Connecting Nuclear Disarmament to the Demilitarization of World Politics

There may be no more urgent task for human survival than the elimination of nuclear weapons, and there is apparent universal agreement on this, but one of the many paradoxes of things nuclear is that the obvious thing that everyone wants has proven unattainable. Everyone says she wants a nuclear-free world, but the facts on the ground speak otherwise. One might say that the entanglements of international relations have left humanity in a political situation that is like the paradox of quantum physics that emerged early in the nuclear age. In 1935, physicist Erwin Schrödinger conducted a thought experiment which he called entanglement. He described how a cat may be simultaneously alive and dead in a state known as a quantum superposition, if its survival were linked to a random subatomic event that may or may not occur. If it is true for a cat, then perhaps all of life on a tiny planet could be in the same undetermined state, waiting for some final act of observation that decides whether the human species really wants to live or whether it has a death wish. Only such counter-intuitive imaginings could explain how we have managed to exist so long on the razor edge between peace and annihilation.

Schrodinger's Cat by Dhatfield

Then again, we could ask if we really have avoided annihilation. Perhaps the world has been destroyed by nuclear war several times over, but we just carry on in another dimension after each "near miss," in a kind of purgatory where the gods give us a chance to reset the game and try to do it again without blowing ourselves up. Think of that part in the long telenovela LOST when the characters finally realize they are dead. They face the truth that should have been obvious all along: that no one could have survived that plane crash. So come on. Think about it. The human race created 60,000 nuclear weapons, and you really think we could have avoided nuclear war all this time?
To push this metaphysical discussion a little further, we could say that there is another sort of duality in existence when it comes to nuclear disarmament. There are two effective forces in nuclear disarmament, but their paths may never cross. One is the force within the circles of political power, while the other is the force of the disarmament groups that work, with questionable effectiveness, from outside the circles of political power. Both seem to carry on their activities oblivious to those of the other.

Leaders of the superpowers have, on rare occasions in the past, come together briefly to make significant de-escalations in the strategic arms race. In 1963, the UK, US and USSR signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and in the 1980s and early 1990s short and medium-range nuclear weapons were removed from Europe, and in total the arsenals of the US and Russia were reduced by about two thirds. Leaders took these actions because of pressure from within government to reduce the costs and hazards of maintaining these arsenals, but they also claimed to be reacting to popular pressure. It is also likely that these bold changes occurred only because of the personalities of the individual leaders involved. Kennedy, Khrushchev, Reagan and Gorbachev were strongly opposed within their own governments, but they had the courage to overrule domestic opposition, put aside differences about other aspects of Cold War rivalry (such as the non-trivial matter of how they were simultaneously plunging the Third World into their proxy wars) and prioritize the reduction of a mutual existential threat. Considering how rare these moments of progress have been, we have to wonder if further progress will depend on the lucky coincidence of compatible leaders with the right intentions rising to power once again. It would be foolish to depend on such luck, but what else is there in the historical record?

The other parallel track of disarmament is in all the efforts that happen outside of actions taken by the superpowers. (The lesser nuclear powers, the UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, NATO members and others under the US “nuclear umbrella” make no initiatives at all.) Various non-government organizations and non-nuclear nations have held independent or UN-sponsored initiatives to revise and strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty and force the nuclear powers to disarm, but there has been no significant progress since the early 1990s, and in fact, the trust that was so hard won then has been squandered. Now there is a general consensus that the US and Russia are in a Cold War II that is similar but different, and perhaps worse than the first one in some ways, mostly because of the incompetence of the new generation of leaders who don’t comprehend the risks.

The nuclear powers usually snub the conferences and legal challenges of disarmament groups, but when they deign to appear it is just to make a brief statement asking the non-nuclear nations to give up their plans, urging that rapid disarmament would lead to a dangerous “destabilization.” It is as if the NGOs and non-nuclear nations are being told they are powerless and too foolish to know what is good for them. The US and Russia may not love each other anymore, but it is time for the children to accept the divorce and, like, mommy and daddy, get on with their lives. So far, no one in the disarmament movement has figured out a version of The Parent Trap to manipulate them into a reconciliation.

