From Los Alamos to Oslo (Via Reykjavik):
A Vision Beyond Nuclearism
Michelle Rafferty, Publicity Assistant
Nigel Young is currently Research Professor in Peace Studies at Colgate University, New York and editor of the upcoming Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace. In anticipation of the Nobel Peace Prize presentation ceremony in Oslo, Norway this Thursday, Young explains what the award means for peace studies and the future of nuclear weapons.
“Yes, we can rid the world of nuclear weapons.” This was the promise of Obama’s UN speech, which resonated not only with the Nobel committee but with a body of opinion worldwide—for reasons that are not always fully understood in the US. A promise articulated not just by words, but by deeds: the decision to scrap the star-wars-offshoot missile shield in East and Central Europe, defusing a renewal of tensions with Russia if not a new Cold War. As a result, the two countries have agreed to cut their nuclear arsenals. Whilst commentators have picked up on the importance of this nuclear dimension to the Nobel award decision, made shortly after, they have not grasped the full scale of this vision. For the first time in almost seventy years of nuclearism and denial, the abolition of the foremost weapons of mass destruction is firmly back on the global agenda. With the nonproliferation treaty up for review in 2010, this could not come at a more critical time. Legitimate US leadership squandered, if not lost, in the post-9/11 years can be regained by the world’s largest nuclear power in driving forward that agenda. The crucial issues on the table for a ban are, as they have always been, verification, inspection and enforcement in every country. The US President, by grasping that issue, by opening that second global dialogue (the other with the Islamic world), became, for the international community, a truly deserving laureate to go to Oslo for the prize. It will be a chance to follow up this momentous reorientation with what may be a memorable acceptance speech.
Without offending sensitivities, it is important to put this award into historical and global context and consider the unique American experience. It has never been bombed from the air by an enemy state, with primarily civilian targets. The cities of Europe and Japan have been bombarded. As a result they never took nuclear weapons for granted. And 9/11 was such a shock to Americans because of that difference. Horrific as 9/11 was, the same number – over three thousand – died in London on a single night of bombing, the worst night of the Blitz. Forty thousand civilians were killed by German bombing of Britain between 1940 and 1945. German, Japanese and Polish Cities were hit far harder. In response to the devastation of World War I, the Kellogg-Briand pact attempted to abolish war in the 1920′s, similarly the Baruch initiative and other UN plans between 1945 and 1947 were a response to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the threat of a nuclear arms race. From then on nuclear weapons became accepted and more and more countries acquired them.
For the USA, Soviet nuclear weapons soon became a fact of life, and by the fifties a bipolar stand off was accepted as a form of security in terror. The theory of mutual assured destruction (MAD) – the Kissinger doctrine - held sway. Nuclear weapons were considered too terrible to use. But soon other nations began to challenge that bipolar model of supposed nonproliferation. If Israel could be allowed to have a nuclear weapon, then why not those whom Israel targeted? Pakistan’s nuclear capability threatened India, China threatened Russia and India, and then North Korea entered the mix. The process was obvious and Gorbachev recognized it early on. MADS did not lead to nonproliferation; further, failed states – potentially non-states – could acquire arms by subterfuge or theft or even at the arms bazaar.
The greatest threat was becoming the nuclear weapons themselves. At Reykjavik, Gorbachev’s walk on the ice with Ronald Reagan gave a momentary glimpse of a political will to rid the world of all nuclear weapons. Reagan never liked them anyway, whether used on the US or by the US, and that is why he pushed Star Wars – “no missiles out and no more missiles in”, through a defensive ‘shield’.
But the security elites were stuck in the MAD mold and the opportunity to eradicate nuclear arms at the end of the Cold War had been lost. There was reduction but no real peace dividend. To some extent, nuclear arms remained business as usual, though some challenged that – not just peace movements, but international jurists and non-nuclear powers. Were nuclear weapons legal as indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction? And why were certain countries (like Israel, the example par excellence) exempted? Double standards were so blatant that the whole rationale of deterrence was failing. Carter and Clinton might have pressed far harder on realistic steps in nuclear reduction, but the KGB was back in the Kremlin, and NATO still needed a role! An unstable Pakistan and the inutility of nuclear arms against the Taliban or Al Qaida raise the spectre; if the Pakistani government were overthrown, or if Al Qaida procured a nuclear weapon, it would bring the threat of a suitcase bomb to cities worldwide, with disastrous results.
The Obama presidency recognizes nuclear weapons as a grave threat to us all and in this new era of dialogue and openness to Islam, this could finally be the moment we shut down the atomic machine for good. This is a crucial and welcome change of direction on the nuclear issue by the new administration, and one that is being recognized globally by the decision to award Obama the Nobel Peace prize. Peace research began in Norway in the 1950s, a direct response to the nuclear context—which also stimulated the worldwide growth of Peace Studies. The Norwegians, and increasingly, civil societies around the world, have developed a different perspective on nuclear weapons and possibly war in general than America (home to many refugees of Europe and Asia’s wars). For the USA, neither the vulnerability revealed by Pearl Harbor nor 9/11 were enough of a wake-up call to eradicate these weapons; the old methods would do. But in twenty years both the mood and the context has changed. Obama, by symbolically capturing that global mood in his speech to the UN, finally brings a nuclear-free world – with inspection, verification and enforcement – globally closer.
The USA and the UN are the key initiators and there are signs that Russia, certainly the UK and possibly India (depending on a deal with Pakistan) might follow suit. China remains ambivalent, aware of the Korean threat, the Russian nuclear force, and India’s potential, yet China’s security, like that of the US, would be enhanced by a global ban. Who has led this call for a ban? Not so much the peace movement as lawyers and International jurists in the Hague pushing to outlaw indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction by all. Ultimately, use of nuclear and all weapons of mass destruction would be considered a war crime by international law, indeed a crime of genocide.
Such a ban must be global, and not just Iran and Korea, but Israel and France may prove to be the roadblocks. America’s nuclear security elites have moved towards a position that is quite at odds with the mutual balance of terror of the bipolar Cold War. “The enemy” now is rogue states and the nuclear weapons themselves – so nonproliferation becomes non-manufacture, non-use, non-threat, non-testing of WMD. The very possession of nuclear weapons needs to be outlawed. The rapid spread of nuclear technology is a greater danger than terrorism itself. That truth the Obama administration has grasped, along with many in the UN and professional opinion worldwide, including Henry Kissinger and others.
Twenty years ago, with the end of the Cold War and at Reykjavik, there was a glimpse of change, and now this Nobel Prize symbolizes its recognition.
There have been movements to outlaw war and specific weapons in the past, some of them – poisoned gas, dum-dum bullets, chemical-biological weapons (CBW), land mines, napalm – relatively successful. But the nuclear arms race assumed an autonomy towards more, larger and more diverse weapons of mass destruction – “a baroque arsenal” to use Kaldor’s phrase – which had an independent momentum that defied logic and control. Inevitably it spread to new powers in a multi-polar world, undermining the credibility of nuclear security and the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It was America, who with UK support – let the nuclear genie out of the bottle in the Manhattan project; although it had no experience of mass civilian bombing of its cities, it used the bomb. This asymmetry is addressed by the Nobel award and explains the seriousness of the issue for Peace scholars worldwide. After so many failed attempts at arms control, nonproliferation and nuclear disarmament, Oslo marks a historic moment. The project to make nuclear arms illegal under international law has received a major boost. The World Court project and other efforts at the Hague, to outlaw nuclear weapons has made important progress.There could be hardly a more auspicious turning point in global security and in civic opinion on these truly horrific weapons.