By Jonathan Power*
During the French election no candidate talked about France’s nuclear weapons. In Britain, the subject has been raised in its election in an attempt to undermine the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. But the long-time anti-bomb activist compromised his views, saying in effect he was against them but Labour Party policy was for them.
Meanwhile, the Western nations worry and rage about North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. There is a lack of principle and honesty as well as an overdose of self-delusion as to their effectiveness as a deterrent in this whole bomb game.
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.
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, analysed it, “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 judgment what is led by these interests and what is led by rational conclusion.”
There are two main issues – moral and political – in any discussion on nuclear weapons. 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 the stockpile was 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 with the tortuous logic of such an argument. I suspect that John Mearsheimer, America’s pre-eminent 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 of deterrence 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.
It’s time not just to rant about North Korea’s bomb but to get on with disarmament in the West and Russia, even taking unilateral moves. After all, that was the pledge they made in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
*Note: For 17 years Jonathan Power was a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune. He has forwarded this and his previous Viewpoints for publication in IDN-INPS. Copyright: Jonathan Power.