No medium of propaganda is as powerful and effective as film. Think of the classics, the most notorious efforts to to sway the public with the electrifying and collective passion of cinema: racial apartheid was justified in the US with Birth of a Nation. The Soviets glorified their revolution with the Battleship Potemkin. Then there was Triumph of the Will.
A typical propaganda film tugs at emotions and invokes fears. It invokes dark threats to “the people,” and it offers up solutions extolling state and corporate power. Unlike a political documentary it will not criticize the state or corporation. Instead it will celebrate great men as our leaders and saviors. Distinct from a run-of-the-mill political documentary, a propaganda film butchers the complexity and contradictions that permeate politics and real life, presenting things in simplistic moral terms. Functionally, propaganda is mobilized to secure popular support for a primary, often hidden agenda that is not apparent in the film’s narrative. Propaganda is a tool used by elites to secure the consent of the masses, and channel their anxieties.
Now hitting theaters is one of the most dangerous propaganda films produced in decades. Countdown to Zero “traces the history of the atomic bomb from its origins to the present state of global affairs.” A promotional blurb on the film’s web site claims that it “makes a compelling case for worldwide nuclear disarmament, an issue more topical than ever with the Obama administration working to revive this goal today.”
Before I go any further in explaining Countdown as a propaganda film I should note that note all propaganda need not be the product of a secretive and manipulative council of elites behind some curtain. Instead, the many contributors to Countdown and its promotional efforts have different motivations and intentions. What makes this film a coherent piece of propaganda is its medium, style, and likely effects on the US political climate. There are powerful actors who will use it for nefarious ends.
On its surface Countdown to Zero is about nuclear disarmament, but deeper down the film is making a very specific case that isn’t about disarmament at all. Its political function will prove to be quite different. Countdown is joining a suite of political campaigns and other propagandistic efforts, the point of which is to build support for increased US spending on nuclear weapons, as well as a more belligerent foreign policy, based around islamophobic depictions of “terrorists” and “rogue states.” Countdown is likely to be used by hawks to drum up support for military action against Iran, North Korea, and other states that would dare to transgress the current near-monopoly that a handful of states have on the bomb.
To understand how this is possible, one has to break through the simplistic and moralizing presentation of issues in the film and its promotional materials, and explore the complex political situation into which it is being launched.
The first and most important thing to understand is that the Obama administration does not have a disarmament agenda. Because the entire moral thrust of the film rest on this notion, it’s important to dispel it right off the bat. Obama and his military advisers have made their nuclear ambitions abundantly clear on multiple occasions.
The administration’s Nuclear Posture Review in no significant way changed the nuclear force structure or use doctrines. The NPR makes it abundantly clear that US national security is founded on the nuclear “deterrent,” and that no one in government will seek to reduce the role of nukes in the foreseeable future.
The recently negotiated New START treaty does not significantly cut the US and Russian arsenals. In fact the treaty language secures an allowance for US “missile defense” programs as well as the “prompt global strike” weapons system while consolidating the US stockpile and reaffirming existing strategic agreements with Russia that are about balance. As noted by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the irony here is that the Senate’s possible ratification of New START is premised on the Obama administration’s pledge to fund US nuclear weapons programs upwards of $180 billion over the next ten years, something even George W. Bush could not accomplish. The down payment for the next fiscal year includes a $624 million surge in nuke spending, for a total of $7.01 billion. The administration foresees spending more than $1 billion each year to refurbish and upgrade existing warheads and bombs. To support New START requires accepting these huge infrastructural and programmatic investments in nuclear weapons, far into the future.
To put it more simply, the debate in Washington revolves around two camps fighting over how large an increase in nuclear weapons spending there will be. At this point in time all agree on expending billions more. All agree upon building a new plutonium pit factory, a new uranium processing facility, a new components factory, and five other major capital projects in the nuclear weapons complex to extend the US nuclear enterprise half a decade or more into the future. Most agree on procuring a new class of nuclear equipped submarines. Most agree on new ballistic missiles. Everyone seems to be fine with upgrading warheads and bombs.
Some conservatives are uncomfortable with the cosmetic cuts to the stockpile that will be made under the auspices of New START. Senate Republicans have circled their wagons to demand greater funding increases in consideration of ratification, and given all of the agreements they have with the Democrats and the Obama administration over expanding the weapons complex, they are actually correct. In order to carry out this bi-partisan nuclear arms buildup, quite a bit more than a $1 billion per year boost (at its peak) will be needed for the NNSA’s budget, especially as inflation eats into the real value of future year budgets.
Determining the future of the US nuclear weapons complex is a tricky balancing act for the foreign policy elite because it is embedded in a larger set of much more important goals. The over-riding goal of foreign policy for the United States, with respect to nuclear weapons, is to maintain control of nuclear weapons and materials. Forget lofty ideas like disarmament. Lofty moral oughts only matter with respect to the realpolitik of geo-strategy (and this is where Countdown comes in, as we shall see).
