Richard Falk: We have been waiting for President Biden to offer the world a more responsible nuclear posture, but to date our patience has not been vindicated. If anything, we have witnessed an overall decrease in international stability, signs of intensifying rivalry with China and a confrontational approach with Russia, and no reductions in a continuing bloated American military budget at a time when government revenues are badly needed for social protection, restoring the badly deteriorated domestic infrastructure, and subsidies supporting climate adaptation at home and internationally. Additionally, no signs of support for denuclearizing initiatives have been forthcoming, despite strong civil society backing of a No First Use declaration of doctrine. And most disappointingly, there has been not the slightest indication the Biden Administration will finally comply with its neglected commitment of adherence to the widely endorsed norm of international law that nuclear weapons states have a legal obligation to seek in good faith a treaty regime to monitor and verify a nuclear disarmament process.
Against this background, I think there are two dramatic developments that have a bearing on how the anti-nuclear global movement might best direct its efforts to alert the public to intensifying nuclear dangers and emerging opportunities for new anti-nuclear initiatives.
The aroused awareness of nuclear risks is associated particularly with the intense geopolitical rivalry with China that already has acquired the features of a second cold war, that has several hot war risks. This danger exists especially in the South and East China Seas where opposing naval and air forces are daily testing each other’s resolve in the event of a confrontation.
China, whether in defensive reaction to American hostility or in pursuit of its own ambitions has been augmenting its military capabilities and with regard to its assertiveness, especially its regional naval power, in the context of island disputes in the South China Sea and even more threateningly in relation to Taiwan. The U.S. Government has been responding without adequately exploring opportunities for accommodation, compromise, and de-escalation. Pentagon officials have been insisting in unclassified publications that the U.S. will in all probability need to rely on nuclear weapons to avoid defeat if there is an incident involving uses of force in the South China Seas. By entering into alliances aimed at China, most disturbingly the formation of the AUKUS alliance (Australia, UK, U.S.) , which provocatively involves selling nuclear-powered submarines to Australia as well as a high profile collective security pact directly aimed at China. This arrangement is additional to the revived QUAD (U.S., India, Japan, Australia) security cooperation again with its defining rationale the containment of China and its implicit warning of confrontation. Not surprisingly, China has officially reacted to what it deems a show of aggressive hostility.
The other major development potentially pointing in the opposite direction, that is, toward denuclearization and peace, occurred with the entry into force a few months ago of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). This treaty lent further weight to the argument of anti-nuclearists that nuclear weapons are unconditionally illegitimate and should be eliminated as soon as possible from the weapons arsenals of the nine nuclear weapons states. Such a goal was legally mandated by Article VI of the NPT and unanimously affirmed by the 1996 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice On the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons. The TPNW gives anti-nuclear governments and civil society activists a powerful transnational tool for raising awareness and building a coalition of support for universal adherence to the prohibition treaty.
The TPNW is also a major development for a quite different reason. It makes clearer than ever before that there exists a global division between governments that insist on basing their security on the possession and deployment of this weaponry of mass destruction or by way of collective security arrangements with nuclear weapons states. This clarity was reinforced by the defiant statement of the three NATO powers (U.S, France, and the UK) that they remain committed to the possession, deployment, and development of nuclear weapons, as well as well as to the doctrine of deterrence, including the discretionary authority to threaten or use the weapons at times and places of their own choosing. Unfortunately, China and Russia, together with the NATO group, that is, the five Permanent Members of the Security Council affirmed their intention to retain a nuclear weapons option for security purposes. In light of these developments, it has become more plausible to speak of ‘nuclear apartheid’ in which dominant geopolitical forces embrace nuclearism centered in the Global North while at the same time seeking to preclude the spread of the weaponry to other states, apparently if necessary by recourse to threats or recourse to aggressive war, especially as against adversaries in world politics (e.g. currently Iran). In other words, despite the end of the Cold War accompanied by the Soviet collapse, deterrence based on nuclear weaponry perversely remains the foundation of security relied upon by the world’s most powerful and influential states, and not only for self-defense but also for aggressive forms of coercive diplomacy, confrontational geopolitics, and the selective protection of third parties.
