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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.

The Prospects for Nuclear Abolition Today

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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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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.

These are the realities that the Wall Street Journal authors and Kucinich, Schwarzenegger, Obama and others are addressing. They are the reason the abolitionist message of Reykjavik is the right one for our day. Of course, the surrounding circumstances in the United States are as greatly altered as the shape of the international order. The prospects for abolition today are in some respects more promising than in the 1980s but in others less so. The arguments for maintaining large nuclear arsenals during the cold war were clear and strong. Many disagreed with them, but everyone at least knew what they were: each side saw in the other an implacable ideological foe with global reach. Neither dared to be without nuclear arms as long as the other possessed them. The path to mutual disarmament was strewn with large obstacles, not least the difficulty of verifying a disarmament agreement.

Today the arguments for nuclear arsenals are incomparably weaker. Consider the American case. If we ask why, in a Soviet Union-free world, the United States is willing to live in a world in which it and Russia possess thousands of nuclear weapons poised on hair-trigger alert, instead of seeking to negotiate away both nations' arsenals, it's not easy to give an answer. There is no hostility with Russia that could justify any war, much less mutual annihilation. Why, almost two decades after the end of the Soviet Union, should the United States and Russia maintain more than 20,000 warheads between them and nuclear materials for producing thousands more? Jack Matlock, Reagan's adviser on Soviet affairs at Reykjavik, has recently called this state of affairs "insane."

Does the counterproliferation mission perhaps create a new need for the arsenals, as the Bush Administration has often stated? For all the talk about the need to smash underground bunkers, it is hard to escape the suspicion that the nuclear bombs left over from the cold war have gone searching for missions rather than the other way around. It's difficult to suppose that the nation's leaders, unless they have truly taken leave of their senses, will attack Iran or North Korea with nuclear weapons simply in order to dig a deeper hole in the earth in search of a fugitive mini-arsenal all too probably hidden somewhere else. Certainly, arsenals of thousands of weapons would scarcely be required for the purpose.

A policy vacuum has thus opened up, and politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The gate is open for something new. A few Democrats have tiptoed up to it but not yet walked through. One reason may be that even if the arguments for keeping nuclear arsenals are weaker, so is popular will to challenge them. There is no movement on the scale of the freeze; however, there are stirrings of fresh efforts to address the new situation. Peace Action, the legatee of the freeze, has more than 100,000 members in some thirty states. Student Peace Action is active on more than 100 campuses. Other groups with a long history of antinuclear activism are stepping up efforts. They include the American Friends Service Committee, Women's Action for New Directions, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Council for a Livable World and the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, headed by the legendary antinuclear activist and writer Helen Caldicott. More specifically geared to the details of abolition is the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, which, with other groups, continues to refine its blueprint for a Nuclear Weapons Convention. A number of Washington NGOs are gearing up to supplement the Hoover effort. A new group, Faithful Security, under the direction of David Cortright, has begun to remobilize religious communities. Evangelical groups, many of which are concerned about global warming under the banner of "creation care," are a natural constituency to oppose nuclear weapons. The same is true of the secular environmental movement. If a coalition of traditional peace groups, environmental groups, Washington arms control organizations such as the World Security Institute and the Henry L. Stimson Center, and religious groups, including evangelicals, were to push for abolition in tandem with the Hoover group, a powerful political force would result, especially if there were a receptive President in the White House. But it won't happen by itself. It has to be created.

When Americans are asked about nuclear abolition, they regularly favor it by wide margins. A recent poll sponsored by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland has found that 73 percent of Americans embrace the goal. In most countries support is even higher. This gulf between official and popular opinion is striking, especially since the public almost never hears abolition advocated in the news media. At the very least, the numbers show that if such a proposal were made, it would not meet with crippling public resistance. It even seems possible that if antinuclear sentiment did grow more intense, nuclear establishments around the world might yield to it more quickly than anyone now imagines.

Yet trying to forecast the rise or fall of public interest in this or any issue is probably a vain exercise. Major shifts in opinion almost always come unexpectedly. Who would have thought in 1979 that a nuclear freeze movement would soon arise and win approval in Congress, or that shortly thereafter the most right-wing President of the cold war period would advocate the abolition of nuclear arms, or that a Soviet leader would come to power ready to champion both abolition and democracy for the Soviet Union, which would then disappear? Is a serious new bid to achieve a world without nuclear weapons possible? Or will history's first use of a nuclear weapon since 1945 come sooner? Events--in the Middle East, in South Asia, in Northeast Asia, in Russia and in the United States--are pushing the world toward a decision. Soon, whether by commission or omission, for better or worse, it will be made.

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