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Gone Nuclear: How the World Lost Its Way


EDITOR’S NOTE: The Reykjavik Summit in October 1986 will long be remembered because the leaders of the world’s two superpowers, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, seriously entertained for one brief moment the goal of a non-nuclear world. The end of the cold war reduced the fear of a nuclear exchange, but it did not bring us closer to a world free of nuclear weapons. Indeed, with the subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons to India, Pakistan and North Korea, and with concerns growing about Iran’s nuclear program, the idea of a non-nuclear world seems more distant than ever. As the report of the International Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction issued earlier this year makes clear, even the limited goals of nuclear arms control and nonproliferation have been set back by the lack of leadership on the part of the United States and by the proliferation of new weapons states. And as worrying, the goal of nuclear disarmament no longer seems to animate the progressive community or the peace movement, let alone figure into today’s discussion of American national security policy.

To mark the twentieth anniversary of the Reykjavik Summit, The Nation invited Richard Falk, Mary Kaldor, Randall Caroline Forsberg and George Perkovich, all leading figures of the nuclear disarmament movement at the time of Reykjavik, to reflect on what went wrong and to consider how to put nuclear disarmament back on the political agenda.

The Terror of Hiroshima Has Come Full Circle

Are we doomed to wait for a second nuclear holocaust to arouse our moral and political imaginations?


It seems ironic that the last serious engagement with the challenge of ridding the world of nuclear weapons occurred twenty years ago, when Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met at Reykjavik, and seemed close–at least for a moment–to agreeing to the goal of zero nuclear weapons within ten years. It is probable that even Reagan lacked the political clout to pull off such a deal, given the depth of American attachment to the weaponry. This speculation was not tested because the two leaders could not find a way to compromise on the issue of a defensive program dear to Reagan’s heart, called “Star Wars” by its critics and “Strategic Defense Initiative” by its supporters. This flirtation with nuclear disarmament in Iceland produced wildly different assessments, ranging from “near miss” to “outright failure.”

From the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima until the end of the cold war, leaders of both superpowers were consistently in favor of the goal of nuclear disarmament, at least in public. Proposals were made at various times during the twenty years following World War II, but none came close to achieving a meeting of relevant minds in Washington and Moscow. The dividing line between sincere advocacy and peace propaganda was never clear, arousing worries on the side of those who believed that nuclear weapons were necessary for American security that disarmament moves might indeed be genuine and suspicions among peace activists that governmental endorsement of disarmament moves was never more than window-dressing. Richard Barnet wrote an insightful short book titled Who Wants Disarmament? in 1960 that reached the predictable answer to his question: “neither side.”

At first glance, the failure to seek nuclear disarmament in the early 1990s seems puzzling. After all, the main rationale for keeping the weapons was to deter the Soviet Union, and vice versa. With the cold war over, there was a wide-open window of opportunity, yet there was no movement to take advantage of it. In fact, American diplomacy encouraged the Yeltsin government to keep its arsenal of nuclear weapons intact. How can we explain this posture? It discloses two of the reasons nuclear disarmament has proved to be such a non-starter (as compared with efforts to curb biological and chemical weapons): first, the nuclear-weapons establishment is very powerful; and second, for the United States and other nuclear weapons states, despite arguments to the contrary, influential leaders in government and the military believe the possession of these weapons confers strategic advantages.

Almost as puzzling as the diplomatic lack of interest is the failure of the peace movement to sustain the focus on nuclear weapons issues that had been so intense during the 1980s. It was then that the great nuclear freeze movement excited many people in America, while the European Nuclear Disarmament Movement mobilized millions in Europe. In retrospect, it would seem that the issue surfaced so strongly at that time because there was real fear that a war with nuclear weapons might actually be fought in Europe. That fear stemmed in part from the talk of a new strategic doctrine that actually envisioned exchanges of so-called tactical nuclear weapons in Europe without the devastation of the United States. With the end of the cold war, given the extent to which the danger of nuclear war had been so strongly associated with a breakdown of deterrence, the public sense of danger vanished overnight.