In sum, it is my view that the world is more dangerous than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the battlelines between the nuclear weapons states and governmental and civil society anti-nuclearism has never been more definitively drawn. We in the worldwide anti-nuclear civil society movement have a timely responsibility to act in light of these evolving circumstances combined with a new opportunity to shatter the still prevailing consensus among so-called ‘political realists,’ whose anachronistic ‘hard power’ approaches to global issues still have an iron grip over the formation of American foreign policy, and lead into war threatening approaches to global conflict resolution.
David Krieger: Although President Biden seems much more reasonable and stable than his immediate predecessor in office, you are right that nearly a year into his presidency he hasn’t moved toward a more responsible nuclear policy nor even articulated that reductions in the US nuclear arsenal are needed. His focus has been on his domestic policy proposals and he seems to have accepted the foreign policy establishment position that an expensive program of nuclear “modernization” is needed. Thus, while his domestic policy proposals are thoughtful and progressive, many of his foreign policy positions, including his nuclear policies, show none of the same concern for the well-being of the planet, the exception being his position on climate change, which seems to grasp the threat to the planet and its inhabitants. He has appointed John Kerry, a former senator and secretary of state as a special envoy for climate change, but has not singled out nuclear weapons dangers as demanding a similar level of US and global attention.
What is wrong with current US nuclear policy? It is demonstrating that nuclear weapons are a useful tool for supporting its interests, and thus making the weapons more desirable to other countries. China still has a policy of No First Use of nuclear weapons but, as Russia has already done, may discard this position in order to bolster its deterrent posture vis-à-vis the US. The greater the reliance on nuclear weapons as a deterrent, the greater the possibility that these weapons will be used by accident or design. Only by separating the warheads from the delivery vehicles, as China has done, can the possibility of accidental nuclear war be averted.
Nuclear weapons, of all weapons, require policies of restraint. The more a country relies on nuclear weapons to achieve its goals, the more dangerous the world becomes. These weapons are tools of mass annihilation and policies toward them should be built upon a foundation of restraint until their threat is eliminated by means of abolishing the weapons. A useful way to think about these weapons is that they must be abolished before they abolish us. This is the opposite of planning to modernize the weapons and thereby become even more reliant upon them. Modernization is not a responsible nuclear policy.
I agree with you that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is an important development in the realm of nuclear policy, and it is shameful and disrespectful that the US, UK and France have shown such disdain toward it. Since the use of nuclear weapons cannot be confined within national borders, all countries and their inhabitants are subject to suffering the effects of the use of these weapons, and thus all have an important stake in their elimination. At present, none of the nuclear weapons states is a signatory or party to this treaty and it seems unlikely that any will move in that direction in the near future. But as more and more non-nuclear weapons states become parties to the treaty, the pressure will build on those states that possess nuclear weapons to abolish them in the interests of all humanity.
Given the high stakes of even a small nuclear war, I wonder why there is not more concern with these weapons in national policies. It seems to me that nuclear weapons policies in the democratic nuclear-armed states have been relegated to so-called national security experts and largely kept out of the realm of public national debate. This situation is complicated by the fact that some nuclear weapons states are not democracies and the people have no say in important policies. It is further complicated by secrecy surrounding nuclear policies and the possibility of cheating in the process of negotiations to eliminate the weapons. All of these factors make negotiating to achieve nuclear zero a difficult task. What is needed is leadership toward nuclear zero, and a phased approach that would build confidence as it progressed.
I’m uncertain that the world is more dangerous today than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is certainly sufficiently dangerous, though, to call for a cessation of nuclear modernization programs and to warrant negotiations among the nuclear-armed countries on abolishing nuclear weapons. A negotiating process took place in achieving the TPNW, but without the involvement of any of the nuclear-armed countries. Bringing the nuclear-armed countries to the negotiating table could be helped along considerably by outspoken concern expressed to the American people by President Biden, and his convening of the leaders of the nine nuclear-armed countries, including himself, to begin discussions on moving to nuclear zero. As of now, he has shown no inclination to take such steps, and the American people are not pressing for action on nuclear disarmament in the same way they are making their voices heard on climate change.
