Gone Nuclear: How the World Lost Its Way
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Reykjavik Summit in October 1986 will long be remembered because the leaders of the world's two superpowers, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, seriously entertained for one brief moment the goal of a non-nuclear world. The end of the cold war reduced the fear of a nuclear exchange, but it did not bring us closer to a world free of nuclear weapons. Indeed, with the subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons to India, Pakistan and North Korea, and with concerns growing about Iran's nuclear program, the idea of a non-nuclear world seems more distant than ever. As the report of the International Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction issued earlier this year makes clear, even the limited goals of nuclear arms control and nonproliferation have been set back by the lack of leadership on the part of the United States and by the proliferation of new weapons states. And as worrying, the goal of nuclear disarmament no longer seems to animate the progressive community or the peace movement, let alone figure into today's discussion of American national security policy.
To mark the twentieth anniversary of the Reykjavik Summit, The Nation invited Richard Falk, Mary Kaldor, Randall Caroline Forsberg and George Perkovich, all leading figures of the nuclear disarmament movement at the time of Reykjavik, to reflect on what went wrong and to consider how to put nuclear disarmament back on the political agenda.
The Terror of Hiroshima Has Come Full Circle
Are we doomed to wait for a second nuclear holocaust to arouse our moral and political imaginations?
It seems ironic that the last serious engagement with the challenge of ridding the world of nuclear weapons occurred twenty years ago, when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met at Reykjavik, and seemed close--at least for a moment--to agreeing to the goal of zero nuclear weapons within ten years. It is probable that even Reagan lacked the political clout to pull off such a deal, given the depth of American attachment to the weaponry. This speculation was not tested because the two leaders could not find a way to compromise on the issue of a defensive program dear to Reagan's heart, called "Star Wars" by its critics and "Strategic Defense Initiative" by its supporters. This flirtation with nuclear disarmament in Iceland produced wildly different assessments, ranging from "near miss" to "outright failure."
From the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima until the end of the cold war, leaders of both superpowers were consistently in favor of the goal of nuclear disarmament, at least in public. Proposals were made at various times during the twenty years following World War II, but none came close to achieving a meeting of relevant minds in Washington and Moscow. The dividing line between sincere advocacy and peace propaganda was never clear, arousing worries on the side of those who believed that nuclear weapons were necessary for American security that disarmament moves might indeed be genuine and suspicions among peace activists that governmental endorsement of disarmament moves was never more than window-dressing. Richard Barnet wrote an insightful short book titled Who Wants Disarmament? in 1960 that reached the predictable answer to his question: "neither side."
At first glance, the failure to seek nuclear disarmament in the early 1990s seems puzzling. After all, the main rationale for keeping the weapons was to deter the Soviet Union, and vice versa. With the cold war over, there was a wide-open window of opportunity, yet there was no movement to take advantage of it. In fact, American diplomacy encouraged the Yeltsin government to keep its arsenal of nuclear weapons intact. How can we explain this posture? It discloses two of the reasons nuclear disarmament has proved to be such a non-starter (as compared with efforts to curb biological and chemical weapons): first, the nuclear-weapons establishment is very powerful; and second, for the United States and other nuclear weapons states, despite arguments to the contrary, influential leaders in government and the military believe the possession of these weapons confers strategic advantages.
Almost as puzzling as the diplomatic lack of interest is the failure of the peace movement to sustain the focus on nuclear weapons issues that had been so intense during the 1980s. It was then that the great nuclear freeze movement excited many people in America, while the European Nuclear Disarmament Movement mobilized millions in Europe. In retrospect, it would seem that the issue surfaced so strongly at that time because there was real fear that a war with nuclear weapons might actually be fought in Europe. That fear stemmed in part from the talk of a new strategic doctrine that actually envisioned exchanges of so-called tactical nuclear weapons in Europe without the devastation of the United States. With the end of the cold war, given the extent to which the danger of nuclear war had been so strongly associated with a breakdown of deterrence, the public sense of danger vanished overnight.
There was at the same time a convergent development that drew popular attention to a new cause. With the emergence of Gorbachev's leadership in the Soviet Union and the great popular movements in Eastern Europe directed at overcoming the oppressive cold war regimes, as well as the growing international attention given to the antiapartheid movement, there was a shift of idealistic energies from war/peace issues to human rights. This dynamic has continued. Idealistic young people today seem far more interested in human rights than they do in the pursuit of a cause that seems as futile and abstract as nuclear disarmament.
This is not to say that nothing constructive has happened since Reykjavik. The World Court in 1996 issued a historic Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons that lent strong support to two conclusions: The use of nuclear weapons could be legal, if ever, only in circumstances where the survival of a state was at severe risk; and that the Non-Proliferation Treaty imposed a firm obligation on the nuclear weapons states to pursue in good faith nuclear disarmament. As might have been expected, the US government did its best to prevent the court from ever dealing with these issues, and when that failed, used major pressure to get the media to ignore the results.
In the meantime, of course, there have been some very serious adverse developments. India and Pakistan both openly crossed the nuclear threshold in 1998, and North Korea seems to have developed a few weapons of its own. The United States, especially after 9/11, has adopted "counterproliferation" as a defining doctrine of its foreign policy. The alleged threat of Iraq to develop nuclear weapons served as a pretext for aggressive war. A similar diplomatic confrontation with Iran is shaping up over whether Tehran's determination to possess a complete fuel cycle, including uranium enrichment facilities, represents an unacceptable move to develop nuclear weapons. Beyond these problems, the United States seems to be moving toward a new strategic doctrine that greatly expands the military role of nuclear weapons, treating them as potentially available even against non-nuclear adversaries. In an important sense, the terror of Hiroshima has come full circle--to be linked not only to the terror of 9/11 but also to the bravado of preventive war waged against essentially civilian societies. The report produced this year by the UN Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction, headed by former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, is revealingly titled Weapons of Terror.
As the Blix report made clear, serious dangers of a nuclear catastrophe form part of today's geopolitical landscape. At the same time, there are no legitimate roles for these weapons of mass terror and thus no legitimate reason for governments to maintain their current nuclear postures. Yet the challenge remains of how to translate the immorality and illegality of this weaponry into a viable antinuclear political project. In the end, fear was not enough, even at the height of cold war anxieties. Are we up against an apocalyptic dead end in the human experience? Are we doomed to wait for a second Hiroshima to arouse our moral and political imaginations? We should realize, at least, that consoling illusions will not move us back from the current nuclear precipice!