Keywords: nuclear weapons; multilateral fora; NATO; Conference on Disarmament; political will; boiling frog; shock; consensus.
I spent today with three women friends, working on answers to a questionnaire that the foreign ministry has posted on its web site to solicit opinions from Canadian citizens. We worked almost exclusively on the issue of nuclear weapons.
That should be an easy task for Canadian citizens, since this government decided long ago against building a nuclear arsenal. But that doesn’t guarantee Canada’s safety in the midst of a nuclear war — which is still a real possibility. There are still more than 27,000 nuclear weapons, of which more than 3,000 can be launched in less than 30 minutes. The population of every country, so far as I know, would prefer the abolition of these weapons, but they are not sufficiently exercised about the matter to make their governments carry out that wish. Indeed, no arms control or disarmament negotiations of any kind, bilateral or multilateral, are taking place at present.
There are multilateral fora, of course, where such negotiations and treaty-making should be taking place: the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva is one example. But it and all the other such institutions are stymied by the rule of consensus. The United States, with or without any other country, blocks consensus about the kind of strong measures that would require it to dismantle its nuclear weapons. Our challenge, then, is to recommend solutions to enable a real breakthrough.
Activists keep writing documents in favor of policies that are not going to happen. The problem is lack of “political will” — public awareness that some kind of change is required. It’s the “boiling frog” phenomenon – the tendency toward inertia that keeps people from acting unless circumstances abruptly become shocking. According to the story (I don’t know whether it’s true or not but it sounds plausible), if you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water it will jump out, but if you put it into a pot of cool water and gradually bring it to a boil, it will stay there and cook.
The ability of the US and the other nuclear weapon states to suppress action explains the inertia that prevents nuclear disarmament. What we have to do is create a shock. But how?
Here’s my idea: There are about 480 American non-strategic nuclear weapons in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey — countries that belong to NATO, but that have no nuclear weapons of their own. In fact, they all favor nuclear disarmament and have endorsed resolutions to that effect in the United Nations General Assembly. Yet they permit the United States to keep missiles on their soil, and even to train their pilots to fly these bombs to their destination in the event of a nuclear war.
Since every nation is a sovereign state, each one is able to reverse these policies. If even one European country — Germany, say, or the Netherlands — were to order the US to remove those weapons from its soil, they would administer a significant shock to the present complacency and inertia. The US government could no longer continue its nuclear policies, and there would be a huge public discussion — which is exactly what is needed. Since these five NATO countries actually don’t like NATO’s war-fighting policy, it should not be impossible to persuade one or more of them to take this bold step.
Would they get kicked out of NATO? It’s not clear. Probably there would be a penalty of some sort — or at least the European politicians all believe that it would be a risky thing to do. But this is the most promising angle I can think of. According to polls, the great majority of Europeans disapprove of nuclear weapons. Would they cheer for a government with the intestinal fortitude to carry out their democratic wishes? I think so. I would, wouldn’t you?