There was at the same time a convergent development that drew popular attention to a new cause. With the emergence of Gorbachev’s leadership in the Soviet Union and the great popular movements in Eastern Europe directed at overcoming the oppressive cold war regimes, as well as the growing international attention given to the antiapartheid movement, there was a shift of idealistic energies from war/peace issues to human rights. This dynamic has continued. Idealistic young people today seem far more interested in human rights than they do in the pursuit of a cause that seems as futile and abstract as nuclear disarmament.

This is not to say that nothing constructive has happened since Reykjavik. The World Court in 1996 issued a historic Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons that lent strong support to two conclusions: The use of nuclear weapons could be legal, if ever, only in circumstances where the survival of a state was at severe risk; and that the Non-Proliferation Treaty imposed a firm obligation on the nuclear weapons states to pursue in good faith nuclear disarmament. As might have been expected, the US government did its best to prevent the court from ever dealing with these issues, and when that failed, used major pressure to get the media to ignore the results.

In the meantime, of course, there have been some very serious adverse developments. India and Pakistan both openly crossed the nuclear threshold in 1998, and North Korea seems to have developed a few weapons of its own. The United States, especially after 9/11, has adopted “counterproliferation” as a defining doctrine of its foreign policy. The alleged threat of Iraq to develop nuclear weapons served as a pretext for aggressive war. A similar diplomatic confrontation with Iran is shaping up over whether Tehran’s determination to possess a complete fuel cycle, including uranium enrichment facilities, represents an unacceptable move to develop nuclear weapons. Beyond these problems, the United States seems to be moving toward a new strategic doctrine that greatly expands the military role of nuclear weapons, treating them as potentially available even against non-nuclear adversaries. In an important sense, the terror of Hiroshima has come full circle–to be linked not only to the terror of 9/11 but also to the bravado of preventive war waged against essentially civilian societies. The report produced this year by the UN Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction, headed by former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, is revealingly titled Weapons of Terror.

As the Blix report made clear, serious dangers of a nuclear catastrophe form part of today’s geopolitical landscape. At the same time, there are no legitimate roles for these weapons of mass terror and thus no legitimate reason for governments to maintain their current nuclear postures. Yet the challenge remains of how to translate the immorality and illegality of this weaponry into a viable antinuclear political project. In the end, fear was not enough, even at the height of cold war anxieties. Are we up against an apocalyptic dead end in the human experience? Are we doomed to wait for a second Hiroshima to arouse our moral and political imaginations? We should realize, at least, that consoling illusions will not move us back from the current nuclear precipice!

Symbols of Sovereignty

As long as nuclear weapons are viewed as symbols of sovereignty, proliferation is inevitable.


Movements that campaign against weapons are usually campaigning against particular wars. The movement against nuclear weapons in the 1980s was a movement against the cold war–the last great conflict between states. Nowadays we are much concerned about new types of violence–terrorism, wars of ethnic cleansing and genocide, or so-called wars against terror–which involve both states and nonstate actors. The weapons used in these new types of violence are small arms, homemade bombs or even civilian airliners, on the one side, and supposedly discriminate conventional air strikes, on the other. In campaigning against these new types of violence, we put the emphasis on international law–humanitarian law, human rights law–and occasionally on the weapons used in those wars, like land mines or cluster munitions. We are appalled by attacks on civilians and invoke the language of crimes against humanity, violations of human rights or the concept of “proportionality.” In the recent war in Lebanon, all of these terms were used to describe Israeli air attacks.

Discussions about nuclear weapons remain curiously bound up in the language of national security. And proposals for dealing with nuclear weapons remain in the realm of the seemingly sanitized language of arms control and nonproliferation. Although there are fears about nuclear weapons getting into the hands of terrorists, it is generally agreed that terrorists do not have the infrastructure to produce nuclear weapons, and that they could only acquire them as a result of state sponsorship.

