On Our Way to Nuclear Disarmament: Speech to Physicians for Global Survival
Surveys suggest that about three-quarters of the human population want nuclear weapons to be abolished. Why have we been unable to do so? I’ll list five reasons, which will suggest an agenda of five preconditions that must be resolved. I won’t discuss the technology of the bombs or the diplomatic steps toward abolishing them, but rather some obvious tasks for us as activists in civil society. What can you and I do?
Presumably we all share one common goal: to eliminate every nuclear weapon on the planet and keep anyone from building new ones. That will require every country to sign a Nuclear Weapons Convention—a treaty with procedures for inspection and enforcement. Who is blocking this? Answer: The five nuclear weapon states, France, Britain, China, and particularly two—the United States and Russia, which between them own 95 percent of all nuclear weapons.
While we work toward promoting our big goal, a Nuclear Weapons Convention, we also have intermediate goals, such as Nuclear Weapons Free Zones or the de-alerting of existing nuclear weapons to keep them from being launched by mistake. Or the locking up of loose fissile material so it can’t be collected for use in bombs, which is the only way terrorists can get them.
Here is my list of the five obstacles to disarmament.
- The belief in deterrence as a source of security;
- The belief that nuclear weapons confer power and prestige;
- Economic interests in favor of maintaining nuclear weapons;
- Political constraints against disarming;
- The poor relationship between Russia and the US, with its NATO partners, including Canada.
First, the worst of these problems is the belief that deterrence is a basis for security. If you were the only person in the world with a nuclear arsenal, you might feel like a king. But if your enemy got one too, you would both realize that you couldn’t fire without being killed too. You both would sit and stare at each other helplessly for a long, long time. The only benefit of having nukes would be to warn your opponent not to fire his. We call this condition “mutual deterrence,” or “mutually assured destruction.” It’s terribly frustrating but, as they say about getting old, it’s better than the alternative.
However, sometimes strategists can’t endure the frustration. They want to have their cake and eat it too, so they try to figure out how to use a few nukes under special circumstances without setting off a frenzy of mutual retaliation. Still, even those strategists believe in deterrence. It is up to you and me to prove that disarmament makes everyone more secure than deterrence. How can we do that?
Unfortunately we cannot exactly disprove
the notion that deterrence has worked. For example, we can’t disprove the idea that NATO’s missiles deterred the Soviet Union from invading Europe. We think the Soviets wouldn’t have done so anyway, but logically, it is impossible to prove what would have happened
if what did happen
had not happened
We can, however, show that there have been times when deterrence has almost
failed and nearly
resulted in nuclear war, and that similar occasions must be expected again. For example, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Khrushchev, Kennedy, and Castro all mis-estimated what the other two guys would do, thus coming within minutes of ending civilization. Because misunderstandings are part of the human condition, we have to expect similar crises in the future if we retain a nuclear deterrent.
Moreover, we can prove that nuclear bombs, which are intended only for deterrence, actually stimulate the proliferation of more
nuclear bombs. Whenever a country acquires such weapons, a rival country tries to get some of its own. The competition began when the US thought Hitler was creating an atomic bomb. He wasn’t. But after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Union quickly caught up with its American rivals. So did Britain, whose rival France in turn matched its achievement and even helped Israel build nukes too. Then China noticed what the Soviets were doing and built its own bomb, thus un-nerving India, which raced to catch up. But India’s nuclear capacity made Pakistan so anxious that it too built the bomb. Indeed, Pakistan’s chief nuclear scientist passed the technology on to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. And so it goes. Instead of deterring others, each new nuclear arsenal stimulates proliferation—which will continue until disarmament or doomsday, whichever comes first.
But anyway, how many nukes would a country need for nuclear deterrence? The answers vary widely. During the worst of the Cold War, there were 70,000 of the bombs on the planet. Now there are about 23,000 and declining. Some US Air Force strategists recently declared that the US needs exactly 311 nuclear bombs and could safely reduce to that low number unilaterally, even if no other country also cut its stockpile. It’s a strangely precise number, 311, and I want to consider some of its implications.
Other experts have long predicted that if the Russian and American arsenals were reduced to, say, 500 apiece, all the other nuclear states would come to the table and negotiate a nuclear weapons convention. After all, China, India, Pakistan, and the European Parliament have promised to go to zero if the others will do likewise, and even Israel has made a similar pledge. Hence, by proposing to go below 500, these Air Force guys may set off a stampede toward complete nuclear abolition—which is not at all what they intended.
But let’s not get carried away with glee over this prospect. If it doesn’t happen we face a different, far nastier, possibility. Keeping as few as 311 warheads still threatens humankind’s survival. Back in the 1980s Carl Sagan and others calculated that smoke from the fires of nuclear-bombed cities would darken and chill the planet, even in summertime. They called it “nuclear winter.” More recent research also shows that to nuke even 100 cities could postpone summer for ten years. No crops would grow, and populations would starve. That’s one hell of an antidote to global warming, using only one-third of those 311 nuclear bombs. In a real war, of course, they would all be fired. Please pass this news on to your friends who still believe that deterrence keeps us secure.
