By Jonathan Power*
We were standing in Hiroshima looking at a stonewall. All there was to see was a shadow of a man. It had been etched into the wall at the moment of his obliteration by the blinding light of the first atomic bomb. Olof Palme, prime minister of Sweden, stared hard at it. An hour later, he had to give a speech as head of the Independent Commission on Disarmament, of which I was a member. “My fear”, he remarked, “is that mankind itself will end up as nothing more than a shadow on a wall.”
Charles de Gaulle once observed, “After a nuclear war, the two sides would have neither powers, nor laws, nor cities, nor cultures, nor cradles, nor tombs.” Nikita Khrushchev, who presided over the Soviet Union in the days of the Cuban missile crisis, later wrote, “When I learned all the facts about nuclear power, I couldn’t sleep for several days”.
And one of his successors, Mikhail Gorbachev, once recounted how during training to use his “nuclear suitcase”, he never pretended to give the order to fire. The other day, President Joe Biden said if there was a nuclear war between Russia and the U.S., it would lead to Armageddon.
Yet against this sense and sensibility is arrayed popular inertia on one side and an extraordinarily deeply embedded culture of “nuclear deterrence” on the other. As former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (ex-nuclear hawk, later a dove) analysed it in a conversation with me, “There is an enormous body of vested interests not only through lobbying in Washington and Moscow but through influence on intellectuals, on people who write books and articles in newspapers and do features on television.”
And, in a shrewd afterthought, he added, “It’s very difficult as a reader or as a consumer of TV to distinguish by one’s own judgement what is led by these interests and what is led by a rational conclusion.”
There are two main issues in any discussion on nuclear weapons, moral and political for some, nuclear armaments are so wicked, so evil, in their capacity to execute life as we know it that there can be no talk of modifying or controlling them; they must be banned, if necessary, unilaterally renounced. Deterrence, even if it could be proved to have kept the peace, is profoundly immoral in concept and tone, for the threat to destroy is as wrong as the act itself.
This latter observation is true. But equally, it can lead to the conclusion that we have to deal with the problem by multilateral means—by agreement between the antagonists. The means of getting rid of them is as important a moral issue as the means of deterrence. If a reduction of a part of the stockpile were done in such a way as to increase instability and the likelihood of war, this would be as reprehensible an act as one which provoked war by initiating a new round in the arms race.
Thomas Nagel in his essay, “War and Massacres”, has suggested we are working between two poles of moral intuition. We know that there are some outcomes that must be avoided at all costs, and we know that there are some costs that can never be morally justified. We must face the possibility, Nagel argues, “that these two forms of moral intuition are not capable of being brought together into a single coherent moral system.”
Yes, but. We have to be careful not to be carried away by the tortuous logic of such an argument. I suspect that John Mearsheimer, America’s preeminent balance of power theorist, might find comfort in this rather fine moral balancing. He has called nuclear weapons “a powerful force for peace”. Today he advocates “well-managed proliferation”, and he would like to see Germany and Japan armed with nuclear weapons.
The title of Herman Kahn’s book on cold war nuclear strategy, “Thinking the Unthinkable”, captured the dilemma perfectly: that it is unthinkable to imagine the wholesale slaughter of societies, yet at the same time it appears necessary to do so, in the hope that you hit upon some formulation that will preclude the act. But then in the process you may wind up amassing forces that engender the very outcome you hope to avoid.
The Ukraine war should be a wake-up call. This must be the time to get our grip on the urgent necessity for big power nuclear disarmament, for without that, there is simply no credibility when dealing with would-be proliferators in the Third World. Many of them are quite as capable as the original big powers of one day creating the “shadow on a wall”.
The Cold War powers should have got rid of all their nuclear weapons when the Soviet Union collapsed. At that time, no one could conceive that Russia, the US, France and the UK would ever use these weapons.
So why were they kept? No one I know had a good reason, but somehow it conferred prestige. It kept a country being a big guy on the block.
Just as it has been a surprise—from the vantage point of 1991 when the Cold War ended—that we have entered a new period of Cold War, it is a surprise that there is talk today of using nuclear weapons. President Vladimir appears to threaten to use them in the war with Ukraine. It seems that the fact that the big powers hung on to them meant that when NATO decided to expand its reach up to Russia’s borders, Russia felt very vulnerable to attack by low-flying short-range missiles that could reach Moscow in two or three minutes.
That’s what this war implicitly is all about—the nuclear threat posed by NATO expansion. Now Putin speaks the same language, albeit more loudly and vocally aggressively than his Western counterparts.
The only way out of this hole is to stop digging. Ukraine should declare it has no intention of joining NATO. Then the nuclear threat would recede. Indeed, the war itself could end.
About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com