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“People who have visions should go to see their doctor”

February 6, 2010

The Horsemen ride again

George Shultz and Henry Kissinger in Berlin

George Shultz and Henry Kissinger at the American Academy in Berlin

An article published on Znet by Darwin Bondgraham, Will Parrish and Nicholas Ian Robinson entitled “Full Court Press” prompted me to write this blog post. It appeared in the same week that I attended a “once-in-a-lifetime” meeting at the American Academy in Berlin between seven of the eight US and German “horsemen”, as we are wont to call them. That is, the elder statesmen Kissinger, Shultz, Perry and Nunn plus Schmidt, Genscher and Weizsäcker. Unfortunately the main thinker of the German group, Egon Bahr, was laid up in bed with fever and couldn’t attend.

In the Znet article, all those who have welcomed this mainstream vision of a nuclear weapon-free world are labelled “naiv” and as having committed “a major political and moral blunder” in believing that this was “a signal that the US national security state was poised to pursue an enlightened course of de-escalation toward eventual disarmament”. Now, I for one did not think that the Kissinger et al article in the Wall St. Journal, coming as it did more than two years before Obama won the US election, was an indication of US government policy to come. And I think that one might be forgiven for accusing many of us of believing too readily that Obama’s speech in Prague was just such an indication. But it seems that reform in the United States is as mammoth a task as it was for Michail Gorbachev to reform the Soviet Union, which – I remind you – collapsed in the process. And a jolly good thing it was too.

This very strong criticism on the part of Bondgraham and co. comes hot on the heels of the latest essay in the Wall St. Journal “How to Protect our Nuclear Deterrent”, which calls for the “maintenance of confidence in our nuclear arsenal” and argues for greater investment in the nuclear laboratories to do so. This article received a very bad response from the abolitionists around the world and quite rightly so, since it would appear on the surface that the US horsemen are contradicting their earlier vision. Indeed, it was unfortunate that they should – having spent so much effort on becoming anti-nuclear visionaries – resort to such pragmatic and tactical politicking. However, as I read the article, my first reaction was that it was not addressed to me, but to the 40 Republican and 1 independent Senators who were trying to hijack the not-yet-signed new START treaty by demanding a complete modernisation of the US nuclear arsenal be a condition of ratification. In stating their support of the findings of the JASON study, the Gang of Four were saying no to modernisation and yes to maintenance. As the Znet Gang of Three so aptly wrote: “The reality of nuclear weapons policy formation is much more complex and political” than it often appears.

Having said that, it is quite right not to herald the statements of the US elder statesmen as “anti-nuclear” or “abolitionist”. These are men who belong to the high church of nuclear deterrence and are true believers. The only reason that they can envision a world without nuclear weapons now is that they realise that nuclear deterrence will not work against the undeterrable. They are not prepared to concede for one moment that it was a mistake to rest our security for the last 65 years on such a dangerous policy that was repeatedly on the brink of collapsing into nuclear war. They do not agree that it is somehow immoral that their country should possess the means to destroy the planet many times over and other countries should not. They are deeply Conservative.

But on the other hand, in order to effect the major mindset change that is necessary to abolish nuclear weapons (and thereby open the way to common security), must we not effect this change across the board of political persuasion? Irregardless of whether these elder statesmen are willing to admit to mistakes made in the past, is it not better to nurture this first little sapling of change and help it to grow into something that advances our common goal – a nuclear weapon-free world? Look how far it has got us already: through their “vision”, the way was cleared for Obama to state that he also had this “vision” and then Medvedev agreed. Really good news is the new Russian military doctrine, just out, that states that “Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a use of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction against her and (or) her allies, and in a case of an aggression against her with conventional weapons that would put in danger the very existence of the state.” No mention of “preventive” nuclear strikes after all.  And now we are close to getting a new treaty for major nuclear arms reductions. This could easily be scuppered by the nuclear protagonists which is why the Gang of Four are lining up in front of it.

At the meeting in Berlin, the US horsemen explained – somewhat superficially – that they had a vision that they did not know how to achieve. So they are now in the process of working out what steps are needed. Here, the analogy of the mountain with its peak in the clouds was repeated, an analogy that has been very well countered by the description of the strategy used for conquering Everest of making a plan first and then executing the climb. But in both of these analogies the base camps are the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation steps needed to go forward and upward. The questions that remain are these: which steps; can steps be taken in parallel; and how much of the full plan should be decided (and committed to) in advance?