Nuclear weapons states justify their weapons in terms of potential war with other states; the main argument is deterrence against a threat from other states using weapons of mass destruction. One reason for the Bush Administration’s preoccupation with “counterproliferation”–the idea of using forces to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons–is the argument that deterrence no longer works if states are unstable. Deterrence as a doctrine, the argument goes, only works when states possessing nuclear weapons are relatively stable and control their own territory. By contrast, unstable states, it is argued, may sponsor terrorism, or may let nuclear weapons fall into the hands of nonstate actors, or may possess leaders who do not care about the welfare of their population and thus may not be deterred by the threat of retaliation. But if the states that are allowed to possess nuclear weapons are relatively stable, why would they ever threaten to use nuclear weapons? So why is deterrence necessary at all?

Nuclear weapons are the last-ditch defense of absolute sovereignty. They are supposed to symbolize the awesome power of the state. Yet the lesson of recent wars in Iraq, Lebanon and Chechnya is that even sophisticated conventional weapons are not very effective at what the Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling called “compellance.” They can be very destructive but they do not augment power, if power is understood as the ability to get others to do what you want. Indeed, their very destructiveness undermines power by reducing legitimacy. Israel’s prospects for peace and stability have been weakened rather than strengthened by the recent war in Lebanon. If this is true of conventional military power, how much more true is it of nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons are immensely dangerous, but what possible goal could be achieved by their use?

As long as nuclear weapons are viewed as symbols of sovereignty, proliferation in a globalizing world is inevitable. And sooner or later they will be used, whether because a failing state, like Pakistan, is involved in illegal trade and has links with extremist militants or because of a misinformed or fanatic leader. After all, the Bush Administration ignored much advice and intelligence when going to war in Iraq and seems to believe that mini-nukes or bunker-busters are usable. If we are horrified by “collateral damage” when American and Israeli leaders are claiming to be discriminate by the standards of war, how much more horrifying would be the possible use of nuclear weapons?

There is a need for a new approach to nuclear weapons based on international humanitarian and human rights law, and on the protection of individual human beings rather than states. Nuclear weapons are clearly terror weapons. The threat or use of nuclear weapons would be a crime against humanity. In a recent legal opinion on the replacement of the British Trident nuclear system, two eminent international lawyers argued that the use of nuclear weapons would infringe the “intransgressible” requirement in international customary law that a distinction be drawn between combatants and noncombatants. If we are moving toward a world based on multilateral arrangements among states and the strengthening of international law, especially as it affects individuals, then there is something very peculiar about hiving off the nuclear weapons debate into a different state-bound arena. Campaigning against nuclear weapons has to be part of a wider campaign, already under way in the protests against genocide in the Balkans or Africa or against the wars in Lebanon or Iraq, that would oppose attacks on civilians everywhere.

Undoing the Damage

With the election of George W. Bush, US nuclear policy started going backward. Regaining control of Congress could get us back on track.


The mainstream military analysts who shaped US nuclear policy during the cold war wanted thousands of nuclear weapons to create a nuclear “ladder of escalation.” The ostensible purpose of the nuclear tripwire was to prevent another conventional confrontation like World War I or World War II. Great power wars of conquest and empire date back millennia. How could we prevent such a war indefinitely? The analysts reasoned that the best way to prevent a conventional war that could go nuclear was deliberately to make escalation from conventional war to nuclear war all but unavoidable.

But by the early 1990s, all fears of a major conventional war between East and West had disappeared–the Warsaw Pact disbanded, the Soviet Union dissolved, Soviet troops gone from Eastern Europe, Germany unified and Russian armed forces in ruins. Why, then, did the United States and Russia keep thousands of nuclear weapons?

One reason probably lies in the partial successes of antinuclear efforts. Huge cuts in US and Russian nuclear arsenals were actually made at the end of the cold war . The cuts began with the treaty to ban intermediate-range nuclear forces (the INF Treaty) and the START I Treaty. The INF Treaty did not apply to very large numbers of weapons, but it banned all US and Russian missiles with a range of 500 to 5,000 miles. The START I Treaty provided for the verified destruction of intercontinental missiles and aircraft that had carried thousands of warheads.

