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Dreams and nightmares

June 4, 2009

In the 1980s, I had recurring nightmares about nuclear war. Lots of people did. The nightmares, unfortunately, corresponded all too closely to the waking world, where tens of thousands of US and Soviet nuclear weapons were pointed at everyone, everywhere, at all times. We were exposed to a steady stream of graphic images on TV, in films, and in the print media that were not all that different from the unconscious horrors that invaded our sleep.

The problem now isn’t so much the nightmares as the dreams. We keep hearing about the “dream” of a nuclear-weapons-free world, and almost before the idea can register, we get handed the reality check. “Not in our lifetimes.”  “A distant and difficult goal.” “Maybe a few decades from now, when conditions are better.” “One step at a time.”

Just this week, two more visions of a world without nuclear weapons momentarily rose above the noise generated by the May 25 North Korean nuclear test.

John McCain, Barack Obama’s opponent in the US presidential election, once again invoked the ghost of Ronald Reagan and reiterated his abolitionist campaign rhetoric on the floor of the Senate on June 3. He called nuclear weapons “the most abhorrent and indiscriminate form of warfare known to man” and said that “our highest priority must be to reduce the danger that nuclear weapons will ever be used.” Words like that aren’t heard in the US Senate too often.

One day later, a new Norwegian “gang of five,” including four former prime ministers and a former foreign minister, published their own call for a nuclear-weapon-free world in the Oslo daily Aftenposten, citing the original “gang of four” (Shultz, Kissinger, Nunn, and Perry) as their model. Insisting that “we have to be serious both about the vision and about the measures,” the Norwegians asserted that the US and Russia, “which together account for more than 90 per cent of the world’s arsenals, must take the first steps.”

A closer look at the two statements, however, uncovers significant differences in approach and a blurry and movable line between dream and reality. McCain’s statement is practically bipolar. He warns that “we…quite literally possess the means to destroy all of mankind” while, almost in the same breath, he recites the mantra that nuclear weapons are “still important to deter an attack with weapons of mass destruction against us and our allies.” To be fair, President Obama says essentially the same thing.

I’m very fond of catching logical fallacies. One of the commonplace varieties is the internal contradiction. This one can be paraphrased as: “The world would be a safer place without nuclear weapons, but while they’re here it’s a safer place with them.”

The Norwegians—Odvar Nordli, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Kåre Willoch, Kjell Magne Bondevik, and Thorvald Stoltenberg—give a nod to deterrence, too, but their angle of vision seems different somehow. “While reductions are going on, mutual deterrence will remain a basic principle of international security.” In other words, as we engage in the work of getting rid of these things, the possessors must continue to respect the imperative against using them. I’m reading between the lines, but that strikes me as different from asserting a need to hold onto nuclear weapons as a means to project overwhelming political power until you can replace them with something that works just as well.

In McCain’s view, the replacement is “robust missile defenses and superior conventional forces.” He also favors “a tough, and tough-minded, approach to both Iran and North Korea, both of whom have gotten away with too much for far too long.” Sen. McCain has made enormous personal strides toward embracing abolitionism, and has characteristically put himself at odds with his own party. Time will tell whether his “maverick” identity will lead him to support ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, where his principled vote will be badly needed. In the meantime, he seems not to have noticed that the US and the other nuclear weapon states have “gotten away with too much for far too long” when it comes to fulfilling their disarmament obligations.

The Norwegian gang of five has marked the road to a nuclear-weapon-free world with much better signposts. They write that the goal “must be a world where not only the weapons, but also the facilities that produce them are eliminated.” They challenge the US and Russia to “reduce their arsenals to a level where the other nuclear weapon states may join in negotiations of global limitations.” (Abolition NGOs have suggested that the right level for engaging China, France, the UK, India, Pakistan, and Israel in a real push for zero is somewhere around 500 or fewer—a substantially smaller number than the US and the Russians seem to have in mind as the outcome of a new START agreement.) They don’t minimize the threats of proliferation and nuclear terrorism, but they see the solutions in cooperative, rather than punitive, action. Unlike McCain and many of the other “new” abolitionists, who support missile defenses, the Norwegians caution that “the establishment of missile shields should be avoided, for they stimulate rearmament….Ongoing missile defence plans and programmes should therefore be subordinated to the work for comprehensive nuclear disarmament.” They have that right, too.

As much as their statement adds to the roadmap toward a world without nuclear weapons, the gang of five neglects to mention the Nuclear Weapons Convention. Diplomats seem to have an allergic reaction to the Convention. During the Q&A period at an NPT PrepCom side event last month, I asked Gareth Evans, the co-chair of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament and an ICAN supporter, whether the Commission would seriously review the content of the Model NWC before issuing its recommendations later this year. He assured me that was the Commission’s intention, but also wondered out loud whether the Convention was not a bit too “purist” – dreamlike, if you will. Gro Harlem Brundtland, who is the Norwegian commissioner and a member of the gang of five, should be encouraged to hold Evans to that promise. The Convention needs diplomatic champions.

  1. June 6, 2009 11:30 pm

    From where does the wind blow? How was Obama persuaded nuclear abolition is necessary? By voters in the New Hampshire primaries? Or by the better-abolish-than proliferate “Gang of four”. Sam Nunn, who five years ago was most definitely not an abolitionist changed under the influence of rational arguments, from Ted Turner and Rolf Ekéus among others.
    If we knew, we could be more effective.

  2. Michael Christ permalink
    June 5, 2009 10:00 am

    Is it not the case that the more distant the dream of a nuclear weapon free world, the nearer we come to realizing our worst nightmare? Let’s hope “not in my lifetime” applies to risk of a nuclear weapons catastrophe, which becomes more probable with each passing day. Let’s hope our leaders wake up and realize, as a matter of fact, that the clock will eventually run out.

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