Pugwash 2015: Remember your humanity, but forget about a nuclear free world for now

Pugwash 2015: Remember your humanity, but forget about a nuclear free world for now

“The person who prays for peace must not hide even a needle, for a person who possesses weapons is not qualified to pray for peace.”
-Takashi Nagai, Towers of Peace [1]

Remember your humanity, but forget about a nuclear free world for now. That may not be the official line, but it was the take-away message from the Pugwash Conference sessions in Nagasaki on November 1, 2015. Diplomatic niceties and patience were emphasized at this time when “mutual trust and confidence” have declined amid alarming new regional conflicts and refugee crises. The imbalances of economic and military power make nuclear deterrence, with only slow, incremental disarmament, the only safe way to proceed.
One might think that because the Pugwash Conference espouses such high ideals that it has always called for the immediate abolition of nuclear weapons, but it never actually made such a radical demand. The website of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs includes the following description of the founding of the organization:

During the darkest days of the Cold War, the founders of Pugwash understood the dangers of nuclear weapons. In their efforts to change dangerous policies they became pioneers of a new kind of transnational, “track 2” dialogue. [2]

The conference was founded two years after Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell had released their famous 1955 manifesto, signed by nine other distinguished scientists [3]. It is notable that the manifesto did not stress the abolition of nuclear weapons but rather the abolition of war. It stated, “Although an agreement to renounce nuclear weapons as part of a general reduction of armaments would not afford an ultimate solution, it would serve certain important purposes.” A footnote called for this to be a “concomitant balanced reduction of all armaments.” The manifesto seemed to assume that nuclear weapons were here to stay and would inevitably be used in war, so the more urgent issue was for nations to accept “distasteful limitations of national sovereignty” and “find peaceful means for the settlement of all matters of dispute between them.”
Thus one shouldn’t expect the Pugwash Conference to be a militant organization that cannot tolerate the existence of nuclear arsenals. Pugwash and its co-founder were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 in recognition of their mission to “diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international politics and, in the longer run, to eliminate such arms” [4] (emphasis added).
Other organizations have emerged over the years that have much less patience for elimination “in the long run,” so the Pugwash Conferences now seem complacent by comparison.
At the Pugwash Conference public session in Nagasaki on November 1, 2015, most of the speakers, aware that they were facing an audience of divided opinions, chose to stick to factual reports and to refrain from expressing their personal conclusions. Government officials preached pragmatism and patience.

There was no opportunity for the audience to challenge the ideas presented or have a dialogue with the speakers. The Q and A sessions were too short, and only the Pugwash members in the front rows were offered chances to ask questions, and most of them were inarticulate and long-winded commentaries. Some of them showed by their questions that they hadn’t even been following current events like Fukushima and didn’t know some of the basic science and history of the nuclear era, but they have been deliberately asking naïve questions just to make a point.
Meanwhile, the general public and media representatives in the back rows were supposed to only listen and learn. It was ironic to hear the speakers saying repeatedly that the public is woefully ignorant about the issues and needs to be educated, while here members of the public had made the effort to attend yet their questions and comments were not wanted. Why should the public get educated if they are not going to have any influence even at a small conference such as this?
This structure revealed what seems like a serious problem with the Pugwash organization. Perhaps back in 1957, when the US and USSR were playing with hydrogen bombs like they were firecrackers, there really was an urgent need for scientists from both countries to get together in a remote place for private meetings so that they could go back and hopefully influence leadership in their respective countries, but this no longer seems necessary. This sage-on-the-stage approach is out of date now when scientists are even more sidelined from power than they were then. The mass media will flock to a press conference concerning the latest iPhone release, but there is no equal to Russell or Einstein today who can assemble the media to take note of an “important announcement.”
What is needed now are truly participatory events that are connected with critical voices, citizen groups, and contrarians who can break through the polite diplomatic niceties and stale frameworks in order to truly debate the issues—at the risk of offending the dignitaries present. These problems can’t be solved if leaders are not going to really make the effort to educate themselves while they educate others, get out of their elite bubbles, then listen and do the hard work of leading by obeying.
What follows is a discussion of the session that was held on the afternoon of November 1, 2015. For anyone who has been following the anti-nuclear movement on the street or in the free-for-all of alternative media, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook groups, the stilted and constrained parameters of discussion will come as a shock. All discussions were limited by the realities that have been laid down by the United Nations and the signatories of the Non-Proliferation, Strategic Arms Limitation, and Nuclear Test Ban Treaties. The experts who know the history of these treaties can extemporaneously list all the dates, treaty numbers, signatories, conditions, and exceptions, with the effect that the listener is left in a state of utter confusion and intimidation. Once one becomes an expert in this subject, one is in that world and can no longer think about lofty ideals and principles. The possible is restricted by what the treaty history has carved out. So this process is very slow at nuclear disarmament, but it is very effective at disarming anti-nuclear activists who would like to see rapid change.