Equally important but virtually unknown to the public, in August 1991, in reciprocal unilateral steps, George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev ordered the withdrawal of nearly all of the so-called tactical (short-range) nuclear weapons from service with ground, air and naval forces around the world. In the United States, this involved an estimated 10,000 weapons, and in Russia about 6,000. These weapons were the nuclear “tripwire” that would have made any major conventional East-West war go nuclear.

In the mid-1990s decisions were made in Moscow and Washington not to produce any new types of nuclear delivery vehicles (missiles or aircraft). The United States, Russia, Britain, France and China permanently ended or suspended all nuclear weapons tests, and plans were made for deeper cuts in the remaining roughly 10,000 nuclear warheads in the active US and Russian arsenals (a total of around 20,000, down from 50,000 at the peak of the nuclear arms race). By 1995 all of the goals of the 1980s nuclear freeze movement had been achieved, and the deep cuts in nuclear stockpiles meant to follow the freeze were under way.

All progress came to a halt, however, with the Republican takeover of the US Senate, where nuclear treaties must be ratified. With arch-conservative Jesse Helms as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, additional nuclear arms reduction agreements negotiated under Clinton were rejected. Then, with the election of George W. Bush, US nuclear policy started going backward. At the direction of Bush’s ultra-conservative team (Rice, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Cheney), the United States ended the ABM Treaty, launched a big program to put weapons in space, allocated funds to develop and produce new types of nuclear weapons and expand related facilities, and refused to negotiate any further verified destruction of nuclear warheads withdrawn from service in the United States or Russia. The United States put the world on notice that it might resume testing nuclear weapons and announced that it would consider using nuclear weapons against countries that do not have such weapons.

This tragically counterproductive nuclear policy includes virtually everything a would-be Third World proliferator might consider an enticement, challenge or provocation to acquire nuclear weapons. Far from strengthening US security in any way, the Helms-Bush actions of the last decade actually encouraged the proliferation of nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan in 1998, as well as the more recent steps toward proliferation in North Korea and Iran.

In recent years, along with many other longtime activists, I have struggled to find a way to alert the public to this terrible turn of events and mobilize opposition. But the messages seem to have been falling mostly on deaf ears. Even in the religious community, long a source of powerful opposition to the nuclear arms race, the issue no longer resonates.

Why? Part of the answer lies in the success of antinuclear efforts. More than half of the arsenals have been eliminated, including the weapons most likely to start a nuclear war. At the same time, the end of the cold war and the new relationships between Russia and Western nations have created a sense that there is no real danger of a nuclear war. And we must recognize that the danger today is, in fact, less than it was in the mid-1980s, at the peak of US and European popular antinuclear movements.

But the thousands of nuclear weapons on intercontinental missiles that remain in service are still on alert and could still be launched on a false warning of attack. Those most at risk are the people who live in or near large cities in the United States and Russia. US nuclear policy has already triggered new nuclear weapons programs in Russia and China, which are likely to lead to further buildups in India and Pakistan. Apart from North Korea and Iran, new proliferators could emerge, and we could still lose the long struggle against widespread proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Though not much debated, nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation policy divides Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate. The way to get back on track in this area, as in many others, is to win back control of Congress and then again press our case for nuclear disarmament measures.

The Risk of Nuclear Anarchy

To head it off, we need leaders with the vision and the political will to put nuclear disarmament back on the world’s agenda.


Three factors produced the hopeful moment of Reykjavik. The United States and the Soviet Union recognized the reciprocal devastation they could impose on each other, and with the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, both were tiring of global military adventures. The leaders of both countries morally understood that nuclear weapons blighted civilization and were problems to be gotten rid of rather than solutions to be brandished. And third, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were change-minded leaders who applied their boldness to the goal of eliminating nuclear dangers.

