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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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"After I became an American citizen, the thing that stands out so clearly in my mind is the Reagan/Gorbachev summit at Reykjavik," California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said recently. "The leaders of the two most powerful nations on earth were actually discussing the elimination of nuclear weapons. Such a breathtaking possibility. I still remember the thrill of it."

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

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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.

The occasion was a conference at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, led by the four authors of an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal last January. It called for "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons," as championed by Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik, and its authors were George Shultz, Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan (Shultz was present at Reykjavik); William Perry, Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton; Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State under Richard Nixon; and former Senator Sam Nunn--four archbishops of the cold war nuclear priesthood, most of whom until now have dismissed the idea of nuclear abolition as undiscussably utopian and naïve. The four cited proliferation and the terrorist danger, and warned that the world is entering "a new nuclear era that will be more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically costly than Cold War deterrence." Significantly, they invoked moral as well as practical reasons for their proposal, approvingly quoting Reagan's opinion that nuclear weapons are "totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization." The conference at Hoover was the second in a series convened to explore concrete pathways to the goal of abolition. The group will eventually publish a book and hold an international conference to present their findings.

As Schwarzenegger self-deprecatingly observed, he knows more about weight lifting than throw-weights; yet he went on to speak compellingly of the new nuclear dangers. (It is a perverse pleasure to be able to quote Schwarzenegger, Shultz, Kissinger, Perry, Nunn and Reagan approvingly in a single article in The Nation, which normally does not keep company of this kind. The hopeful aspect may be that in our fractious time there are still some issues that can recall us to our common humanity.) And not only former weight lifters and nuclear priests but anyone who reads a newspaper can see that nuclear dangers are spreading like the brush fires that were sweeping through Southern California as the conference met. The United States has, of course, got itself stuck in Iraq in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and facilities for making them, including nuclear ones. In Iran the government is racing to produce nuclear power fuels that, with a few extra touches, could become nuclear weapons materials. To halt this development, many inside and outside the Bush Administration have favored a military attack on Iran, though a recent National Intelligence Estimate has declared that while Iran once had an active nuclear weapons program, it was suspended in 2003.

The Pentagon has even developed plans for nuclear strikes against Iran as well as other possible proliferators. In nuclear-armed Pakistan, the state is in crisis and the danger is rising that some of its nuclear bombs or materials will fall into hands even more irresponsible than those currently holding them. A recent op-ed in the New York Times by liberal hawk Michael O'Hanlon and neoconservative Frederick Kagan suggested that the United States might intervene militarily in Pakistan. The mission would be to take control of the country's nuclear arsenal and help "hold the country's center." (If, in a neoconservative dream-come-true, the United States assailed both Iran and Pakistan, it would be at war simultaneously in four contiguous Islamic countries: Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.)

Waves of fear are rippling across the Middle East and beyond from these crises and wars. In this year alone, twelve other nations in the Middle East have announced their interest in acquiring nuclear energy. Israel, of course, has been a nuclear power since about 1967, and in a still mysterious episode, on September 6 it bombed a facility in Syria that allegedly was part of a nuclear program assisted by North Korea, which tested its first nuclear weapon last year. Although North Korea has declared a readiness to give up its arsenal, no one knows if or when it will actually do so. Nor have the cold war nuclear powers surrendered their arsenals; on the contrary, they are retooling and retargeting them at the proliferators. The United States has founded an Air Force command called Global Strike Task Force, which enables it to target "any dark corner of the world" with conventional or nuclear munitions. Britain and France have announced similar policies. Thus, from Pyongyang to Tehran to Tel Aviv to Washington, a new global struggle has been born, matching many existing nuclear powers against aspiring nuclear powers.

Is there any chance that the abolition initiative will be taken up not only by people retired from power but by those who are in power or seek it, such as the current crop of presidential candidates? There are some hopeful signs. The nuclear question, an exile from discussion since the end of the cold war, has begun to seep in around the edges of the campaign. In the Democrats' August 19 debate, John Edwards pledged to "eliminate nuclear weapons"--and got a brisk round of applause. Dennis Kucinich was championing nuclear abolition long before the Journal article was written and has remained an eloquent and steadfast proponent of the cause. In a speech mostly detailing many sensible steps to reduce nuclear dangers, Bill Richardson committed himself to the same goal. The most significant conversion to abolition, however, was made by Barack Obama in a major foreign policy speech in October. He stated, "We'll keep our commitment under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty on the long road towards eliminating nuclear weapons.... As we do this, we'll be in a better position to lead the world in enforcing the rules of the road if we firmly abide by those rules. It's time to stop giving countries like Iran and North Korea an excuse."

Hillary Clinton took note of the Journal article in an article of her own in Foreign Affairs, but her substance and tone were notably different from Obama's. She reported that the Journal four had advocated "reducing reliance on nuclear weapons" and promised to do the same. But the very title of the article had been something quite different: "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons"--a goal unmentioned and not embraced by Clinton. As if to underscore the evasion, she claimed she could "reassert our nonproliferation leadership" merely by negotiating an agreement to further reduce US and Russian arsenals. In a remarkable piece of double-think, she added that this "dramatic initiative" would "send a strong message of nuclear restraint to the world, while we retain enough strength to deter others from trying to match our arsenal." Deterring others from matching the United States is crucially different from deterring them from attacking the United States, for it commits the nation, as the Bush Administration does, to indefinite nuclear superiority over all other nations. In short, her "dramatic" act of "restraint" would leave the United States in a position of global nuclear dominance for the indefinite future. It's hard to imagine a stance more likely to accelerate nuclear proliferation.

The statements of Obama and Clinton have drawn a line between the campaigns of these two Democratic front-runners on an issue of supreme importance for our time. Obama has embraced the goal of a world without nuclear weapons. Clinton has not. Wouldn't this matter be as worthy of a few questions in the debates as, say, driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants or Obama's readiness to get verbally tough with Clinton?

So far, Reagan's legacy has found no takers among the Republican candidates, even as they claim with every other breath to be his heirs. The debate question for them would be whether their admiration for their hero extends to his vision of nuclear abolition, and if not, why not?

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