Our common sense has failed us once again. Rather than dread these suicidal weapons, nations embrace them as symbols of strength, imagining future conflicts in which their enemies but not themselves are vaporized, a flight from reality that would be shocking were it not so deeply embedded in human behavior as to seem normal when we consider the excited crowds in the squares and boulevards of August 1914 cheering their imminent slaughter; or the sons of that generation’s survivors, singing as they march toward Stalingrad to be blown to bits; or four successive American presidents, otherwise rational, pursuing against all evidence and reason a pointless struggle in the deadly jungles of Vietnam, a country that meant America no harm and now, far from having littered Southeast Asia with Communist dominoes, is a prospering candidate for the World Trade Organization; while today another murderous struggle is being lost in the cruel streets of Baghdad, of all unlikely American battlefields. Is it possible that Freud’s much-disputed idea of a universal death wish in precarious balance with the wish to live is reasonable after all: that death is driving as we doze on the bus to Jonestown?
Assume the worst and most likely outcome: negotiations and threats fail and Shiite Iran a decade or less hence, like North Korea today, tests a bomb with impunity provoking its Sunni neighbors—Saudi Arabia and Egypt—to arm themselves accordingly. Or the Musharraf government falls and jihadis come into possession of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and the A.Q. Khan network. Or perhaps Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear sites, precipitating a Middle East arms race fueled by a nuclear industry revived by the rising cost of fossil energy.
Challenged by the redistribution of power in an increasingly decentralized and anarchic world, the forty-year-old nonproliferation agenda of the nuclear states is cracked and crumbling. To Iran and other emerging powers in the Islamic world and beyond, the monopoly held by the nuclear states is arbitrary and unjust, a two-tier arrangement offensive even to moderates in those countries: Why should history have endowed some nations and not others with apocalyptic weapons? Why abide by a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which the nuclear signatories, having pledged to disarm, have ignored for decades? No longer a virtuous bulwark against nuclear catastrophe, the victors of World War II represent to these emerging powers an arbitrary, patronizing, and hypocritical affront, with colonialist overtones, preaching disarmament from atop their illegitimate stockpiles. As Mr. Cirincione writes:
The health of the [Non-Proliferation Treaty] depends on the performance and resolve of the key state supporters of the regime. If the US and Russian nuclear arsenals remain at disproportionately high levels, if they and other nuclear weapon states modernize their arsenals with new weapons and expensive missiles, submarines, and bombers, then many nations will conclude that the weapon states’ promise to reduce and eventually eliminate these arsenals has been broken. Non-nuclear states may therefore feel released from their pledge not to acquire nuclear weapons.
Iraq’s abandonment under pressure from Washington of its nuclear weapons only to be devastated by the United States won’t encourage others to follow Saddam’s example; nor has South Africa’s or Libya’s or the former Soviet republics’ decision to disarm influenced North Korea and Iran to do the same. Far from convincing Iran and others to forgo nuclear arms, the existence of these weapons in the hands of the nuclear powers provokes them to resist their unequal status.
The impracticality of universal nuclear disarmament resides not in its logic but in the tragic passivity of the human condition facing self-destruction. The démarche proposed by Cirincione and others would at a stroke repair the moral standing of the nuclear states, deprive the emerging powers of their justification if not necessarily their means and intention to have a bomb, empower the IAEA to act with full international support—military if necessary—against pariah states that threaten to violate the nuclear-free status quo, and perhaps restore somewhat the illusory, but nonetheless welcome, equilibrium that has occasionally prevailed in world affairs. Generals and statesmen need not fear nor pacifists rejoice. Nuclear disarmament will not compromise the ancient freedom to wage conventional war but will guarantee its continued possibility.
The evidence also suggests that in an honest, worldwide referendum individuals would overwhelmingly choose to be rid of nuclear weapons. What sane person would not? Mr. Cirincione cites an IPSOS poll taken in 2005 showing that “66 percent of Americans believe that no country should be allowed to have nuclear weapons, including the United States,” while only 13 percent believed that the United States and its allies should maintain a nuclear monopoly (a monopoly that is of course impossible). What is true of people individually, alas, is not true of gangs, cults, or states, for as Hermann Goering famously articulated his idea of statehood to an American interviewer at Nuremberg,
Naturally the common people don’t want war…. But, after all, it is the leaders…who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship…. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.