Falk: I share your assessment of the current situation, including questioning my off the cuff statement that the world is more dangerous now than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall. I give way on this, although not entirely, as I feel the overlap of global challenges, after the COVID experience and with climaxing of the warnings about climate catastrophe are coming close to overwhelming the global capability for humane problem-solving.
Nothing seems likely to happen that will reduce the dangers of nuclearism without mounting greatly increased pressure that induces the leading nuclear weapons states to abandon reliance on weapons of mass destruction, including their possession and continuous further development. Strong pressures from below and without need to materialize if public and societal complacency about nuclear weaponry is to be shaken. Indeed, at least three kinds of pressures will have to converge if transformative opportunities are to emerge: 1) increased pressure from the countries of the Global South as well as other parties to the TPNW; 2) pressure from secondary governments in the Global North with strong peace movements, including Scandinavian countries, possibly New Zealand, Canada, Japan; 3) pressure from a transnational civil society movement explicitly dedicated to nuclear zero and demilitarization generally. Such pressures to have any prospect of effectiveness must become particularly robust in the leading nuclear weapons states, above all, the United States, and this robustness must be perceived as responsive to priorities set by a network of anti-nuclear NGOs.
Part of the significance of the TPNW is as a sign that non-nuclear states are running out of patience with the failure of the P-5 original possessors of nuclear weapons to deliver on their obligations under the NPT to initiate a process of denuclearization as an imperative of security policy, which is the burden of Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This treaty commitment was unanimously upheld as imposing such a legal obligation on the nuclear weapons states in the important 1996 ICJ Advisory Opinion on the legality of the nuclear weapons by the International Court of Justice. Although such a legal assessment is labeled as ‘advisory’ in keeping with the Statute of the ICJ, it represents the considered and authoritative legal opinion of 15 distinguished jurists drawn from the major legal systems in the world, and includes judges from the five permanent members of the Security Council.
It is my view that the political class of rulers and top foreign policy advisors in the nuclear weapons states continue to believe that the benefits of possessing nuclear weapons outweigh the disadvantages, including the risks of catastrophe. This affirmation of nuclearism is neither acknowledged nor generally known. It combines the benefits associated with a global security that does not depend on trusting adversaries or detecting their possible deception from agreed behavior. A pro-nuclear posture is connected with control of political behavior and the retention of coercive options that are presumed by governments in the nuclear weapons states to be effective in shaping international order in this post-colonial period of world history. Put differently, colonialism has collapsed as a system of North/South control but imperialism in new forms has not. It is my contention that this control or hegemonic dimension of world politics remains paramount yet absent from public discourse about nuclear weapons policy.
I admit that such allegations as to the motivations of those who implement the nuclear dimension of global grand strategy has a vaguely conspiratorial aura. I claim no access to classified sources, although as a long-standing member of the Council on Foreign Relations(CFR) I have listened to presentations by leading national security experts belonging to the political class in the United States. Their professed views are that nuclearism provides reasonable, time-tested safe levels of stability and security for the U.S. and its principal allies. In this regard the vital components of the operative framework are, first and foremost, varying ideas about how to structure a dynamic deterrence posture that will discourage, if not prevent, any actions by both nuclear and non-nuclear states that are perceived as contrary to vital national interests, including armed attacks but not so limited. The second component of the existential relevance of this mode of control over nuclearism is to maintain an oligopolistic arrangement in relation to the nuclear weapons via the non-proliferation regime, which is implemented by threats of intervention and attack if unwanted states dare come close to or actually cross the nuclear threshold. Particular note should be taken of the fact that this mode of control is not part of the NPT, which makes it legal for countries to withdraw from the treaty and acquire nuclear weaponry if their supreme national interests so mandate with only the proviso that three months-notice be given in writing that includes an explanation of the reasons for withdrawing.