None of these three factors operates today.

The United States now sees itself as the global hegemon. Its national security establishment seeks to project dominant military power in order to prevent a peer competitor or a coalition of powers from rising to balance US power. Leaders in Washington and, indeed, Moscow, Paris, Beijing, Tel Aviv, Islamabad, Pyongyang and perhaps other capitals see their nuclear arsenals more as valued assets than as problems to be eliminated, and they resist moral questioning of this position. And, with the exception of George Bush and Tony Blair in their campaign to disarm and liberate Iraq, leaders of nuclear powers have for years lacked strength, vision and boldness.

Reagan also displayed an optimism that is now largely absent from post-Iraq America and from other major powers. Perhaps a consummation of the Reykjavik proposal would have given birth to a more optimistic future, and the nuclear pessimism of our day would have become the dismal fantasy of airport bookstand novelists rather than the agate gloom of daily headlines. But great disparities in power and prestige, unregulated by universally enforced rules, motivate the disadvantaged to seek the magic balancing potential of nuclear weapons.

The vast majority of the world’s states do not possess nuclear weapons and cannot match the military, economic and political power of the nine states that do (though two of the nine–North Korea and Pakistan–are hardly major powers). Yet without universal rules to govern the international system, even nuclear weapons states will find security difficult to obtain. A rule-based system cannot be sustained globally without the vast majority of states believing that voluntary adherence to international rules and obligations is mutually beneficial and that rules will be fairly enforced.

This leads back to the disarmament bargain on which the nonproliferation regime was founded in the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968. The states that did not then possess nuclear weapons agreed not to acquire such weapons, while the five that did–Britain, China, France, the Soviet Union and the United States–agreed in return to get rid of their nuclear arsenals at some undetermined time. The five pre-1967 nuclear weapons states plus Israel, India and Pakistan (which never signed the treaty) no longer fool anyone that they take disarmament seriously. The United States leads the pack in still refusing to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which is the most basic benchmark of fidelity to the goal of nuclear abolition.

Instead of keeping bargains premised on international equity and universal standards, Washington prefers to eliminate bad governments and bend the rules for friendly ones. Iraq was invaded, Iran is vilified, North Korea eschewed for not complying with nonproliferation rules, but the Bush Administration did not hesitate to change those rules to accommodate India’s nuclear arsenal and may do so with other friends in the future. Russia neither resists nor poses alternatives to US nonproliferation policy; it simply doesn’t help much. Iran may get the bomb because Russia won’t support Security Council diplomacy tough enough to pose real costs to the Iranian government, and the United States will not offer Iran a relationship that would change its calculation about its nuclear program. The mere prospect of an Iranian bomb in turn has prompted Egypt to announce a big civilian nuclear program; Turkey is making similar noises. North Korea’s bomb, plus the rise of Chinese power and disillusion about the future of cooperative security, may lead Japan and South Korea to flirt with acquiring nuclear weapons. Brazil is going into the uranium enrichment business, which Argentina notes with interest.

None of these potential next-wave proliferators would pose a direct threat to the United States, but such proliferation would cause deep and wide-ranging international insecurity. The United States would have to step in to try to reorder the world and allay the insecurities that result from more proliferation. Yet most other countries would be reluctant to cooperate either in punishing or containing the proliferators or in improving nuclear technology rules. They would want to know what’s in it for them.

If the United States, Russia and other countries with nuclear weapons were not offering some meaningful equity, the system of rules would give way to the unpredictability, cost and insecurity of nuclear anarchy. It is this prospect that should lead us to put nuclear disarmament back on the world’s political agenda today.

Maybe disarmament is not the equity others will demand now, but until leaders with the attributes of Gorbachev and Reagan arise to begin international negotiations to replace the existing disarmament bargain, the risk of nuclear proliferation will grow. Nuclear threats cannot be diminished without the vision and political will that the Reykjavik leaders shared.

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This entry was posted on 12 October, 2006 by in Nuclear Politics.

Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"