To elite strategists who will decide at the end of the day, the power of nuclear weapons only matter within, and comprise a small part of a much greater geopolitical game. Henry Kissinger made this very point in 1957 with his first book, the subject being the role of nuclear weapons in US foreign policy. Controlling resources, energy supplies, and access to geo-strategic regions for US corporations and allies is the primary goal of US foreign policy, and this requires a stable imbalance of powers, with the US the weightier.
Nuclear weapons are problematic today because they remain a necessary means of overpowering other nations and intimidating foes, but they have also become a liability as other states threaten to go nuclear in order to restore balance to a unipolar world. American hypocrisy is seen as a major weakness for the maintenance of American power by liberal imperialists like Obama, even if disarmament is an idealistic and counterproductive pipe dream. Conservatives like Senator Jon Kyl would rather just avoid soft power altogether and stick to a hard-nosed defense policy.
This is why US policy with respect to Iran seems so disjointed and paralyzed: Iran’s influence and power is growing, it possesses immense energy resources, and straddles a region of geo-strategic importance. For US elites, Iran must be controlled at all cost. A nuclear Iran would make this much, much more difficult. Regime change is the goal, just like in Iraq. Nonproliferation as an end in itself seems to offer the most justifiable reason for using force and “rebuilding” nations (remember that it was the reason given for the 2004 invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq). But with its Bush-era reputation of seeking new nukes, liberals fear that United States can hardly coerce or attack Iran in the name of nonproliferation. As the world’s preeminent nuclear power with no interest in disarming it would be bald hypocrisy. But then again the US will not disarm, for this would be anathema to the needs and goals of the foreign policy elite. What to do?
Into this mix arrives Countdown to Zero and similarly crafted propaganda pieces. Countdown’s major achievement is repackaging the strategy of anti-nuclear nuclearism into a sexy and thrilling propaganda film full of special effects and heart pulsing music. It will invoke fear of nuclear weapons to justify aggression, war, and the extension of US control over much of the rest of the world.
While the film’s title and a lot of the fanfare surrounding it emphasizes the “zero” message of disarmament, Countdown is actually an alarmist portrayal of dark skinned men, muslims, “terrorists” and other racial or ethnic boogeymen who we are told, over the span of 90 minutes, are seeking nuclear weapons to use against the American people. A related theme in the film is the demonization of Iran and North Korea which are portrayed as dangerous rogue states with ties to terrorist organizations, and who must be controlled, against whom military action may be warranted – or else. Or else what?
One of the main “experts” in Countdown to Zero, Joseph Cirincione frames the take home message at the outset by invoking a very post-9-11 Bush administration theme:
“That day changed our sense of security and how we view the world. We learned how vulnerable we are to the destructive acts of a determined few. Just think how worse it would have been if the terrorist had nuclear weapons.”
Cirincione is not just any expert. He is the doyen of the Democratic Party’s NGO apparatus that shapes nuclear weapons policy through foundation funding of grassroots groups and elite policy shops. Cirincione is president of the Ploughshares Fund. In spite of its name, Ploughshares’ mission these days actually involves beating ploughs into swords.
Throughout the 1990s, but especially during the George W. Bush years, Ploughshares and circle of foundations called the Peace and Security Funders Group increasingly narrowed the range of acceptable anti-nuclear activism, while simultaneously ghettoizing the field so that the work of various NGOs became less and less applicable to social justice and economic development issues, and increasingly focused on abstract global problems and hypotheticals, such as the existence and possible use of nuclear weapons. In the process discussions of the injustices of the global political economy and how nuclear weapons fit into it were silenced. Anti-nuclear activism became increasingly specialized, boring, and disconnected from issues that affect people’s everyday lives. Arms control eclipsed abolition as the rallying cry. Those NGOs that obeyed the consolidation period survived with funding and access to media, so long as they kissed the ring.
Ploughshares was at the center of it all. Today the Fund’s priorities are shaped by its board of directors made up of Democratic Party donors, other foundation executives, and liberal academics. The Fund’s advisers include men like George Shultz, the former Bechtel president who served as Reagan’s Secretary of State, and former Defense Secretaries William Cohen and William Perry. The latter is actually a board member of the for-profit corporations that manage the nation’s two nuclear weapons labs, Los Alamos and Livermore. You figure it out.
Ploughshares’ adviser and propagandist Jeff Skoll is president of Participant Media, one of the production companies behind Countdown to Zero. The film’s Co-producer, the World Security Institute (a major recipient of Ploughshares Fund dollars), tapped its Global Zero project membership to narrate the film through dozens of interviews with the likes of elder statesmen, and NGO executives like Cirincione who are very friendly to the Obama administration’s nuclear buildup.
