Predatory Capitalism and the Nuclear Threat in the Age of Trump

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Daniel Falcone: You recently stated that it has never been more urgent that we repudiate nuclearism in all forms. What rationales do proponents of this put forth?

Richard Falk: It is important to view with some skepticism the justifications offered by the governments of nuclear weapons states for retaining the weaponry, and to articulate the unacknowledged, yet true, rationale that relates to geopolitical status, leverage, and discretion for leading nuclear weapons states.

Secondary nuclear weapons states, including India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea are motivated by a mixture of considerations: regional rivalry, defensive security, and regional geopolitics. There are several different rationales given for retaining nuclear weapons that can be enumerated in distinct categories, but there exists the need to take account of operational variations in motivation and situation of each state that further reflects evolving conditions and leadership style:

General Arguments:

+ despite global tensions no nuclear weapon has been used since 1945, suggesting that the management of nuclear weaponry has stood the test of time

+ nuclear disarmament is not realistic under these circumstances, and is viewed by the governments possessing nuclear weapons as more dangerous than management plus some measures of arms control

+ leading nuclear weapons states rely on nuclear weaponry for defensive security via deterrence, and for geopolitical leverage in some global crisis situations

Regional Arguments

+ the possession of nuclear weapons elevates the status of a country in world politics

+ regional hegemons and expansionist states rely on geopolitical leverage within geographical limits

+ beleaguered countries claim security imperatives to support their acquisition of nuclear weapons capabilities

+ international practices suggests that secondary states that do not possess nuclear weapons are more subject to military intervention than those that possess the weaponry (for example, Iraq, Libya versus North Korea)

The most explicit overall rationale for nuclearism is set forth in the statement issued by the U.S., France, and the UK as to why they oppose the UN Treaty of Prohibition, stressing distrust of North Korea and others combined with confidence in the managerial capabilities of the NPT regime and collective security arrangement to continue to keep the world safe. In effect the objectives of the UN Treaty of Prohibition are considered neither politically attainable nor a constructive contribution to world order.

Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on the most concerning geopolitical shifts or points of confrontation that are directly pertinent in this current age of autocrats?

Richard Falk: The most serious geopolitical concern to rise to the surface relates to the increase of tension and hostility between the United States and China. This disturbing development that threatens a second cold war, with a mixture of similarities and rather distinct differences from the Cold War between the Western alliance led by the U.S. and the Soviet Bloc dominated by the USSR, and waged mainly on Third World battlefields and via ideological competition for hearts and minds in the West.

In contrast, the emergent confrontation with China focuses on trade wars and friction between China’s claims to a regional sphere of influence and growing technological superiority and the U.S. resolve to retain its globality an extensive reality as the first global security state in history with even cosmic pretensions manifest in extending geopolitical rivalry including war preparations to space.

In the background is the Thucydides Trap by which historical experience would seem to incline the U.S. to have resource to war to fend off China’s challenge to overtake the U.S. as the ascendant world power. We should also be nervous about what I call ‘the Clausewitz Trap’ by which ‘the fog of peace’ blinds powerful states to the benefits of peace, as well as to the terrible costs of war, raised to apocalyptic heights by risks of nuclear war.

The alignments of such a struggle for global ascendancy emphasize the secondary roles of India and Russia, as well as the diminished role of Europe as the geopolitical epicenter of geopolitical confrontation. Also, the West relied on ‘containment’ to address the supposed danger of Soviet expansionism, but can China be similarly ‘boxed in’ considering that its primary modes of expansionism have been based on soft power instruments, which have been economistic, as well as providing win/win infrastructural assistance to vulnerable countries, especially in Africa and Central Asia.

There are also significant shifts in geopolitical alignments at the regional level. In the Middle East, although commentary is fraught with uncertainty, the primary alignment of the Arab countries has shifted from antagonism toward Israel to Iran, with Israel becoming a tacit partner and coupled with U.S. backing. This has effectively marooned the self-determination struggle of the Palestinian people, leaving them more dependent than ever on their own efforts to resist Israeli occupation and annexation as reinforced by global solidarity initiatives such as the BDS campaign. It should be noted that this geopolitical shift is fragile, reflecting elite recalculations that ignore the continuing solidarity of the citizenries of the Arab countries with the Palestinian struggle.

