure since 1948. Why? Because of the different political leadership ruling the masses.

    I respect your lofty goals for some form of international government where all nations could be concerned about Humanity instead of their own individual interests. This I feel is contrary to

    human nature and also God’s will on earth. In the Bible, Koran, Torah, Hindu, and other religions all have testaments to the rule of man being obeyed in some form. The Bible tells us, “Give

    unto Caesar what is Caesar’”

    The nation state is the highest and best why man can see himself in an organized political way because of many of the cultural and geographic elements we have on earth.

    I would suggest that the United States of America is a beacon of freedom in a sea of misery in many places on earth.

    Do you honestly believe China, Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, North Korean and many communist states are ready to give up their power and embrace humanity as a whole?

    President Trump and President Reagan recognized how important “strength through power is!” In 1989 the old Soviet Union collapsed not because of the UN or lofty ideals but

    because of the United States, Pope John Paul and many other forces freedom loving people who attack the communists in Poland, East Berlin and the Soviet satellite countries.

    Yes, a period of civil wars broke out because the newly freed peoples wanted their own Nation States. This is a natural course for humanity. Just like the development from

    feudalism to national governments,

    Where the Globalists are wrong is change in any form of political entity like nation states has to come from common interest of all mankind not just an “ism” like Communism.

    This will happen naturally when all nations reach some form of equality in the economic arena and not with grand revolutions with Globalists against National governments.

    Men need leaders and nations to lead the out of poverty and better circumstance. Until the world achieves some form of economic balance through honest confronting of

    mutual problems the luxury war will be with us,,,


  2. Fred Zilian says:

    Dan, Good to hear from you. Thank you for your kind words.
    Thanks for your very comprehensive and well-conceived comment. I agree that the state is still the most important actor on the global stage, whether we like it or not. Concerning the UN, it has many weaknesses, but as the former ambassador to Norway said in a lecture I attended many years ago: It’s the best we have for multilateral communication to address multilateral problems.
    I also believe that America is a beacon of freedom. I hope that we can, after this election, show more unity, strengthening our image and influence as that beacon of freedom and economic prosperity.
    I hope that you and your family are well. I am teaching again at Salve Regina for the fall. It’s been quite a challenge to teach in a hybrid format, but I have made the transition. Love those students. Best, Fred.

  3. Pingback: A Conversation with Carl Sagan, Part II: Nationalism over Liberalism | Zilian Commentary

  4. Pingback: A Conversation with Carl Sagan, Part I: Wonder and Theory | Zilian Commentary

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