It might seem puzzling why the P-5 ever committed itself in Article VI of the NPT to the pursuit of nuclear disarmament, and even more grandly to general and complete disarmament. The primary public answer over the years has been that such a commitment was part of the bargain negotiated with non-nuclear countries, along with sharing the knowhow and supposed benefits of nuclear power with parties to the treaty. At best, this was a half-truth, sophisticated and superficially convincing. If pressed most mainstream arms controllers would add with a half-smile, “Well, of course, nuclear disarmament is our ultimate solution, happening when the time is right.” After the Cold War ended in the early 1990s this line of explanation by way of an ‘ultimate solution’ became less and less credible, and I suspect that in some indirect and unprovable way the TPNW is a form of rejection of such a manipulative rationalization by many non-nuclear governments in the Global South.
Yet even such a relatively independent line of policy promotion tells only half the story about the resilience of nuclearism in America, Cold War or no cold war, liberal president or illiberal president. With somewhat shocking candor the national security hawks discussing an off-the-record bipartisan rationale of nuclear weapons strategy within the not-for-attribution sheltered privacy of the CFR dismissed the disarmament treaty commitment as ‘a useful fiction,’ that is, as helpful in pulling the wool over the eyes of non-nuclear governmental diplomats and peace activists. From this perspective, the essence of nuclearism is restricting membership in the nuclear club and retaining nuclear weapons arsenals for its members in good standing (i.e., all but North Korea) as an unconditional priority of foreign policy.
A final observation. Each country has its own reasons for acquiring, possessing, and developing nuclear weapons, and what I have written reflects primarily my experience with how nuclearism is embedded in the policies, practices, and consciousness of the U.S. political class. It would be worth gathering individuals from the other eight nuclear weapons states to explore nuclearism from a multi-national perspective.
Krieger: I agree with you on the three kinds of pressure that must be mobilized for nuclear disarmament and the abolition of nuclear weapons; that is, pressure from the Global South, pressure from the secondary governments of the Global North, and pressure from a transnational civil society movement for nuclear zero and demilitarization. In all three areas the pressure is building, but not sufficiently to move the nuclear-armed states to serious action or to make a serious commitment to nuclear zero. What has been accomplished up to now by this pressure is the creation and entry into force of the TPNW, which reflects the frustration, particularly of the Global South and transnational civil society, with the failure of the nuclear weapons states to fulfill their NPT Article VI obligations. Unfortunately, none of the nuclear-armed countries has joined the TPNW and the US, UK and France have made a point of stressing they will never sign, ratify or support it.
It seems evident that the nuclear weapons states acted in bad faith when they negotiated the NPT with its Article VI provisions. They were willing to agree to what the non-nuclear weapon states wanted included in order to get near-global consensus on the NPT, and that was that they would engage in good faith efforts to level the playing field by engaging in negotiations to achieve nuclear zero as well as general and complete disarmament. In other words, the nuclear weapons states were in bad faith when they committed to good faith in Article VI of the NPT.
It is a puzzling question as to why the nuclear weapons states are so committed to maintaining, even improving, their nuclear arsenals. The national security elites seem to believe that the advantages to possessing nuclear weapons outweigh the disadvantages, even when the worst case scenarios for nuclear war are mass annihilation of most or all complex life on the planet; or, put another way, these nuclear security elites believe they will be more secure playing nuclear roulette with their nuclear arsenals than they would be in a nuclear zero world. These elites put their trust in the attack-inhibiting power of nuclear weapons despite the risks of nuclear annihilation by accident or design.
What is surely a measure of societal insanity is the belief that nuclear deterrence can hold up indefinitely against human or technological error, miscalculation, accident or just plain malice. National security elites rely upon nuclear weapons to provide an edge of advantage to their country and try to maintain stability in an unstable international system. But what they cannot take fully into account are the possibilities of system failures with catastrophic consequences.