Participant Media is a full service propaganda shop for liberal campaigns, producing both documentaries and dramas. In addition to the benchmark documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, Participant is responsible for some very excellent and thoughtful films like Syriana, Food, Inc., and The Cove. And this is where complexity comes in. Some of the producers and voices featured in Countdown to Zero have wonderful intentions, and all of them are probably genuinely concerned with, and fear, the possible day that nuclear weapons might be used, whether by a state or by a criminal group. Herein also is the propagandistic danger of Countdown to Zero.
Albert Camus once wrote that “the evil that is in the world almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.” Backed with a lot of foundation money, the producers of Countdown to Zero have paid organizers across the US to do considerable outreach for the film, whipping up interest on Facebook and other social media and generally co-opting the energies and intentions of many anti-nuclear activists. Countdown premiers July 23 and will be shown in theaters across the US. Many screenings are being organized by activists whose intentions are unimpeachable, if naive.
What audiences are going to learn from Countdown to Zero is that nuclear weapons are a threat today because the bad guys might get a hold of them. They’ll learn that al-Qaeda is seeking nuclear weapons, that it is their sworn duty; That highly enriched uranium is easy to smuggle; That “we are on the verge of a nuclear 9-11”; That tens of thousands of pounds of uranium are stored under virtually no security around the globe. In other words they’ll learn that dark scary men, muslims, “terrorists” and anarchists are trying to kill them with nuclear weapons, and that nations like Iran and North Korea will gladly assist them. Their feelings of revulsion for nuclear weapons will be stimulated and channeled against these dark enemies of civilization.
What they’ll learn about US nuclear weapons and policy, if it is discussed in any real and honest depth at all, is that better control and management is needed, a slightly smaller arsenal is desirable. But mostly they’ll learn to just trust our leaders, and that everything will turn out alright so long as the proper authorities are in power. Joseph Cirincione will eagerly explain to audiences that George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn are hard at work to “secure” our nuclear weapons. It all sounds great, but the “four horsemen,” as they have come to be known, are actually among the biggest lobbyist for the surge in nuclear weapons spending and the construction of a new US nuclear weapons complex.
In a promotional video attached to the START ratification effort Cirincione urges viewers to “join this patriotic consensus” toward zero. In a recent op-ed he has urged Senate ratification of New START writing, “The statesmanship demonstrated by the Consensus members today could help break the partisan blockade in the Senate and restore America’s leadership on this urgent security challenge.” The capital C Consensus he’s referring to is a newly formed NGO, created to translate the groundswell of public response they expect from propaganda efforts like Countdown to Zero, into sharp policy programs for government, including aggressive military action against would-be nuclear states, much of it in the name of nonproliferation. The Consensus for American Security is one manifestation of the platform that many foreign policy elites hope will solve the contradiction in current US nuclear policy. The mission statement of the Consensus includes, “strengthening and modernizing America’s nuclear security,” because it “is a vital element of protecting the United States and its allies.”
Ploughshares put up the money for The Consensus for American Security… an organization dedicated to strengthening and modernizing America’s nuclear security. Modernizing is not an arbitrary word. In the current policy debate over the future of the US nuclear weapons complex and stockpile, modernization means a very specific thing. It means approving the Obama administration’s program to build a pit factory, uranium processing facility, components plant and other billion dollar capital projects for the weapons complex. It also means modernizing warheads and bombs by rebuilding them and designing new features. And it means acquiring new, very expensive platforms like subs, bombers, and missiles.
Members of the Ploughshares Consensus include a predictable list of centrist retired military brass and statesmen, most of whom occupy revolving door positions on other foundation and NGO boards like Ploughshares, and more than a few of whom have links to the military industrial complex: George Shulz, Samuel Berger, Vice Admiral Lee Gunn, and physicist Sidney Drell, all of them strong supporters of US nuclear weapons programs, and American empire.
The Consensus’ second mission appears to involve stoking Islamophobia. A special project of the Consensus, the American Security Project, is a well-funded think tank churning out reports about “al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” and “Are We Winning? Measuring Progress in the Struggle Against al Qaeda and Associate Movements.” ASP’s homepage features a photograph of “terrorists” in black masks hauling an American nuclear warhead (a W-76 or W-88 it appears) on a bamboo rickshaw over a wooden bridge toward a waiting van in some distant jungle.
Countdown to Zero is one component of a larger and coherent foundation campaign to stoke up public fears about nuclear weapons for the purpose of extending a near-monopoly on nuclear weapons, and legitimating a more aggressive foreign policy aimed at regime change in Iran and elsewhere. The consensus behind those who funded and produced the film has little to do with disarmament, and a lot to do with stabilizing the American empire.
DARWIN BOND-GRAHAM is a sociologist who splits his time between New Orleans, Albuquerque, and Navarro, CA. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org