One group that has made an impressive statement on disarmament is Wildfire, a group that has tried to “change the game” by calling for more aggressive approaches with “no more commissions, pontificating windbags, paper cranes, NPT treadmill, and no more whining, wishing or waiting.”[1] At the 2014 Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, using clear language that cut past the diplomatic niceties and technical jargon, they called on the non-nuclear nations to stop enabling their abusers:

… my message today is for those states which do not have nuclear weapons, for those states which, whatever the security threats they face, have foresworn nuclear weapons by joining the NPT, for those states which, despite having no nuclear weapons, unjustly bear the risks and will bear the terrible consequences of their use, and my message to you, states without nuclear weapons, begins with these words from Isaiah:

“How long, Oh Lord?”
“Until the cities are wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without people, and the land lies utterly desolate.”

How long will you keep playing this game? How long will you listen politely to the nuclear-armed states? How long will you continue to accept the procrastination, empty promises and endless excuses of the nuclear-armed states? How long will you listen politely to nuclear-armed states that claim to support the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as a crucial step towards disarmament, but haven’t ratified it after eighteen years? How long will you listen to the nuclear-armed states express their unequivocal commitment to nuclear disarmament and then come here and say that they need their nuclear weapons for stability? How long will you wait for these mythical “right conditions” for nuclear disarmament?
And now you have at last begun this discussion of the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. How many more meetings will you have? How many times will you listen to the harrowing tales of victims? How many times will you listen to the chilling scientific accounts of catastrophic consequences? How many times will you listen to analysis of the alarming risks of accidents, miscalculation or deliberate use? How long will you sit, and worry, and complain, and talk, and talk and talk? How long, Mr. Chairman, until you, the states without nuclear weapons, decide to take this matter into your own hands and act? Because until you do this charade is going to continue. Even if we take the nuclear-armed states at their word, and believe that they are sincere about disarmament, it is clear that they are addicted to their weapons. They are like the alcoholic who is always promising to stop drinking but somehow never does. Their weapons possess them.
Nobody can force an alcoholic to stop drinking, and nobody can force the nuclear-armed states to disarm. Only they can choose to give up their weapons, but you, the sober members of the family of nations, can stop enabling them. You can remove the ambiguity that supports their habits. You can make clear where you stand and what you will not accept. You can negotiate, and adopt, and bring into force a treaty banning nuclear weapons. This is something you can do. It is something you can do now. The alternative is to sit, passive and impotent, while the nuclear-armed states continue as they always have, risking your security, along with all of human civilization, in a misguided attempt to protect theirs. It’s your future, and your choice. You can sit, and wait, and whine, or you can take control and negotiate a treaty banning nuclear weapons.[2]

This suggestion that the non-nuclear states should take matters into their own hands is a logical step. It is indeed what is necessary, but two years have passed since this statement was delivered and none of the non-nuclear nations have taken up the call to stop enabling the nuclear-armed states. In August 2016 in the UN Working Group on Nuclear Disarmament “an overwhelming majority of nations… signaled their clear intention to join negotiations in 2017 on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons,”[3] but this commitment will be meaningless if it is not backed up by a coalition of the weak that can impose punishing sanctions on the strongest nations of the world. The reasons this won’t happen should be obvious. The international community lacks the will, and there is no interest in such reform in the domestic politics of the nuclear-armed states. In an interview Edward Snowden gave around the same time as the 2014 Vienna conference, he explained his view of why there has been no popular resistance to the intrusions of the American security state into the private communications of citizens, an issue which nonetheless receives more attention than nuclear weapons:

I don’t believe the political will be successful, for exactly the reasons you underlined. The issue is too abstract for average people who have too many things going on in their lives. And we do not live in a revolutionary time. People are not prepared to contest power. We have a system of education that is really a sort of euphemism for indoctrination.[4]