I attended the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, at which I and other members of transnational civil society lobbied against an indefinite extension of the treaty, and rather for periodic extensions of the treaty based upon progress by the nuclear weapons states in fulfilling their Article VI obligations. This was an opportunity for the non-nuclear weapon states to put real pressure on the nuclear weapons states. But the opportunity was lost when the nuclear weapons states were successful in lobbying for an indefinite extension of the NPT with no periodic accounting on their Article VI obligations and no accountability for failure to meet those obligations. It was a tragic lost opportunity.
The national security elites view nuclear weapons as useful tools, and believe they are justified in maintaining them, despite their obvious risks to their countries and to the world. President Obama purportedly wanted to change the US nuclear policy to No First Use, in which the sole purpose of nuclear weapons would be for nuclear deterrence, but his national security team balked at this proposal and dissuaded him. The proposal was dormant during the Trump administration, but President Biden is considering it again. In an essay in Foreign Affairs in 2020, then candidate Biden wrote: “As I said in 2017, I believe that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and, if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack. As president, I will work to put that belief into practice, in consultation with the U.S. military and U.S. allies.”
If Biden were to put this No First Use policy into effect, how would it effect the prospects for nuclear abolition? It seems to me in a very positive way. It would be a pledge by the most powerful nuclear weapons state to limit the use of its nuclear arsenal to deterrence or, if that failed, to retaliation. One of the major downsides to deterrence is that it is based on the credible threat of retaliation. If all nuclear-armed countries had No First Use policies, however, there would be no first use and no need for retaliation.
We’ve agreed in past dialogues that a No First Use policy would be an important step on the path to nuclear abolition. The policy, though, would be stronger if it were agreed to by all nine of the nuclear-armed countries. Given this, would it make more sense for the US to unilaterally adopt a No First Use policy, or to convene the other eight nuclear-armed countries to consider a joint pledge of sole purpose? What steps would add credibility to such a pledge, for example, separating warheads from delivery vehicles, as has been China’s long-time policy? Finally, would a focus on such a pledge be a useful step, or would it be, as some have argued, a detour from focusing support on the TPNW?
It would be an important step forward for President Biden to make a No First Use pledge. It would be stronger to have a pledge by all nine nuclear powers, but that shouldn’t stop the US from acting unilaterally; it would demonstrate leadership on par with China in its own interests toward a nuclear weapons-free world. Taking steps in support of such a pledge would be an act of good faith and a demonstration of seriousness, but wouldn’t need to be done simultaneously with the pledge. For the US to make such a pledge would not be a detour from support of the TPNW, as the US has made it clear that no such support is on the horizon.
One more point: it seems to me to be quite a positive step that the US and China have agreed to cooperate on combatting climate change. This positive engagement could contribute to lessening tensions between the two countries and could spill over into other areas, including the nuclear disarmament arena.
Falk: I think we have no differences of view, even nuanced ones, when it comes to analyzing the unwillingness of the national security elites to consider the downsides of retaining, developing and deploying nuclear weaponry, and apparently planning their use on the basis of top-secret protocols with absolutely no sense of accountability to international law or to the constitutional ethos of a political democracy. The American public should have finally awakened to the dangers of this kind of executive authority that a president acting as commander in chief possesses during the tumultuous years of the Trump presidency. Among the worries aroused during those years was the susceptibility of an unstable, autocratically inclined leader to engage in various forms of delusional thinking. Trump’s blustering language about nuclear capabilities were frighteningly evident in early encounters with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, until Trump reversed course and exulted over their exchange of no less than 25 ‘love letters,’ in Trump’s phrasing.
I agree with you that Biden seems a far more stable, experienced, and rational leader than Trump when it comes to international conflict, but as his first year in the White House has confirmed one thing. Excepting the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden seems responsive to the views of national security elites that advise on foreign policy from various points of strength in the bureaucratic apparatus, including Pentagon, CIA and other intelligence units of government, and the State Department. It is important to appreciate that the government as a whole has become militarized in its worldview, under the rubric of ‘political realism’ by having adopted a strategic posture of major war preparedness anywhere on the planet ever since 1945. This governmental posture is reinforced by powerful and entrenched private sector interests in promoting arms sales, astronomical peacetime defense budgets, and weapons procurement. This blend of capitalism and militarism in the nuclear age is a toxic reality that creates an almost impenetrable buffer between state and society. I have been reflecting on the American reality, but my impression is that the same forces solidify nuclearism in other countries as well, particularly in the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. It should be understood that China and Russia seem presently as unwilling to sign and ratify the TPNW as were the three NATO states.