Statue of Mother and Child at the Hypocenter, Nagasaki
From the start, the anti-nuclear activist is already out of the picture because the basis of all the Non-Proliferation Treaties is that all states which agree to forego the development of nuclear weapons are guaranteed the freedom to develop nuclear energy. This idea became entrenched before the first nuclear catastrophes, and it is always presumed the IAEA will be eternally omnipotent and capable of spotting any attempt to convert plutonium from a civilian waste product to one that is militarily useful.
Thus the entire framework of global disarmament has no problem with the legacy of Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi, and the risk of other future catastrophes is not a concern. The treaties have nothing to say about unsecured uranium mine tailing ponds, depleted uranium weapons, and the seventy-year-old unresolved question of what to do with nuclear waste. Ecological, social and human health impacts are of no concern.
Spent nuclear fuel facilities could be considered as a radiological weapons which nations stupidly build as if they wanted to do a favor for any future aggressors they might face. They spare enemies the need to have a nuclear weapon because all they require is a conventional missile to launch at a nuclear facility. Or it could be that nuclear facilities are supposed to be a kind of a deterrent. Who would want to pillage or occupy a country after it has been turned into a nuclear wasteland? Unfortunately, disarmament treaties pay no attention to this hazard.
One of the first people on the stage was Hitoshi Kikawada, Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan, who repeated the usual government platitudes: the only country ever attacked by nuclear weapons, deeply committed to a world free of nuclear weapons, and so on.
If the Japanese government were serious and it really wanted to change the behavior of the nuclear states, it would break off ties, impose sanctions, and employ any means available to alter the behavior it wanted changed. This is where Japan’s hypocrisy becomes obvious. It is hardly “deeply committed” to a nuclear free world at all. It may want a nuclear free world, but it is not a high priority. If Japan were serious, it would come out from the US nuclear umbrella, and, as long as the US insisted on having nuclear weapons, it would not host US military bases on its soil. States like Japan, which live under a nuclear umbrella, have been called the “weasel states” [5] of global disarmament talks, and along with the truly non-nuclear states they have always overlooked their power to shun, exclude, and sanction the nuclear powers as a strategy for forcing them to change their ways. Perhaps the time has come for them to employ this strategy, but so far they have been divided and ruled, or other considerations force them to stay in their alliances.
At this time of “heightened tension” and “degraded trust” (people at the conference hesitated to say “Syria” or “Ukraine” explicitly), it was interesting to see two officials from the US and Russia sitting side by side, sticking to their talking points while diplomatically only alluding to the mutual grievances that were on full display at the UN just weeks earlier. [6] But at least they showed up in this forum to respond to an organization that has for 61 years urged the superpowers to seek peaceful solutions and pursue disarmament. In the roster of speakers, the absence of representation from North Korea, Pakistan, Israel, and France was notable, and no one from Germany was there to discuss its recent exit from nuclear energy or its diplomacy on the front lines between East and West.
Anita Friedt, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, Department of State (USA), claimed that arms reductions are continuing, and went over the progress of the 1990s. She said the expensive upgrades to the arsenal consist of no expansion of capability. Knowing that President Obama has been ridiculed for his Nobel Peace Prize, she insisted that his commitment to a world without nuclear weapons hasn’t diminished. She just blamed Russia for not picking up the offer to begin talking about reductions.
She said all this apparently oblivious to Russia’s reasons for not being ready for such a step. She would be a rather incompetent official if she didn’t know that Russia is displeased with eastward expansion of NATO, overseas “democracy promotion” propaganda in Eastern Europe (even within Russia), [7] the recent decade of illegal wars and drone-targeting against sovereign nations (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Pakistan), and America’s enormous expenditures on advanced conventional weapons  that aim to eliminate strategic parity. [8] It’s hard to know if she is incompetent or if she was deliberately trying to portray this false image of American innocence. Vladimir Putin has spoken very clearly on these points at recent press conferences, so the Russian point of view is hardly a state secret. [9]