There are many other causes for which American citizens could be protesting against their own government, and others for which foreign governments and foreign citizens could also be stopping the actions of the American government: international trade agreements that favor the rights of corporations, ecological destruction, income inequality, food insecurity, arms sales to nations that abuse human rights, interference in the domestic affairs of foreign nations, abuse of international law, use of inhumane conventional weapons in wars that are not sanctioned by UN resolutions. All of these issues directly affect the lives of people in much more tangible ways than arsenals of nuclear weapons that have never been used in warfare since 1945. It is not likely that any single nation or a coalition of nations will do what is necessary to force the nuclear-armed states to give up their weapons. Whatever level of sanctions and boycotts would be necessary to force such change, it’s clear that there is no group of nations with an interest in finding out.

A few historical examples demonstrate the lengths to which nuclear-armed nations will go to punish junior partners that step out of line. In the 1970s, Australia had a prime minister who wanted to renegotiate the nation’s security arrangements with the US. The Americans began to fear that their strategically important intelligence gathering facility in the Australian desert would be closed down, so pretty soon the CIA-friendly governor general fired the prime minister.[5] In the 1980s, France exerted economic torture on New Zealand in order to win the release of French intelligence officers who had killed a man on the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in 1985. France was ready to use its influence in the EU to block all agricultural imports from New Zealand. The New Zealand prime minister had to surrender because the public would have never accepted such economic damage as the cost of standing up for a principle.[6]

When it comes to the topic of boycotts, sanctions and disinvestment to punish nuclear-armed states, we need to look at how the undeclared “ambiguous” nuclear power Israel is reacting to the BDS movement over its treatment of Palestinians. Israel has exerted pressure on foreign governments to make boycotts illegal, something South Africa never managed to do during the period of sanctions over Apartheid. If this state of affairs exists regarding a campaign against abuses that are actually happening, it is difficult to imagine that a coalition of non-nuclear states could organize a “BDS” campaign against nuclear weapons that are sitting harmlessly (for now) in their silos.

In fact, the BDS campaign itself has expressed little concern about Israel’s status as a non-declared possessor of nuclear weapons. Where would we begin in convincing Israel to give up this arsenal that it can’t even admit to owning? There can be no doubt that Israel thinks far ahead to a day when the Arab states’ oil is depleted, the region is in even worse chaos than now, and American support is gone. Israel wants its nuclear deterrent for that day, so it is inconceivable that any amount of outside pressure would force it give up its nuclear weapons. This topic never comes up at disarmament conferences because there is no desire to get “sidetracked” into the enormously contentious issues in Middle East politics, especially not Israel’s right to exist and protect that existence with a nuclear deterrent. It is deemed better to pretend that we can make progress in nuclear disarmament without facing the connections to other intractable problems in international relations. At the 2015 Pugwash Conference in Nagasaki I witnessed Mr. Kim Won-soo, UN Under Secretary-General and Acting High Representative of Disarmament Affairs, claim that he was merely “extremely disappointed” that the recent NPT negotiations failed. He failed to mention any countries by name or that his disappointment referred to a motion that would have forced Israel to declare whether it possessed nuclear weapons, one that was overruled by the US, the UK and Canada.[7]

It is said that states have no morals; only interests, and we could add that when it comes to enduring economic pain, democracies have no self-respect and no principles. A leader like Fidel Castro was able to withstand American sanctions because he could force his people to pay the price. If he had been facing re-election in a year’s time, it is doubtful he would have been supported by popular pressure to endure the economic pain of five decades of sanctions. While the nuclear-armed states are addicted to their weapons, the non-nuclear armed states are addicted to their access to markets in the nuclear-armed states. At this time, it is simply not conceivable that a new non-aligned movement could succeed after the failure of the first one launched in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955 which the United States found intolerable. Ten years later Southeast Asia was engulfed in a decade of civil wars, genocide and carpet bombing.