I would add to your analysis of the iron grip of nuclearism on the mindset of the national security elites, or as I would put, of the entire political class in the Global North, the perceived psychological benefits of nuclear weapons in North/South relations. I believe nuclear weapons perform a vital role in the maintenance of hegemonic stability, by which I mean Northern dominance of world order in the post-colonial period. For instance, the nonproliferation regime, as distinct from the treaty, allows the nuclear weapons states, with the US taking the lead, to decide which states might possess the weaponry and which might not.
Iran is repeatedly threatened with military attack by Israel and the US if it even approaches the nuclear threshold, while Israel has covertly crossed that threshold with NATO complicity without a single adverse consequence. On the contrary, it has allowed Israel to throw its weight around, bomb Syria repeatedly without retaliation, assassinate nuclear scientists and support destabilization in Iran, as well as form an anti-Iran coalition with Saudi Arabia. If the US interpreted the NPT on the basis of the equality of states, rather than by way of the primacy of geopolitics, then Israel’s nuclear arsenal would have never been allowed to be established, and if established, would have been dismantled. Such action in support of a security-oriented non-proliferation regime would have paved the way to regional denuclearization, reduced risk of war, and enhanced prospects for regional conflict resolution through the establishment of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone.
I would welcome a No First Use Declaration, preferably as a collective move by the UN P-5, but see no likely prospect. I hope that I am wrong about my sense that Biden will not defy the national security consensus on such a sensitive issue by trying to implement the sentence you quoted. Those who adhere to the postulates of nuclearism are opposed to NFU diplomacy for the inverse reasons of why we have long advocated it. Resistance NFU is quite separate from opposition to the TPNW. In my view, NFU is resisted because it restricts the scope of deterrence in a manner that interferes with geopolitical ambitions. Opposition to TPNW is based on eliminating nuclearism altogether, and thus removing the key pillar of hegemonic stability, which rests upon the geopolitical oligarchy of leading nuclear weapons states. No other juridical relationship in international relations differentiates between states entitled to engage in certain behavior and those prohibited from doing so. For instance, the treaties of prohibition with respect to chemical weapons and biological weapons are based on the equality of states with a single set of norms applying to all states. The whole inner logic of law and of world order based on the juridical equality of states is to treat formal equals equally. This would seem particularly true with respect to nuclear weapons, but over the years it has become clear that not only is this basic inequality entrenched in world order, but its maintenance via the NPT regime is entrusted to the nuclear weapons states by recourse to aggressive war, if enforcers perceived it to be necessary and feasible to prevent certain states, by and large anti-Western states from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Krieger: You are right to step back and gain perspective by looking at the international system in which nuclearism is embedded. It is a fractionalized and hierarchical system, and nuclear weapons help to maintain the “top dogs” in their position at the top of the hierarchical structure. This hierarchical structure was once maintained by colonialism. It is now maintained, at least in part, by nuclear threat. Nuclear weapons don’t actually need to be used in warfare; their presence and the implicit or, at times, explicit threat of use appears to be sufficient to keep the hierarchical structure relatively stable. The fractionalized nature of the international system has allowed for a significant East-West split as well. Nuclearism, like all forms of militarism, is a fear-based system. And when the central fear is nuclear war, which could cause mass annihilation of complex life on the planet, the stakes are very high.