The various Asian regions have also shifted their policy agendas due primarily to the greater regional assertiveness of China as well as the more geopolitically aggressive stance taken by India under the autocratic leadership of Modi. There have been several severe issues of human rights in Asia that have raised regional tensions and global concerns that are manipulated by the background of U.S./China confrontation: suppression of protest activity in Hong Kong, oppression of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang Province, genocidal treatment of the Rohingya by Myanmar, repression in Kashmir.

Daniel Falcone: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists currently has their doomsday clock reading 100 seconds to midnight. This is a terrifying and unspeakable reality. What are your thoughts on the Bulletin as an indicator of possible nuclear war and devastation?

Richard Falk: I believe the editorial consensus at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is the most objective and informed assessment of the risks of nuclear war that is available, and should be accorded respect. In this case grave concern as was expressed by moving the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight than at any time since it was established in 1947, and is now placed at 100 seconds away from doomsday, that is, nuclear conflagration. In an unusually specific move, the Elders, a group of global leaders established by Nelson Mandela in 2007 to promote peace, justice, and human rights, endorsed this challenge to nuclear complacency.

What prompted this August body to issue this ominous distress signal is worth pondering, and commenting upon. The BAS called attention to three developments: deteriorating efforts to seek stability via arms control, highlighted by the abandonment of agreements in the context of U.S./Russia relations, which is alleged to weaken nonproliferation barriers; failures to address adequately the challenges of climate change; disinformation technologies that have undermined trust in state/society relations. I would question whether this assessment is adequate as it ignores the greater relevance of nuclearism to militarized geopolitics and it does mention the greater risks of war arising from the most dangerous geopolitical tensions, especially U.S./China but also U.S./Russia, since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Daniel Falcone: Can you talk about anti-war organizations and peace groups around the world at the local, state, national, and global level that are working hard to ensure that a cataclysmic event is avoided? How has this work changed over time over the course of your career and what are the prospects for it impacting policy?

Richard Falk: There are many civil society organizations around the world dedicated to peace with and without support from some governments. In line with my earlier responses, the overall geopolitical situation is giving rise to a warmongering global atmosphere. I would stress the troublesome reality that the U.S. global decline in legitimacy and capability has left the government without confidence in exerting global influence except by relying on its military might, making threats, imposing sanctions, while flaunting international law and the UN and repudiating the most important recent instances of global cooperation with respect to climate change and Iran’s nuclear program.

The realities of geopolitical confrontation and nuclearism are overshadowed in public consciousness by the concreteness of immediate pressures associated with the pandemic, climate change, global migration, economic downturns, and autocratic patterns of governance. This has led to public complacency about nuclear dangers, making the work of the global anti-war movement more difficult at the very time that it has never been more necessary. This necessity flows not only from dangerous international developments but also from complementary national developments associated with the spread of autocratic leadership more disposed to seek militarist approaches to security, including choosing sides in the intensifying hostility between the U.S. and China.

Civil society energies have been devoted in recent year to promoting the UN Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), seeking the 50 ratifications needed to bring the agreement into force among the parties. So far, 44 countries have ratified the TPNW, although when negotiated in 2017, 121 countries approved, with only The Netherlands voting against, and Singapore abstaining, and at the time 82 governments signed the agreement as a step toward ratification. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in 2017, and widely understood as a step taken in recognition of its worldwide efforts to encourage support for TPNW.

In view of the refusal of NATO countries to take part in even the negotiations of such an international agreement, and the issuance of a defiant statement of opposition by the U.S., UK, and France after the TPNW text was released, it has become evident that there is a fundamental cleavage in world politics between the nine nuclear weapons states, and especially the NATO nuclear powers, and most of the rest of the world. The NATO view implicitly affirms the permanence of nuclearism, resting its claims for stability and order on preventing further nuclear proliferation via the geopolitical implementation of the NPT regime to control non-nuclear states from acquiring nuclear weapons. For relations among states having nuclear weaponry, stability is achieved by relying on various forms of deterrence.