We were reminded at the meeting in Berlin that Helmut Schmidt has often been quoted as saying that “people with visions should go and see their doctor”. Of course, he was being derogatory at the time, but we could turn this statement on its head by saying this: “They might have the vision, but we have the prescription”. And interestingly enough, it was General Klaus Naumann, one of the very High Priests of nuclear deterrence, who mentioned the prescription that evening in Berlin. Naumann is a member of the illustrious International Commission on Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament that produced its report “Eliminating Nuclear Threats” late in 2009 and presented it to the Conference on Disarmament recently. The report gives quite a lot of thought to the Nuclear Weapons Convention – our prescription for survival – while still not committing itself to being a proponent of it. Obviously Naumann thinks that the Convention is not a good idea and was looking for a condemnation of it from the Horsemen. He asked “does not the public desire for a Nuclear Weapons Convention pose a risk to a realistic approach to nuclear disarmament?” And Sam Nunn replied that we may well reach a point when a Convention would become plausible, but we are not there now. Nunn’s argument against the Convention is this: we shouldn’t focus on negotiating a new treaty right now but on getting the US and Russia to lead the way with disarmament.

This can be interpreted in two opposite ways and I’m sure it will be. Many abolitionists will say that Sam Nunn and the Nuclear Threat Initiative are blocking the way to a Convention. Or we could look at it differently and say that Sam Nunn and the ICNND are saying they think there needs to be more groundwork done before actual negotiation begins. But they are not saying there should not be a Convention at all, and that is a big difference from the past.

For those of us in Europe who are really interested in halting the modernisation of the US nuclear arsenal, the way forward lies in debunking the argument of the nuclear protagonists that the allies are the ones that want these weapons. That is why we have to take every available opportunity to get rid of the US bombs in Europe and close the nuclear umbrella worldwide. The proposed modernisation of the B61 bomb is still on the table and the money for the first study has been approved by Congress.

The really interesting thing about the US-German meeting of horsemen was not to be found at the event that I witnessed, but in private discussions to which I was not privy. But I am assured by those that are that the German four are pushing hard for movement on the US tactical nuclear weapons in Europe and on discussion of Medvedev’s proposal for a common security architecture. We have been here before, as I am reminded by reading Richard Rhodes’ excellent book “Arsenals of Folly”. Gorbachev picked up on the Bahr-Brandt idea of common security and made it a cornerstone of his international policy. It is often agreed that common security is needed in order to abolish nuclear weapons. But I would contend that it is the other way round: retaining nuclear deterrence as a basis for our security prevents us from achieving the common security that we desperately need in this world. And Gorbachev was also correct in perceiving that it was the military-industrial complex that is running that show. Just imagine what would happen to the arms industry if we were to go down the road of common security. Now that really would be an interesting vision. Perhaps we should go and see the doctor.

  1. Michael Christ permalink
    February 16, 2010 4:03 pm

    Let’s hope you’re right. Hard to believe that a $5 billion reinvestment plan for US nuclear weapons infrastructure , which Joe Biden termed “a national treasure” (WSJ 1/29/10), is a step up the path to the promised land. Sounds a lot like the bill of goods that “serious” arms control “pragmatists” have been hawking for decades.

    On the other hand, in a recent interview, US Ambassador Richard Burt, touched on a number of the points you make, including, his pointed remark that “if you’re going to climb a mountain, it’s important to be able to see the top, and I think we’ve been able to show people what that mountaintop looks like,” referring to the work of Global Zero, and explicitily revising Sam Nunn’s blurry vision. See

  2. February 10, 2010 6:02 pm

    Great article, Xanthe, with thoughtful appraisal of the situation. Thanks for keeping us (that is, me) up to speed!

  3. Xanthe Hall permalink
    February 9, 2010 6:20 am

    PS. I would have liked to have had the following comment published on the NYT comments page, but they had stopped taking comments, so I’ll just comment my own post, since the subject is relevant:

    Ross Douthat asks in the New York Times Op-Ed “The Dream of Zero” of February 7th, 2010, this: “The only question is whether this [Zero] is good news for global security”. I would contend that basing our security on finding solutions to conflicts through negotiation, building trust and strengthening existing or establishing new common international and regional security architectures would provide us with a sustainable security. This model is infinitely preferrable to continuing to rely on nuclear deterrence to provide some countries the means of threatening others with obliteration and hoping this will maintain our security. We (in the US and Western Europe) have been lucky so far, although there have been many moments in history where we nearly blew the whole world up instead. Now we have reached a point where our adversaries are becoming undeterrable. It is unrealistic to keep clinging to the Cold War straw of nuclear deterrence. Just like we need sustainable energy and a sustainable economy, we also need sustainable security. So lets stop calling a necessity “naive” or a “dream” and get on with it. The status quo is no longer tenable.

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