There is always the possibility that a country will make a run at joining the nuclear club, which reflects the instability in the international system. The Non-Proliferation Treaty, backed up by the non-proliferation regime, has been somewhat successful in preventing nuclear proliferation, but not entirely so. The nuclear club has grown slowly, but it has continued to grow over time. Initially there was one member, the US, which almost immediately used its new weapon on civilian populations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Soon the Soviet Union joined the club in response to the US, and then the UK and France joined in response to the Soviet Union. China then joined in response to the US and USSR, rounding out the P-5 members of the Security Council. Around this time, Israel covertly joined the club, with the intent to reduce its vulnerability to attack.
In 1970, the NPT entered into force. Since then, India entered the club in response to China; Pakistan entered in response to India; and North Korea joined to make its regime less vulnerable. So, history shows us that the proliferation border is permeable; and this is so because research reactors and energy reactors use enriched uranium that can be further enriched to make bomb-grade material for weapons and also produce plutonium-239 which can be used in making bombs. The US, due to its place in the international hierarchy, has issued stiff warnings to Iran not to try to join the club. Once a country has developed a few nuclear bombs and delivery system for them, it has made it into the club, but it still remains vulnerable to nuclear attack by far stronger members of the club. The more nuclear proliferation succeeds, however, the greater the instability in an already unstable international system. And yet, it remains intolerable to maintain an international hierarchy based upon the ability of a nation to clandestinely develop a nuclear arsenal and threaten its use. This is a system that cannot indefinitely maintain itself. Such a system is more likely than not to self-destruct.
Another form of system instability is a mentally unstable leader of one or more of the nuclear-armed countries. Trump was a good example. He couldn’t accept his loss in the 2020 presidential election, and he pushed the “big lie” that he actually won the election and promoted insurrection in the nation’s capital. He was a man who had sole control over the US nuclear arsenal for four years, and could have issued nuclear launch orders at any time. The world was fortunate that it got past Trump’s presidency without a nuclear incident, but his presidency demonstrates that someone with his level of mental instability could make it to the presidency of the US and have control of that country’s nuclear arsenal. If someone like Trump can ascend to the presidency in the US, it can be done anywhere. And Trump came to office legally, as at an earlier time and in a different place, Adolph Hitler came to office legally. In the Nuclear Age, the people of a nuclear-armed country are the last safeguard against putting the wrong finger on the nuclear trigger, but they have not proven successful in doing so.
What is needed is to break through the fractionalized and hierarchical international system now being held in place with militarism and nuclearism. States, as well as individuals, must have equal rights, and arguably the most important of these rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the right to life. Nuclear weapons pose a direct threat to this right, not only for individuals, but for the planet. I have modified the US Pledge of Allegiance to be a more universal pledge: “I pledge allegiance to the Earth/and to its varied life forms/one world, indivisible/ with liberty, justice and dignity/for all.” Such a pledge would be reflective of a mindset that chose equality over hierarchy and wholeness over fractionalization.
This brings us back to the dawn of the Nuclear Age, when Einstein warned, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” It is our modes of thinking that allow the acceptance of nuclearism, militarism, inequality and injustice as the basis of our international system. How to change such modes of thinking remains the challenge of our time, and we are in a race with our powerful technologies, particularly nuclear weapons, which put the human species in jeopardy of annihilation. Modes of thinking are also at the core of how humanity deals with climate change, pandemics, poverty and global governance.
In the end, it is individual transformation that is needed to change our global system. We must dismantle nuclearism and militarism in our minds before they can be dismantled on our planet. Unless and until we can do this, we will individually and collectively be at the mercy of the national security elites who are calling the shots to keep their respective countries in a “top dog” position.
The reality of our time is that we can’t have national security without having global security, and which of these prevails will be a matter of how each of us views the world. Therefore, we need education for a new way of thinking in which peace is more than the absence of war; in which it is constructive and creative, and overturns our present fractionalized and hierarchical worldview with its reliance on militarism and nuclearism. Needless to say, altering mindsets is very difficult, even unlikely, but it seems to me our last real hope of bringing about the change that is needed. We must learn to love our world and all of humanity as we now love our families. We must come to the point of subordinating patriotism for country with, in the word of Ted Lentz, “humatriotism” for the human species. We must pursue this goal as though the very future depended upon our success. This is what is at stake in the Nuclear Age.
