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The Old and New Shapes of Nuclear Danger | The Nation

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The Old and New Shapes of Nuclear Danger

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Some of the material in this article is drawn from Jonathan Schell's just-published The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger.

Reykjavik in History

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

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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.

There is a revolution afoot—one that is being carried out by the government against the fundamental law of the land.

The deeper and more important question raised by Reykjavik, however, concerns the relationship of the cold war to abolition, and the meaning of that relationship for our present nuclear disorders. Common sense would suggest that the end of the cold war should have been an ideal moment for disarmament. Isn't peace better for disarmament than war, however cold? But the record shows that the opposite was true. In actuality, the idea of abolition resurfaced at one of the pinnacles of cold war tension. Reagan was in the midst of his military expansion. The decade before, the Soviet Union had conducted an immense nuclear buildup of its own in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis. In early 1983 it had walked out of nuclear arms-reduction talks with the United States.

It's also a fact that when the cold war disappeared into history, the idea of abolition disappeared with it.

One reason for these surprising turns of events is that negotiations between great powers generally go best when the parties are in equilibrium; yet as the 1980s proceeded, equality was eroding. The Soviet Union had never come close to the United States in overall economic productivity; but by the early 1980s it had--at punishing economic cost--achieved parity in the nuclear arena, removing any hope that the United States could "prevail" in a nuclear war. The new parity drove home the long-existing reality that the two nations, equally and redundantly menaced with prompt inexistence, were in the same boat. Such had been the backdrop to Reagan's and Gorbachev's historic joint statement that nuclear war can never be won and should never be fought. And it was this recognition that led both men to ask why, if that were so, it was necessary to have nuclear weapons at all. In Reagan's words in his 1984 State of the Union speech, "The only value in our two nations' possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?" It was one of the deepest, hardest-won lessons of the cold war.

Nuclear strategy has often been likened to a chess game whose last few moves need not be played because everyone can see that the outcome is a foregone conclusion. The remarkable yet somehow fitting fact is that in the mid-1980s, this very conclusion was drawn by that game's two kings, who were now asking themselves why, if the known end of the game was destruction for all concerned, anyone should even make the intermediate moves. Indeed, why play such a futile game at all?

But the moment of equilibrium was perishable. At Reykjavik, Gorbachev told Reagan, "A year ago it was not the case that the Soviet Union had advanced major compromise proposals.... I simply did not have that capability then. I am not sure that I will still have it in a year or two to three years." Gorbachev's reforms were designed to cure the ills afflicting the Soviet system, but the system was itself the illness, and instead of curing it, his genuinely salubrious measures helped it toward its demise. Whatever chance it had of surviving in a reformed condition was killed off in 1991, when hard-line Communists launched their coup against Gorbachev, and Boris Yeltsin picked up the pieces. Thus it happened that as one of the two great cold war rivals collapsed, the other rose, to what some began to imagine would be world dominance. The "sole superpower" was getting ready to proclaim itself. Its leaders thought they had been relieved from any pressure to surrender their nuclear arsenals.

Seen from this angle, the Reykjavik summit was a tragedy of timing. At exactly the moment when the harvest of protracted nuclear education was being gathered, the cold war laboratory in which it had been learned was on its way to being dismantled, and its great lesson--that the only sensible thing to do with nuclear arsenals was get rid of them--was shelved.

The Second Nuclear Era

With the end of the cold war, a new era of the nuclear age opened. At first it seemed that with the old restraining parity with the Soviet Union a thing of the past, the sole superpower could simply do anything it wanted. But harsher realities built into the very nature of the nuclear age soon began to reassert themselves. In the new laboratory of the new era, the educational process resumed. Once again a dialectic of pressures and counterpressures commenced. Once again the nuclear dilemma, having further matured (some fifty nations are now capable of building the bomb), was driven from hiding by political events. Once again, there were trials and errors. And once again, just as in the 1980s, an impasse appeared--the one we face today.

There are important differences, of course. The new era has brought a new set of nuclear dangers to the fore. In the cold war, the most salient lesson was that the bomb is equally destructive to all; in the post-cold war era, the inescapable lesson is that the bomb's technology is equally available to all competent producers, very likely including, one day not far off, terrorist groups. In the cold war, the driving force was the bilateral arms race; in the post-cold war era, it has been proliferation.

Nevertheless, the fundamental underlying lesson, built into the genetic code of the nuclear age and destined to last as long as that age does, is the same: nuclear weapons cannot be the source of advantage for any one nation or group of nations at the expense of the rest; they are a common danger and can be faced only by all together, through political and diplomatic means. Just as during the cold war the double standard inherent in the concept of American nuclear superiority could not be sustained, so today the double standard implicit in the two-class world of nuclear and nonnuclear powers is unsustainable. Just as the two Reykjavik leaders drew the lesson that only negotiation, not further buildups, could release the world from the common peril, so today we must give up the illusion that force can solve the proliferation problem and must turn to negotiation instead. Finally, just as the true solution to the cold war peril of annihilation could only be abolition, so it is today, because any other leaves the double standard intact, and the double standard is at the root of proliferation. Perhaps because this is the second time around, the lessons have been presented more quickly, for a critical moment of decision has already arrived.

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