It seems appropriate and timely to challenge this managerial approach to nuclear weapons, which actually supersedes the Nonproliferation Treaty, which called for reciprocal commitments to forego nuclear weaponry and to pursue in good faith nuclear disarmament. Instead the NATO managerial regime that emerged, has refused ever to consider nuclear disarmament, rejects the security claims of non-nuclear states facing dire threats, and claims a right of enforcement that contravenes the UN Charter and is not conferred by the text of the NPT. The illegitimacy and unlawfulness of nuclear apartheid should be a major focus of civil society activism and aspiration, but it should not be the whole story.

There are continuous developments that call for civil society initiatives, ranging from exerting pressure to seek verified nuclear disarmament, to oppose resumption of testing and the development of smaller nuclear weapons designed for possible battlefield use, to warn against costly and destabilizing nuclear arms races, and to explore the connections between nuclearism and militarism.

Daniel Falcone: With the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can you reflect on that moment historically and how it has shaped your view of American foreign policy since?

Richard Falk: At the outset, I would point out that for me this is the saddest of anniversaries, and I try to avoid even the use of the word ‘anniversary,’ preferring the word ‘observance,’ which signals a certain solemnity in acknowledging the occasion, and taking note of its unfortunate continued relevance to human destiny 75 years after the horrifying events.

It is also notable that the United States has never officially apologized for these unlawful attacks on cities with no military significance in the closing days of World War II, nor even expressed public regret for the unprecedented suffering imposed on the Japanese civilian population of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Japanese people as a whole. Barack Obama was the first sitting American president to visit the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park in 2016, but refrained from offering an apology, and directed his remarks to the future, working to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

As a frequent visitor to Japan I can testify that despite the extraordinary recovery made by the country after 1945 the national wounds inflicted by the bombing have not healed.

As many have observed, the principal motivation for dropping the two atomic bombs, grotesquely named ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ was not, as publicly proclaimed in justification, primarily to bend the will of the Japanese leadership toward an immediate acceptance of the demands of ‘unconditional surrender.’ Historians increasingly degree that the overriding purpose was to send Moscow and Joseph Stalin a chilling message: don’t push the West too hard in negotiating European political arrangements after the defeat of Germany and don’t challenge the United States in relation to the spoils of war in the Pacific or your future might come to resemble that of these two devastated Japanese cities.

In other words, the decisive motivation was geopolitical and not based on the only relevant international law justification, which required upholding a claim of military necessity in the course of war. Given the indiscriminateness of the devastation it would be highly doubtful that such a claim would be accepted by any impartial tribunal, and it was especially flimsy here as Japan was ready to submit to Allied terms with only a single condition–that they be allowed to retain their emperor system.

In the end, this demand was accepted which despite the atomic attacks, and the much relied upon pretext of achieving ‘unconditional surrender’ was quietly abandoned.

As indicated, the most respected historians share the view that the main idea behind the use of this weapon of mass destruction was to warn the Soviet Union, still a supposed ally, a country that endured as many as 30 million casualties in the common anti-fascist war effort.

In retrospect the bombs were the opening salvo in an all-encompassing geopolitical rivalry that would endure for more than four decades under the rubric of the ‘Cold War.’ It is questionable whether the Cold War would have been the sequel to World War II if the atomic bomb had never been used, and instead unilaterally placed by the United States under strict and responsible international control as codified in a lawmaking disarmament treaty.

Of all the roads not taken this may have been the one that would have allowed post-1945 history to evolve in a less violent, more benign, manner, giving grounds for hopes to build world order around peace and justice, rather than militarism and predatory capitalism.