Falk: Your last comments are sober reminders of the apparent death trap that the human species has fashioned for itself because it relies on a mindset that menaces humanity rather than protects it. The persisting reliance on a national security win/lose paradigm in a world order architecture that is politically fragmented into separate sovereign states, to some extent linked by alliances that aggregate capabilities but leave the world without effective mechanisms for the pursuit of collective public goods. The UN was envisioned by its strongest proponents as serving the human interest, and although it has done many useful things during its 76 years of existence, it has not managed to challenge the primacy of geopolitics, which leaves matters of ultimate peace and security in the largest and most dangerous states that are left unaccountable for their wrongdoing due to having the right to veto any UN decision that clashes with their national interests. What was long imprudent and the cause of devastation, suffering, and exploitation of the weak and vulnerable has with the advent of the nuclear age become intolerably dysfunctional for the species.
As is evident from recent preoccupations with climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not just nuclearism that now underpins a mandate for human security and globally protected species interests. In my view more than modes of thinking is involved. It is the evolution of a modern world order system, that legitimized conquest and inequality, and created an understanding of progress linked to win/lose relationships that were at the core of both nationalism and capitalism, and gave rise to the current bio-ecological-ethical-political-spiritual crisis, which political elites, as well as the public of all states whether democratic or not, that shape policy are ill-equipped to address.
In line with the Lentz ‘humatriotism,’ I prefer the phrase ‘patriot for humanity’ as more transparent, and leading more naturally to the idea that the time has come for persons everywhere on the planet to be thinking, feeling, and acting in response to the same urgent agenda. We cannot envision the future, and as such the human condition is immersed in circumstances of radical uncertainty and a sky full of threatening storm clouds. With such an understanding, we have a responsibility to struggle as best we can for how to transform the future in line with our values. This requires an embrace of ‘a politics of impossibility,’ coupled with the recognition that what has seemed impossible has happened quite often. Notable examples include the defeat of European colonialism, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, and the relatively bloodless collapse of the apartheid regime in South Africa. These outcomes coupled with the obscurity of the future is what gives me hope and the energy to commit to the struggle to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and more generally to sustain belief in a better human future.
Krieger: You are right to point out that the world order system now in place in the Nuclear Age has become “intolerably dysfunctional for the species.” The international system, reflected by the United Nations, is under the control of the world’s most powerful states. In the current world order, the powerful act in their perceived interests and the weak are buffeted about. There are only lukewarm efforts to satisfactorily resolve systemic problems that confront the species, such as poverty, pandemics, climate change, nuclearism and war.
I have long been of the opinion that nuclearism should be in a special category of threats to the species that deserve priority attention. I still hold this belief, but I now fear that nuclearism is so intertwined in the current international system that systemic changes will be necessary to resolve the nuclear threats to humanity. This would include changes such as eliminating the veto by the permanent members of the Security Council; taking seriously the judicial powers of the International Criminal Court; enforcing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and instituting a more democratic form of governance at the global level. Achieving these systemic changes will likely require a spiritual revolution in the hearts of a significant percentage of the population of the planet.
Time is short and the dangers are immense. As we have discussed, it will require a new mindset to prevail – one that is holistic, not fragmented; one that takes cognizance of current species-wide threats; one that embraces “humatriotism” to our species, rather than patriotism to a portion of the species. It will further require that this mindset be transformed into political action. It is difficult to find movement in this direction, even on the far horizon. In the meantime, systemic threats, such as pandemics, climate change, and nuclearism, are growing worse.
We are confronted with two choices: to give up and throw in the towel on the human species, or to embrace the politics of impossibility. The former is an abdication of hope. The latter is an embrace of hope. Because I find the human species, despite all its shortcomings, worthy of continuing on and reaching new heights, I join you in choosing hope. It’s really the only choice available to those who would envision a better future, free of species-ending peril. It will require a radical leap of faith, and the best efforts of many committed visionaries to achieve what will be, in essence, a new world.