Now I’ll move on to the second obstacle to disarmament, namely, nuclear weapons as a status symbol, conferring power and prestige.
This is not exactly a fiction.
There are two types of nations in the world: those officially recognized as nuclear-armed states and those that are not supposed to be. Notice that in the UN Security Council, the permanent five members are the nuclear-weapons states, each wielding veto power. No wonder every ambitious young non-nuclear country wants to grow up and join the nuclear club! It is symbolic proof of manhood.
We have to overcome this silly indicator of prestige. What should count instead is a country’s commitment to universality and the rule of law. Almost all Non-Nuclear Weapons States belong to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In joining, they agreed to a bargain: they promised never acquire nuclear weapons if, for their part, the Nuclear Weapon States would disarm. Guess which group has failed to fulfill its pledge? The Nuclear Weapon States. Our job is to demand that they do so.
The third obstacle to nuclear disarmament is economic
. Buying useless weapons is as foolish as burning $100 bills. But the creation of any new industry is also the creation of a new interest group—its employees. If banks and auto manufacturers can be “too big to fail,” so too can the nuclear weapons industry. When NATO and Russia start to disarm, corporate employees and stockholders will start screaming bloody murder. Count on it. To prepare for this, we need to create alternative jobs. Luckily, climate change is going to require big investment. This is where the economics of climate and disarmament coincide. We can resolve both problems by promoting a switch from military-industrial investment into green energy. Read Tom Friedman, who tells us that China is already far ahead and that our own future prosperity depends on developing a green economy.
The fourth obstacle to disarmament consists of political constraints.
No political leader in a democracy can do everything he pleases; he has to pander to potential voters. I’m sorry to remind you, but that’s the price of living in a democracy. Often a politician cannot afford even to disclose frankly what he would like
to do. But there have been two political leaders who promised nuclear abolition: Mikhail Gorbachev and Barack Obama. Both were smart, democratic politicians who shared the same bipartisan game plan: to steer between right and left, moving forward cautiously while holding together the two political wings. Unfortunately, both men encountered a crisis, which polarized politics, made the right and left less willing to compromise, and eroded the common ground between them.
Gorbachev, bless his heart, almost achieved disarmament, but the right wing Soviet military-industrial complex retained enough power to intimidate him. He had to placate them, which infuriated the left-wing reformists who had originally been his supporters. In 1990 they deserted him in droves for compromising with the right. They joined Yeltsin, who promised swift, radical changes. This weakened Gorbachev further, allowing the reactionaries to plot a coup against him. Although the right wing’s coup failed, Yeltsin soon made a successful leftist coup by dissolving the Soviet Union. That ended Gorbachev’s opportunities for nuclear disarmament.
There is a lesson in this for us. If we want peace and disarmament, we had better stick with Obama, even if he disappoints us by compromising with reactionaries. He has to court voters, so he often appears weak, but he’s the best politician we’ve got. Personally, I worry that Obama will fail for the same reason as Gorbachev. Peaceniks and Democrats will abandon him, letting the Republicans take charge. Then the US Senate won’t ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or even the START follow-on Treaty. If we want disarmament, we must stop disparaging the only democratic politician who favors it.
But this does not mean that we should stop campaigning for our issue. Obama wants to be pushed to disarm because that empowers him, so long as we don’t give up on him. Here’s a true story. In 1982 the US was pressing Canada to test cruise missiles in Alberta. Some of us in Science for Peace (including George Ignatieff) wrote a letter of protest to Prime Minister Trudeau. That same day his assistant, David Crenna, flew down to have dinner with us. (It was probably Ignatieff’s name that explains this speedy reaction.) Crenna said that Trudeau would like to refuse the cruise but could not afford to do so because there were no crowds in the streets demanding it. He implied that Trudeau wanted us to work up sufficient political clamor to enable him to stand up against the Americans. The same goes for all democratic leaders. They need voter support but also voter pressure. That’s what social movements are for, so let’s provide it!
Finally, let’s turn to our fifth obstacle: the hostility between Russia and the West
. The US government deserves most of the blame for it. If you visit Russia, you will hear endless complaints about past American betrayals. I’ll summarize a few of them.
During the hardest phase of perestroika, Gorbachev needed financial aid from the West. By then Bush Senior was in power and said no. His rejection made the coup possible. Then Yeltsin came in and threw the country into shock therapy, upon the advice of American economists, the IMF, and the U.S. Treasury. It resulted in 2600 percent inflation. Many Russians believe that the US urged this precisely to wreck their economy. Then Yeltsin began giving away the state-owned industries, cheating to win elections, and shelling the parliament, which killed perhaps a thousand people. Bill Clinton supported his pal Boris through thick and thin, assuring the Russians that their government was an up-and-coming democracy. The Russians who believed him never want democracy again, thank you very much. The sample was ample.