This 75th year that passes since the bombs were dropped should remind us of another moral deficiency that has given a distorted shape to the nuclear age. The atrocities inscribed in world memory most vividly can be summoned to awareness by two place names: Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

Because Germany lost the war it was made to repudiate the Holocaust, pay reparations to Jewish and other death camp survivors, and join the front ranks in moves to criminalize genocide. Because the United States won the war its atomic attacks on Japanese cities was never subject to legal or moral scrutiny, let alone repudiated or properly commemorated, much less made subject to criminalization.

Despite the clear treaty obligation in Article VI of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to seek nuclear disbarment in good faith negotiations, a legal obligation unanimously affirmed in 1996 by the International Court of Justice in its Advisory Opinion on the legality of nuclear weaponry, the United States and Russia retain large arsenals of nuclear weapons, backed by deployments and doctrines mandating use under certain conditions.

There are many abhorrent features of the nuclear age that have not been given appropriate attention from its very outset. In the most dramatic possible way, it was demonstrated that losers in a major war will be held individually accountable by reference to international criminal law while the winners will enjoy absolute impunity.

The London Charter, also known as the Nuremberg Charter, setting forth the framework for the prosecution and punishment of surviving German civilian and political leaders was formally adopted on August 8, 1945, two days after the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and one day prior to the bombing of Nagasaki has never attracted the bitterly ironic comments it deserves.

There is not much doubt that had the Germans or Japanese developed an atom bomb and used it against Allied cities, and nevertheless lost the war, those responsible would have been prosecuted as war criminals, and nuclear weapons criminalized, with a likely effect that this weaponry might never have been developed.

Such double standards were carried forward in the UN System by endowing the five winners in World War II with permanent membership and a right of veto in the Security Council, the only UN organ with the authority to impose obligations as distinct from offering recommendations.

Even during the pandemic, in the face of humanitarian appeals, the U.S. maintains unilateral sanctions meant to exert pressure on a range of countries of which it disapproves, including Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and Zimbabwe. It I one more manifestation of the enforcement mechanisms used by geopolitical actors to impose their political will on weaker sovereign states, and a defiant repudiation of a first principle of international law in state-centric world order: the equality of sovereign states.

With specific reference to nuclear weaponry this hierarchical and hegemonic character of world order is nowhere more clearly present than in relation to nuclear weapons. The countries that possess, develop, and deploy the weapons for deterrence, threat diplomacy, and possible use are in no way internationally regulated in their reliance on nuclear weaponry while the more than 180 other countries in the world are forbidden to acquire the weaponry however much under threat from hostile countries. Iran, threatened by hostile political actors possessing nuclear weapons, is geopolitically prohibited from acquiring such weaponry and face aggression and occupation if seen as moving close to the nuclear threshold as prefigured by the experience of Iraq since 2003.

Such coercive implementation of the nonproliferation regime runs contrary to the treaty that in Article X gives parties the right to withdraw from the treaty if ‘extraordinary events’ ‘jeopardize the supreme interests of its country.’ Withdrawal is achieved by submitting a notice three months in advance that specifies the extraordinary events. The geopolitical regime of counter-proliferation ignores this sovereign right of states to determine their own security, including by the acquisition of nuclear weapons. The geopolitical regime amounts to ‘nuclear apartheid,’ and has been applied in a discriminatory manner as illustrated by the non-reaction to Israel’s covert acquisition of nuclear weapons as abetted by the complicity of France (as exposed in Seymour Hersh’s The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Option (1991)).

Reflection and commentary on all of these aspects of this 75th year after the initiation of the nuclear age is as necessary in 2020 as it was in 1945, and yet remains as absent now as it was then. Alarm bells are ringing but almost no one is listening, and those that could do something, are content to do nothing. The overall public mood is one of dangerous complacency, bordering on indifference, while nuclear establishments around the world go effectively about their business, which includes undercutting any serious denuclearizing initiative of world leaders (e.g. Gorbachev, Reagan, Carter, and Obama).


Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Daniel Falcone is a PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY and is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He also teaches humanities at the school of the UN and resides in Queens.