In the decades since Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan began working together to end the Cold War, much has changed. Science and technology have reshaped global communication, finance, and culture. Terrorism and violent extremism threaten global stability, while climate change threatens the planet itself. But one grim element of the old order war remains a constant: Mankind still possesses the knowledge and means to destroy itself with nuclear weapons, a capability increasingly outside the firm control of two alliances committed to maintaining their own versions of the status quo.
How should today’s thinkers and policymakers deal with contemporary and future nuclear threats? By looking for guidance to one of the giants of the earlier age, Andrei Sakharov. The Russian nuclear physicist was at the forefront of the effort to build the most destructive weapons in history, but he eventually came to understand the dangers such weapons posed and started campaigning to eliminate them. His growing conflicts with Soviet authorities made him a global symbol for political dissent and the human rights movement, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his courageous activism.
The scientific community has a leading role to play in helping mitigate the dangers that scientific advances often bring with their benefits. But mere warnings are not enough, as Sakharov's journey from Soviet hero to unyielding dissident illustrates. Advice must be informed and supported by political activism, moral example, and practical strategizing.
By the time of his death in 1989, Sakharov had demonstrated his unflinching courage in speaking out to demand openness and truth, even at the cost of his own freedom. His insistence on the power of communication is part of what makes his activism so relevant today: only progress in establishing open democratic societies with freedom of information, conscience, and expression, he believed, could avert nuclear war, the greatest peril confronting the modern world. Stripped of his honors and forced into internal exile in an attempt to shut him up, Sakharov continued to write
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