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Cutting the Gordian Knot

April 25, 2010

“Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian Knot of it he will unloose,
Familiar as his garter”
(Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 1 Scene 1. 45–47)

Before you all physically or mentally traipse off to New York – volcanic ash allowing – I’d like to say something. Nuclear weapons do have a purpose. What I want to share with you may seem a tad too philosophical for your liking, but as the daughter of a philosopher and a nurse I feel that we may have been missing the point. Of course, we need to get rid of them. Like cancer, they are spreading disease that cause pain and suffering and no-one wants to talk about because of the feelings of helplessness they engender. But we are now, at last, really talking about nuclear weapons. That is a good start in the process of healing ourselves. Getting out of denial.

There are two sides to everything: a positive and a negative one. The negative side to nuclear weapons has preoccupied our thoughts almost exclusively up until now. We have left others to surmise what the positive side might be and have always simply negated it. No, they do not prevent war; no, they do not protect us from ruthless and unpredictable dictators; and so forth. But the true purpose of nuclear weapons lies in their absolute ability to destroy everything. The ultimate weapon of suicide for humanity as a whole. And this ability to destroy everything, discovered through the deaths of millions in two world wars, brought us to a brink. For the past 65 years civilisation has stood teetering on that brink and has not yet truly stepped back. The purpose of nuclear weapons is to constantly remind us of where we stand and of the task that humanity has before it: to make peace.

I am not arguing that we need to keep nuclear weapons to do this, quite the contrary. In order to make peace we have to talk about why we have nuclear weapons and how to get rid of them. In my opinion, this discussion has at last begun. All over the world protagonists for abolition are facing open doors (well maybe so much in North Korea, France or Israel) to the corridors of power where questions are being asked. How can it be done? What are the preconditions for nuclear abolition? What are the first steps? How high is the mountain and can we see the top?

Take Germany, for instance. Who would have thought that getting rid of 20 nuclear gravity bombs would end up being so difficult? Debating the role of nuclear weapons has brought all of the worms out of the woodwork of NATO. Suddenly we realise that – although the world has changed immeasurably – our attitudes towards security remain encrusted in Cold War thinking. We’re back to talking about missile defence and common security, the positions that Reagan and Gorbachev brought to the Icelandic negotiating table in 1986. Old Europe finds its anti-nuclear ambitions tied contractually to the fears and distrust of New Europe and is unable to do anything but reassure them that we will not do anything. Why is the US foreign minister proposing that we should hold on to these old relics unless the Russians are prepared to negotiate away theirs? Surely she knows that this means that nothing will happen? The Russians are equally unable to break free of the confines of the balance of terror. They see plans for Prompt Global Strike and cling desperately to their aging nuclear arsenal as the only possible answer.

To free ourselves from this scourge, we need to cut the Gordian Knot. It needs a bold stroke of unilateralism to engender trust and finally make peace with Russia. Both new START and the Nuclear Posture Review demonstrated how stuck we actually are, unable to do more than rearrange the numbers and engage in fine semantics without actually engaging in real disarmament. The withdrawal of the two hundred bombs in Europe could be one such bold stroke.  A demonstration of goodwill and willingness to begin true negotiation. How can we make friends if we are afraid of giving a sign of weakness which in fact is a sign of real strength?

When I read the US Nuclear Posture Review I could see why it took so long to complete. It is the work of an administration in internal conflict. There are grand visions and statements alongside pettiness. You can almost smell the arrogant fear that is clutching its position of strength and pouring billions of dollars down the nuclear drain, while a small voice shines through, saying: “but in the future…” Yes, what about that future? This document doesn’t tell us how to get there. It talks of others giving up their small vestiges of power and of building up more reserves of strength, of remodelling its weapons and reaching into every corner of the earth with its military might.

How would I read this document if I was a proclaimed enemy of the United States of America, or even a potential one? I could not in all conscience say I will lay down my arms and leave my country defenseless. I would have to be another Mahatma Gandhi to do that. In the face of these expressions of absolute hegemony there is only one answer, and it is to wield the nuclear threat. Never mind that it is suicide, should we ever be forced to use it. Never mind that it will drain all our resources and poison our land and people.

If we could at last begin to understand the meaning of common security and how to achieve it, nuclear weapons would have served their purpose. It means putting ourselves in the shoes of our adversaries and understanding what their problems are. The process of negotiating nuclear abolition, like with any disarmament treaty before it, brings with it an exchange of needs and desires and seeks fulfilment of those, in order to bring security. A nuclear weapons convention is not just the phased reduction and elimination of the weapons themselves, it is about learning how to trust while evolving a system of verification (through governance and societal control) to underpin that trust. It means opening up and becoming transparent so that fear is reduced and less is based on assumption and more on reality. It also means talking about history and the reasons for conflict while seeking resolution. It means countries that have experience in resolving conflict stepping up to mediate with those who have not yet done so. It is, in fact, a whole new world.

We could begin the process in New York by committing to preparations for a negotiation of a nuclear weapons convention. Or we could stay here on the brink, distrusting and fearful. Some of us looking down into the maw of disaster and repeatedly crying for change. While others have turned their backs and pretend that nothing is wrong, saying there are other more important problems to be solved.

  1. May 5, 2010 3:59 am

    Thanks for this post. Who might make the bold step of unilateralism? Most the the nuclear states are no-hopers. At a sheer guess, I would say that Pakistan is most likely to; since it has shown that, absent massive corruption backed by overseas military pressure, it retains the capacity for bold judicial action at the highest level. India is probably looking at China more than Pakistan, it won’t disarm; and Britain is a nasty little country which is incapable of any moral act (although the possible secession of Scotland might cause a crisis in which disarmament would become at least conceivable).

  2. April 27, 2010 1:30 am

    Quite so. X

  3. John Loretz permalink*
    April 26, 2010 2:52 pm

    Thanks, Xanthe. Among other things, this is a kind of antidote to the idea — promulgated by exiles from the Bush administration but also too much in evidence in the Obama NPR — that we have to make the world safe for nuclear disarmament. The implication, of course, being that nuclear weapons provide a measure of military safety that has to be replaced by some other measure of military safety before we can get to zero. You’re reminding us that nuclear abolition, while it may well be an urgent end on its own terms (like confronting our impact on the Earth’s climate), also invites us to learn how to live peacefully and respectfully in a more complex, interconnected world. Maybe another way to put it is that successfully ridding the world of nuclear weapons, rather than proving that we have grown up as a species, will prove instead that we are finally ready to grow up as a species.

    Sorry you won’t be traipsing off to New York with us. We’ll miss you.


  1. Cutting the Gordian Knot « Xanthe Hall's Blog

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