Mr. Cirincione cites Richard Perle’s echo of this formula in a comment to Newsweek in 1983 that “democracies will not sacrifice to protect their security in the absence of a sense of danger” and Perle’s advice fifteen years later in a letter to President Clinton, signed by himself and a group of neoconservatives, that “the only acceptable strategy is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use…weapons of mass destruction… [which] means removing Saddam Hussein…from power,” a precursor of the argument heard today to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. President Clinton ignored this advice. But Perle’s neoconservatives found a willing partner in Clinton’s successor who “changed the focus” from attempts to remove nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons from “outlaw regimes” to removing the regimes themselves rather than merely their weapons, in the belief, Cirincione writes, that “the US could determine which countries [should] have nuclear weapons and which [should] not. American power, not multilateral treaties, would enforce this judgment.” Among the consequences of President Bush’s decision to shun negotiations and denounce North Korea, Iraq, and Iran as evil were North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT and resumption of its plutonium program, the Iraq disaster, and Iran’s accelerated nuclear program in which, Cirincione observes,
most of the construction and development…has occurred since 2000, including the opening of plants to produce uranium gas, the first successful operation of a centrifuge cascade to enrich uranium, and the construction of a vast facility to house over 50,000 centrifuges.
Meanwhile the Bush administration’s proposal “to research and possibly develop new nuclear weapons coupled with new doctrines justifying [their] use even against non-nuclear targets” has “encouraged other nations, such as Russia and France, to develop similar plans and encouraged the view that nuclear weapons should be an essential component of a nation’s security program.”
Critics of comprehensive nuclear disarmament will argue that the fundamental problem is not the weaponry but the knowledge to make and deliver it, knowledge that cannot be unlearned; that war and ever more deadly weapons are inseparable from human history and thus from human nature as the battlefield has evolved from a patch of earth to the whole world, and weapons from rocks to atoms, bringing the endgame into view. It will also be objected that today’s rogue states and nonaligned groups will ignore the treaty, as India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea have already done, even should the major powers disarm, and that no inspectorate will be able to guarantee their compliance since there will be no consensus among the major powers on using the threat of force to do so; that national security demands not disarmament but overwhelming power. It will surely be objected on practical grounds that nothing—neither the prospect of unbridled proliferation nor the wisdom of Chekhov’s assurance that a gun over the mantle in Act One foreshadows a shooting by Act Three—will convince today’s nuclear powers to junk their weapons of mass suicide—not even the increasing certainty that multilateral nuclear deterrence and defense are impossible.
No such proposal, in any case, can be plausibly made while the United Sates is at war and the current regime in power. But failure to disarm given the possibility of the uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons foreshadows a world in which a dozen or more states, some of them in regional or faith-based alliances, including nonstate groups, are able to visit mass destruction on rivals and enemies—a situation whose instability is intrinsic to the system. The bilateral arms race that horrified the leaders at Reykjavik was unstable enough. The multilateral nuclear arms race that may follow will be a replay of August 1914, this time with intercontinental missiles primed for split-second response tipped with multiple-megaton warheads.
So let us return at last to the real world and the fear that haunts Cirincione’s book and admit that the nuclear powers may never renounce the illusory safety of their absurd weaponry of which the United States has already placed between 180 and 480 tactical warheads in Belgium, Holland, Germany, Italy, and Turkey in further violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, inviting Iran and other future nuclear states to do the same for their allies. And even if the present nuclear powers are willing to destroy their weapons it is far from certain that the required international pressure can be mustered to make the pretenders comply. The perennial popularity of the Book of Revelations suggests the depth to which our careworn and deadly species is intrigued by fantasies of escape: by apocalypse, Armageddon, Götterdämmerung, nirvana, and other nihilist heavens.
Yet Cirincione is right to raise the issue boldly, for unlikely as nuclear disarmament may be, it would be worse than foolish not to urge it, bearing in mind that between 1968 and 1992, 183 nations actually endorsed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and in 1995, 188 agreed to renew it indefinitely, though the original nuclear states continue to ignore their treaty obligation to disarm. Now that North Korea and presumably Iran have chosen to follow America’s example and ignore the NPT as well, the time for temporizing has expired. Yet humanity in these final decades may not be powerless to save itself and if it were, we should in the time remaining be ashamed not to try to forestall our self-immolation, at least to the extent of posing seemingly utopian alternatives to our governments in the strongest terms. One such proposal was recently put forth by George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn in a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed essay, endorsed by sixteen other distinguished participants at a recent conference organized by Mr. Schultz and Sidney Drell at the Hoover Institution to “reconsider the vision that Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev brought to Reykjavik.” In a subsequent Op-Ed article Mr. Gorbachev endorsed their proposal and emphasized its urgency. But is anyone listening? For a little longer the decision remains in our hands and then it won’t be. Whether or not we choose life is, as Hamlet said, the question.
A Nuclear Way Forward April 12, 2007