Gorbachev had let the Warsaw Treaty Organization states oust communist regimes and had let East and West Germany unite within NATO. It had been implicitly agreed, of course, that NATO would not encroach into the other post-WTO countries. Nevertheless, Clinton did so. Today NATO would include Ukraine and Georgia too if the Russian government had not been threatening nasty responses.
Another recent American plan was to set up missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, threatening Russia with today’s version of Star Wars. Naturally, the Russians were cool to this idea. Also, Russians regard the Serbs as family, so they were outraged when NATO bombed Belgrade and recognized the independence of breakaway Kosovo. Two years ago Russia retaliated by recognizing the independence of South Ossetia from Georgia. They even sent troops as a gesture of payback for the West’s recognition of Kosovo.
The Russians are right, I think, in considering all these actions as hostile moves by the US. Nowadays Obama intends to “reset” the relationship, but he either does not want
to reverse some of these policies or, for domestic political reasons, does not dare
do so. Part of the former Soviet Union now belongs to NATO, which still plans to set up ballistic missile defenses around Russia. No wonder the Russians are resentful!
Canada is in NATO, so we are party to these anti-Russian actions. Yet we are able to improve our relationship with Russia. There are thousands of ways to do so, but apparently we aren’t willing. Why not?
Our stand-offish attitude toward Russia, I think, is based on an accurate appraisal of its corrupt, undemocratic state, which still violates human rights. Though Medvedev is a better president than Putin, he has not succeeded in implementing reforms. There are excellent reasons for mistrusting the Russian government—but mistrust is no basis for peace and disarmament. Indeed, it’s precisely what we have to overcome.
I have discussed disarmament with Pavel Podvig, a Russian nuclear weapons expert. He doesn’t expect deeper reductions in the arsenals of Russia and NATO until relations become friendlier. Well, since Canadians belong to NATO, you and I can begin working toward this friendship right now. And your wonderful organization, Physicians for Global Survival, is in a supremely favorable position to contribute.
The relationships that build trust most effectively are civil society organizations, of which there are two types: bonding
organizations. A bonding
organization is one whose members are socially similar. Such communities help members acquire social and political skills. But even more important are the bridging
groups — those with members of diverse backgrounds and outlooks. Transnational groups are obviously bridging
organizations—and you are part of one of the most outstanding ones, IPPNW.
A recent analysis of Facebook shows that most on-line networks are of the bonding
type; People tend to hang out with people like themselves. But real peacebuilding requires dealing with people with whom we don’t necessarily agree. There’s a new organization that encourages bridging
friendships on Facebook—between Serbs and Kosovars, between Turks and Greeks, and between Israelis and Palestinians. That’s a great idea, but it cannot possibly be as effective as IPPNW was during the 1980s. What really counts are sustained dialogues—getting to know each other personally over a long period of face-to-face conversation.
My new book, The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy,
describes the close interactions during the Cold War between certain elite groups of Russians and Westerners. IPPNW, for example, was amazingly influential in Soviet policies. The leaders deserve much of the credit for ending the Cold War. There were also a few other such influential transnational organizations, such as the Dartmouth Conferences and Pugwash. Even the visits of exchange students had strong positive influences, though by far the long-term sustained dialogues among elites made the most difference.
After the Soviet Union ended, such bridging transnational civil society organizations dwindled. IPPNW and Pugwash in Russia today are but shadows of the former groups. Nevertheless, they still exist, offering us not only a structure through which to revive transnational contacts but even to enlarge them into a big grass-roots movement.
Almost all Russians now study English in school and many have computers with camcorders. I propose that Physicians for Global Survival organize a number of international video-conferencing discussion groups between your members in Russia and Canada. There’s a new Skype version that lets you hook together up to ten different computers in different locations. Please pick up one of the hand-outs my assistant prepared, giving instructions for connecting your computers. It will be easy to invite, say, three English-speaking Russian physicians to gather once a month for a whole year in front of a webcam in Novosibirsk or St. Petersburg and discuss for an hour, say, breast cancer screening, HIV treatment, disarmament, or climate change with three physicians sitting at a computer in Regina or St. Catharine’s. After a year, you’ll have several new friends who trust each other. We need thousands of such groups to influence public opinion at the societal level.
The Kettering Institute, which funded the Dartmouth Conferences, has a program that facilitates community discussions of social problems in American cities. I recommend their instruction manuals, which teach methods of sustained dialogue.
I myself am setting up two regular videoconferencing groups — one with five members of my family on the West Coast, and one with friends in Moscow to discuss the international news of the month. IPPNW is the ideal group to organize such dialogues, but everyone can do so independently too. If you know someone in Russia, you too can form an ongoing dialogue with, say, some fellow freight train engineers in Krasnoyarsk, or some kindergarten teachers in Perm, or some Aristotle scholars in Vladivostok. Just think of the possibilities!
So get your computers ready, everybody, and let’s Skype for peace!
Labels: five obstacles to nuclear disarmament; videoconferencing discussions