But this sort of historical awareness, or awareness of any concerns besides nuclear weapons, seems to be something that the present disarmament movement is not very good at. The movement lives in a silo, and it has to get out and engage with the problems that need to be resolved before we can get to nuclear disarmament.

One reason for this sidelining of the disarmament movement may have been the recent appearance in it of former American cold warriors such as Henry Kissinger who have “seen the light” in their old age and come around to admitting the uselessness of nuclear arsenals. However, beneath this apparently enlightened discourse, there is a seldom-stated assumption of a continued American exceptionalism and hegemony. In an editorial in The New York Times, James E. Cartwright and Bruce G. Blairaug argued for adopting a nuclear “no-first-use” policy by saying first use would never be necessary because the US enjoys dominance in every other aspect:

Our nonnuclear strength, including economic and diplomatic power, our alliances, our conventional and cyber weaponry and our technological advantages, constitute a global military juggernaut unmatched in history. The United States simply does not need nuclear weapons to defend its own and its allies’ vital interests, as long as our adversaries refrain from their use.[8]

The authors evince no awareness that it is this very predominance that makes old hawks like Kissinger think nuclear weapons are no longer necessary and makes America’s adversaries want nuclear weapons. When the nuclear-armed states speak euphemistically about the loss of “stability” that would come with rapid disarmament, they are talking about this stability that comes from the predominance of American power. Americans want to preserve the “stability” of their advantage, and all the other nuclear-armed states want to hang onto the “stability” that comes from having a nuclear deterrent to hold American power at bay. It should be obvious to all that there is only one player in this dangerous game that can unwind it (Hint: It’s not North Korea).

In the film The Big Lebowski, set in September 1990, the protagonist (a drafter of the original counter-culture Port Huron Statement) signs a check postdated Sept. 11, 1991 for a 69-cent quart of milk.  As he signs it, the television at the checkout counter broadcasts President Bush's New World Order statement from 1990.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of state of the USSR, is a man who knows a few things about negotiating with Americans. He has been pointing out this problem ever since President Bush the First declared the American-led New World Order in 1990. Gorbachev is still fully committed to both the total elimination of nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants, but he has consistently pointed out the problems that lie beyond this elusive goal. In his recent book The New Russia, Gorbachev discussed some of the comments he has made over the years on America’s abuse of its status as the world’s sole superpower:

... could it be considered realistic if, after ridding the world of weapons of mass destruction, one country would still be in possession of more conventional weapons than the combined arsenals of almost all other countries in the world put together? If it were to have absolute global military superiority? In my speech [World Political Forum, Turin, May 18, 2003] I warned that the answer could only be negative:

I will say frankly that such a prospect would be an insurmountable obstacle to ridding the world of nuclear weapons. If we do not address the issue of a general demilitarization of world politics, reduction of arms budgets, ceasing the development of new weapons, a ban on the militarization of space, all talk of a nuclear-free world will come to nothing.

I reminded the conference that when, in years gone by, we had proposed moving forward to a non-nuclear world, our Western partners had raised the issue of the Soviet Union’s superiority in conventional weapons. We had not tried to evade it and had entered negotiations that led to a mutual reduction of conventional arms in Europe. Today we needed the West to adopt a similar approach.
More general problems must also be addressed if we are to build a relationship of partnership and trust. Foremost is the problem of military superiority. I pointed out that the US National Security Strategy adopted in 2002 explicitly proclaimed the principle that the United States should enjoy global military superiority: “This principle has in effect become an integral part of America’s creed. It finds specific expression in the vast arsenals of conventional weapons, the colossal defense budget and the plans for weaponizing outer space. The proposed strategic dialogue must include all these issues.” [Mikhail Gorbachev referring to his NYT editorial of April 22, 2010]
The correlation between reduction and elimination of weapons of mass destruction and the general state of international relations and security is something any sober-minded politician should be keeping in mind. The generation of politicians that replaced ours failed signally to improve security in Europe and the rest of the world. The worst blunder was the decision to expand NATO and turn it into a ‘guarantor’ of security not only in Europe but beyond its borders. [9]