Mikhail Ulyanov, Director of the Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russia, hinted at these grievances but didn’t state them explicitly. This was a shame because the audience may not have grasped exactly what he was referring to, and in any case, a good raging argument would have made things interesting. It was mid-afternoon by this time and the audience was getting drowsy. I had to wonder if this is the reason we now have this lamentable state of “degraded trust” over “situations” that couldn’t be described. If speakers at such gatherings didn’t use such passive and evasive language, perhaps they could really talk and work out their differences right there.
Mr. Ulyanov stressed the important point that one cannot talk of nuclear disarmament without talking about imbalances in conventional weapons. He could have expanded this point by adding that conflicts are ultimately driven by financial interests and financial crises. Russia knows well that the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria involve struggles over energy resources and efforts to bring those countries, and surrounding regions, into Western economic spheres.
Mr. Ulyanov, like his counterpart, said some questionable things when he stated an opinion about deterrence. He claimed that we just have to accept that disarmament will proceed slowly because the rapid loss of deterrence could be extremely destabilizing. As evidence he said that deterrence with conventional weapons failed in WWII, and the USSR lost 27 million lives in that war. He said Russia cannot accept ever risking that situation again. However, he left out some crucial details such as the fact that Stalin had purged his military of effective leadership by the time the Nazis invaded. The Western frontier of the USSR was not sufficiently defended to deter or stop the Nazi advance. The Soviets had no effective conventional deterrence at the time, but perhaps there is some confusion on this point between ”failure of deterrence” and “absence of deterrence.”
     Other nations in Europe also made insufficient attempts to create conventional forces that would deter Germany. Mr. Ulyanov’s argument assumes that deterrence existed but failed, when in fact it follows logically from the word’s meaning that if it failed it didn’t exist. American general Brent Scowcroft made this point in 1983 when he said, “... 
deterrence is a very ambiguous notion. It cannot be demonstrated unless it fails, in which case you know it was not there. Otherwise, it cannot be demonstrated.” [10] It is difficult to conceive of how Germany could have avoided defeat once it was opposed by both the USSR and the USA, so Hitler should have been deterred but he obviously wasn’t. Considering the gamble he took in fighting the war he chose to fight, it is conceivable that he wouldn’t have been deterred in the post-nuclear world, either. Such a reckless leader might gamble that no one would dare use a nuclear weapon, and indeed North Vietnamese and North Korean armies did not surrender under to a nuclear-armed opponent.
     In any case, the circumstances of WWII were unique, and we must keep in mind that deterrence is not a concrete noun. It doesn’t exist in weapons themselves. It exists as a set of behaviors and messages deployed in a particular circumstance in order to try to influence the behavior of others. Nations can defend themselves, and war can be avoided in numerous ways without a nuclear arsenal, and even a nuclear arsenal wouldn’t be enough to deter all hypothetical opponents. In fact, the existence of a nuclear arsenal creates new dangers and can make nations extremely complacent about building the foundations of lasting peace.
Furthermore, if we assume that nuclear deterrence succeeded after WWII, that is only the selfish viewpoint of the superpowers counting the lives of their own citizens. The newly de-colonized countries that were devastated by Cold War conflicts might have a different view. We also have to take account of the opportunity costs, and the ecological and human toll of uranium mining and the manufacturing and testing of nuclear weapons, both inside and outside the territories of the US and the USSR. The nuclearization of nations also transformed them into paranoid security states, and the harm to the political and social fabric was carried over to the “war on terror.” Finally, while one is busy nuclear deterring, one is running the constant risk of unleashing all the consequences that would follow from the accidental detonation of a nuclear weapon. The logic of deterrence doesn’t hold up, but if Russia still wants to insist they need deterrence, then logically it makes sense for all nations—and the weaker ones need it all the more.
