The Growing Nuclear Peril | The Nation


The Growing Nuclear Peril

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"The dangers posed by huge arsenals, threats of use, proliferation and terrorism are linked...."

It's all a matter, as we've learned to say of the pre-September 11 intelligence failures, of connecting the dots. The failure of the end of the cold war's political hostilities to bring with it the end of the cold war's nuclear arsenals is a fact of prime importance for the era that is beginning. No longer justified as a remnant of the old era, they have now become the foundation stone of the new one. They relegitimize nuclear arsenals at lower levels. The plain message for the future is that in the twenty-first century, countries that want to be safe need large nuclear arsenals, even in the absence of present enemies. This of course is a formula for nuclear proliferation.

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About the Author

Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Lannan Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at...

Also by the Author

After 9/11, the US invented a new kind of borderless, pre-emptive warfare, plunging the world into an endless cycle of violence.

The United States is no Soviet Union—and yet it has set up machinery that satisfies certain tendencies that are in the genetic code of totalitarianism.

The place in the world to look today for a portrait of proliferation is South Asia, where India and Pakistan are closer to nuclear war than any two countries have been since the Cuban missile crisis, or perhaps ever. According to a recent government study, 12 million lives are at immediate risk. A multiple of that could be the eventual total. The world has scarcely begun to absorb the meaning of these figures. It is a crisis in which almost every conceivable form of violence and threat of violence is tied into a single knot. Up to a million men facing each other across an 1,800-mile border are primed for a World War I-style conventional war. Between them is a disputed territory, Kashmir. On that territory a liberation movement pits an indigenous Muslim minority against Indian repression in the part of Kashmir under its control. Extremist groups in Kashmir and supporters who cross the border from Pakistan to aid them add the incendiary ingredient of terrorism. In a deadly new combination, terrorism threatens to unbalance the balance of terror. The leaders of both countries--the dictator Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and the head of the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee of India--have taken "tough" stands from which they can withdraw only at high political cost. In a groggy atmosphere of global inattention and inaction, the two nations drift toward nuclear war. Its outbreak would change history forever.

Even as the great powers' fresh embrace of their nuclear arsenals incites proliferation, proliferation (to further connect the dots) fuels the terrorist danger. A world of multiplying nuclear powers will be a world awash in nuclear materials. To give just one instance, it is known that the Pakistani nuclear-weapon scientist and Muslim fanatic Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmood has visited Osama bin Laden to talk over nuclear matters. A few months ago, bin Laden announced--falsely, we can only hope--that he possessed nuclear arms, and it is known that the Al Qaeda network has sought them. In a May article in The New York Times Magazine, complete with washed-out, vaguely postapocalyptic photographs of New York, Bill Keller reported that forestalling such an attack is now one of the highest priorities of the federal government.

The relegitimation of nuclear weapons in the toothless Moscow Treaty, the rising danger of nuclear war in South Asia and the spreading fear of nuclear terrorism in the United States and elsewhere are only the most recent harvest of danger--three new dots on the single, terrifying emerging map of the second nuclear age.

"Safety from nuclear destruction must be our goal. We can reach it only by reducing and then eliminating nuclear arms under binding agreements."

The Bush Administration, which is acutely aware of the dangers of both nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation (Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has called the use of a weapon of mass destruction on American soil "inevitable"), has consistently turned to military force as its chosen remedy. Its formula for dealing with terrorism is to overthrow states that harbor terrorists. Its program for stopping proliferation is likewise overthrowing some states--perhaps beginning with the government of Iraq--that seek to engage in it. The new strategy has been codified in a new Nuclear Posture Review, which proposes a policy of "offensive deterrence," under which the United States threatens pre-emptive attack, including possible nuclear attack, against nations that acquire or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction. Disarmament has become an occasion for war. But force is more likely to incite proliferation than to end it. In a world whose great powers were committed to nuclear disarmament, the decision by other nations to forgo these weapons would be consistent with national self-respect. But in a world in which one self-designated enforcer of a two-tier nuclear system sits atop a mountain of nuclear bombs and threatens destruction of any regime that itself seeks to acquire them, such forbearance becomes national humiliation--a continuation of the hated colonial system of the past, or "nuclear apartheid," as the Indian government put it.

The Urgent Call, by contrast, proposes a return to the tested and proven path of negotiation, through which 182 countries have already agreed, under the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to stay out of the nuclear weapons business. The call raises the banner of a single standard: a world without nuclear weapons.

"We therefore call on the United States and Russia...to move together with the other nuclear powers, step by carefully inspected and verified step, to the abolition of nuclear weapons."

The goal of nuclear abolition, it is true, is ambitious, and the difficulties are mountainous. Many will say, as they have throughout the nuclear age, that it is unrealistic. They would perhaps be right if we lived in a static world. But events--in South Asia, in Central Asia, in the Middle East, in New York--are moving at breakneck pace, and the avenues to disaster are multiplying. A nuclear revival is under way. A revival of nuclear protest is needed to stop it.

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