Gorbachev also cited the speech he gave in Fulton, Missouri, in May 1992, the hometown of President Harry Truman where Winston Churchill made the speech that launched the Cold War in 1946:

Under the guise of protestations of peace-loving intentions and the need to protect the interests of the world’s peoples, both sides took decisions that split the world. Their antagonism was misrepresented by both sides as a necessary confrontation between good and evil... [The most important thing today was] not to make the intellectual, and political, mistake of seeing overcoming the Cold War as a victory for America. We now have the opportunity to move forward to peace and progress for everyone, relying not on force, which is a threat to all civilization, but on international law, the principles of equal rights, a balancing of interests, freedom of choice, cooperation and common sense.
I urged my listeners to acknowledge an important reality: it was not possible in this day and age for “particular states or groups of states to reign supreme on the international stage.” My speech at Fulton was less a polemic against Churchill than against those hatching plans for global domination.[10]

Mr. Gorbachev’s insights here suggest that something needs to be added to Wildfire’s refreshing appeal to cut through ossified discourse on disarmament. Dismantling American hegemony and the military industrial complex is a prerequisite of nuclear disarmament. It is not something that can wait for later. Unfortunately, the permanent war state remained unmentionable even during the recent “radical” campaign of Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party nomination. The historian Gareth Porter argued that it must become a more prominent issue if the progressive movement is to advance:

So the strategy of the movement… must include a broadly concerted campaign that explains to young people, disaffected working-class people and others how the permanent war state produces winners and losers. The winners are the national security organs themselves, as well as those who make careers and fortunes from the permanent state of war. The losers are those who must suffer the socioeconomic and other consequences of such reckless policies. Such a campaign should aim at nothing less than taking away the flow of money and the legal authority that the permanent war state has seized on the pretext of “threats” that are largely of its own making… the legitimacy of the permanent war state is extremely tenuous. A determined campaign to challenge that legitimacy, carried out with sufficient resources over a few years with the participation of a broad coalition, could shake it to its roots.[11]

If this advice applies to the American progressive movement, it also applies to the international community. The call for non-nuclear-armed states to withdraw support of nuclear-armed states would be a highly disruptive change in the world order, one which, judging by the historical record, would be severely resisted by the United States in the form of “making the economy scream,” to quote a phrase used by Richard Nixon when Chile wanted to pursue an independent path in the early 1970s.[12] A complete overthrow of the Chilean government followed the economic torture. It has been argued here that nuclear abolition movements both inside and outside the United States will reach their goals only if they turn their attention first to the non-nuclear bombs that are actually falling on people’s heads at the present time. This explains why the Wildfire group has found disarmament talks so ineffectual, replete with commissions, pontificating windbags, paper cranes, whining, wishing and waiting. The movement has been unable or unwilling to address the root problems which led to the creation of nuclear arsenals in the first place.


[3] Support for a conference in 2017 to negotiate a treaty banning nuclear weapons, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, August 25, 2016.
[4] Katrina vanden Heuvel and Stephen F. Cohen, “Edward Snowden: A ‘Nation’ Interview,” The Nation, October 28, 2014.
[6] Phil Taylor, “The Rainbow Warrior 30 Years On,” New Zealand Herald, July 10, 2015.
[7] “UN nuclear weapons talks fail ‘over Israel row,’” BBC, May 23, 2015.
[8] James E. Cartwright and Bruce G. Blairaug, “End the First-Use Policy for Nuclear Weapons,” New York Times, August 14, 2016.
[9] Mikhail Gorbachev, The New Russia (Malden, Massachusetts: Polity Press, 2016), 304-306.
[10] Mikhail Gorbachev, ibid, 340-341.
[11] Gareth Porter, “Why the Sanders ‘Revolution’ Must Take on the Permanent War State,” Truthout, June 28, 2016.
[12] Daniel Marans, “Henry Kissinger Just Turned 92. Here’s Why He’s Careful About Where He Travels,” Huffington Post,  May 27, 2015.

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