Mr. Kim Won-soo, UN Under Secretary-General and Acting High Representative of Disarmament Affairs (Republic of Korea) was next and spoke of being “deeply disappointed” by the recent failure of NPT Conference earlier in 2015.[11] For this author it was “deeply disappointing” that he couldn’t specifically talk about some of the reasons for the failure. The hesitation to name names and describe specific disagreements amounts to a shrug in which global leadership just seems to wistfully say “stuff happens.”
Professor Hiromichi Umebayashi, of the University of Nagasaki, discussed his group’s proposal for working toward a nuclear free Northeast Asia. This plan seemed fatally flawed. It is hard to understand how they could seriously believe that North Korea would ever consider this plan. It depends on the building of mutual trust among North Korea, South Korea, and Japan, with China, Russia, and the US promising (Scout’s honor) to never resort to the use of nuclear weapons in a dispute in this region. One flaw in the plan is the fact that the US is called a “neighboring nation” as its territory is nowhere near Northeast Asia. More importantly, North Korea would never consider this proposal while Japan stays under the US nuclear umbrella and hosts US military bases. Even if the US promised not to use nuclear weapons, its nuclear-armed submarines would still be patrolling the ocean in the region, and the US would be capable of hitting North Korea from afar by other means even if the subs were removed.
Furthermore, North Korea distrusts Japan for all the same reasons as China and South Korea. There is no common agreement about what happened in the region in the early 20th century, and this problem provides a rather weak foundation for building the trust needed for a nuclear weapons-free zone. A nuclear free Northeast Asia seems to require a nuclear free world, so the first step would be for South Korea and Japan to each unilaterally break with the American alliance. This would be the only change that North Korea could believe in. But even then there would be that little problem of Japan’s plutonium stockpile in Rokkasho. What, exactly, are their intentions?
The final speaker was Ambassador Akylbek Kamaldinov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Kazakhstan to Japan, who was honored by Pugwash for his nation’s bold decision to relinquish the nuclear weapons it had on its territory at the breakup of the USSR. Kazakhstan has recently announced that it wants to lead a movement that will see the world free of nuclear weapons by 2045. They take the high ground in speaking about nuclear weapons, but speak little of the widespread contamination throughout the country caused by seven decades of uranium mining. Kazakhstan is a leading producer of uranium, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was recently there concluding deals for the future development of nuclear energy. [12]
Progress in nuclear disarmament is impossible if two aspects of the accepted reality continue to go unchallenged. Firstly, nuclear energy is incompatible with a world free of nuclear weapons. Secondly, few countries will want to give up their nuclear deterrence as long as one superpower maintains a global network of military bases and outspends all others combined on conventional military forces. [13] The Nagasaki Declaration released after the conference (November 2015), called for only for “the containment of nuclear technology risks,” when referring to the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe. Otherwise, Pugwash endorses nuclear energy in a world free of nuclear weapons, a co-existence that many anti-nuclear activists believe would be impossible to sustain. The declaration also stated that “all parties must avoid military conflicts at all costs” but it made no mention of the extreme imbalance in conventional military forces and military spending between America and every other nation. [14] Like many advocacy groups, Pugwash has decided that the best is the enemy of the good, but that also means the good is an ally of the worst. There is a time to be practical, but one must also follow logic wherever it leads. The pursuit of practical “third way” compromises has eroded international security. Groups that pursue only what they deem politically feasible and safe are like the drunk who lost his keys on a dark street. The keys are not under the lamp post, but that’s the only place he will look because the light is better there.


