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.