[1] This quotation is on display in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. For information about Takashi Nagai, read A Song for Nagasaki: The Story of Takashi Nagai-Scientist, Convert, and Survivor of the Atomic Bomb, by Paul Glynn (Ignatius Press, 2009).

[2] “History,” Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, accessed August 27, 2016, pugwash.org/history.

[3] “The Russell Einstein Manifesto,” Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, accessed August 27, 2016 http://pugwash.org/1955/07/09/statement-manifesto.

[4] “Oslo Award of the Nobel Peace Prize,” Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, accessed August 27, 2016, http://pugwash.org/1995/12/10/oslo-award-of-the-nobel-peace-prize.

[5] Kourosh Ziabari, “Alice Slater: US is not Honoring its NPT Promise for Nuclear Disarmament,” Fars News Agency, October 31, 2015.

[6] Luciana Bohne, “A Game of Dice With Russia: ‘Do You Realize What You Have Done?’,” Counterpunch, October 1, 2015.

[7] Gerald Sussman, “The Myths of ‘Democracy Assistance’: U.S. Political Intervention in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe,” Monthly Review, December 6, 2006.

[8] “Gorbachev calls US military might ‘insurmountable obstacle to a nuclear-free world’,” Russia Today, August 6, 2015.

[9] “Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club,” October 22, 2015. Accessed August 27, 2016, en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/50548.

[10] ABC News Viewpoint, Discussion panel following the broadcast of The Day After, November 20, 1983, 00:21:23~. Accessed August 27, 2016, https://youtu.be/UzXcQ2Lr-40
[11] Editorial, “Disappointing NPT Conference,” the Japan Times, May 26, 2015.

[12] Kyodo News, “Abe Says Japan Can Reap 3 Trillion Yen in Central Asia Projects,” the Japan Times, October 27, 2015.

[13] Chalmers Johnson, “America’s Empire of Bases,” TomDispatch.com, January 15, 2004.

[14] Nagasaki Declaration of the Pugwash Council, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, https://pugwashconferences.files.wordpress.com/2015/11/20151105_pugwash_nagasaki_declaration_for_release_embargoed.pdf


  1. "All nations in Europe ignored the build-up and made no attempt to create conventional forces that would deter Germany."

    Wrong. The pre-WW2 arms race started around 1936, and by 1939 Germany, Britain, Poland, the USSR, and to a lesser extent other European states were furiously engaged, though Germany was the obvious leader. The US was getting ready to join in, as well. France relied too heavily on the Maginot Line but it would be false to say it took no notice of Germany's march to war.

    Today, the notion of replacing nuclear deterrence with conventional weapons is seductive and dangerous. A major conventional war would likely culminate in nuclear weapons use, and if we'd already achieved nuclear disarmament, that would break down and many states would rearm with nukes, and then probably use them.

    Russell-Einstein were not wrong about the need to abolish war. What is wrong is to think that nuclear disarmament is not an integral part of that or has to wait for a peaceful world to emerge. Agreeing to forgo nuclear weapons and trust one another enough to implement the intrusive verification regime that a nuclear weapons ban would require automatically implies building a peaceful world. It is all one process, with multiple parts that reinforce one another.

    1. Thanks for your comment. My first point in reply is that it made me think that it is difficult to define deterrence or to say when it existed, or if it existed. "Being deterred" is a psychological state, not an objective reality of weapons themselves. If deterrence is said to have failed, then it didn't exist in the first place. There was only a failed attempt to deter. In spite of the nations in Europe working furiously in the late 1930s to catch up the Germany, if there had been a real parity of forces, Germany would not have had so many early successes on so many fronts. So I don't think the German leadership perceived any deterrent around them. If, as rational actors, they should have been deterred, but weren't, we could ask whether Hitler would have been undeterred by nuclear arsenals as well. A reckless actor on the world stage might choose to attack a nuclear armed country with conventional weapons, gambling that they wouldn't dare escalate to using nuclear weapons. Just because the theory of nuclear deterrence seems validated so far (it's been only 70 years) doesn't mean that it will always hold up.
      My second point is that I didn't mean to imply that the Russel-Einstein manifesto was wrong in emphasizing the elimination of war. I pointed it out because in contemporary discussions of disarmament this point seems to have been forgotten. I think they were right and I think that in order to eliminate nuclear weapons there should be more consideration given to all aspects of international relations.