A contribution to an exchange on Nuclear Abolition: The Road from Armageddon to Transformation
I want to thank the many commenters on my essay, "Nuclear Abolition: From the Edge of Armageddon to Transformation." The comments were thoughtful, intelligent, and sometimes passionate. Taken together, they give me hope that change is possible and humanity may somehow find a way through the current threat that nuclear weapons pose not only to human life but to all complex life on our planet.
I will begin with the question: What are nuclear weapons? I recall some lines from a poem by American poet Robert Bly written during the Vietnam War. Bly wrote, “Men like Rusk are not men:/They are bombs waiting to be loaded in a darkened hangar.” In the same way as Bly poetically removed “Rusk,” then US Secretary of State, from the category of “men,” I would argue that nuclear weapons are not really “weapons” in any traditional sense. Rather, they exist in their own category, defined by their omnicidal threats and capabilities as “instruments of annihilation” or “world-ending devices.”
Most of the comments recognized, either implicitly or explicitly, the unique destructive power of nuclear weapons and how they put us at the edge of Armageddon. Hiroo Saionji underscores the “historic and tragic devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki” and “the fact that the use of nuclear weapons will lead to the extinction of humanity.” Ian Lowe argued that “nuclear weapons constitute an existential threat to human civilization.” Lowe went on, “The subsequent development of fusion weapons gave the power-crazed the capacity to murder millions and raised the spectre of destroying human society.” Of course, it is not only the “power-crazed” that have this capability with thermonuclear weapons. It could be any nuclear-armed leader, even the most ordinary, who could stumble into nuclear war. There have been many close calls, more than enough to sound the alarm and keep it blaring.
Unfortunately, awareness of the problem alone will not make it possible to abolish nuclear arsenals. Thus far, it hasn’t been sufficient to change the world, although brilliant scientists like Einstein, Szilard, and Pauling did their best to raise such awareness. More recently, Daniel Ellsberg has made the case that nuclear arsenals constitute “Doomsday Machines,” threatening the future of humanity. Nonetheless, continued attempts to raise awareness of nuclear dangers and consequences of nuclear war should be an important part of any project seeking to bring about transformative change toward abolishing these weapons.
Some see nuclear arms as a symbol; others, as a symptom. Nuclear weapons have been described as a symbol of our hyper-competitive society, humanity’s failure to cooperate, or a lack of trust between states. In my view, it is not sufficient to think of nuclear weapons as symbols or symptoms, although they may be these as well. Nuclear weapons, regardless of what they symbolize, are the problem. They are humankind’s most acute problem, and they must be eliminated as a matter of urgency. The question is how.
Before turning to this question, I will first examine some gender issues that were raised in the commentary, an aspect of the discussion that I found to be very rich. Anna Harris raised the question of the disproportionate number of men responding to the issue of “nuclear Armageddon.” She wrote, “What is lacking, to put it bluntly, is the ability to talk about feelings, which is something women seem to have developed more, and without which this whole discussion becomes one of control and numbers which renders it to me almost totally meaningless.” I agree with Anna’s call for bringing the passion of one’s feelings into the abolition project, and I understand the “unspeakable rage” that she reports feeling. Little is gained by a focus on control and numbers, which has been the principal approach of the leaders of nuclear-armed states. I believe there is only one number that truly matters when it comes to nuclear arms, and that number is zero. This is in line with Richard Falk’s warning about the dangers of focusing on the “arms control” and the managerial aspects of nuclear armaments, as opposed to the far more critical focus on their abolition.
Judith Lipton also weighed in, stating, “Males and females can push buttons with launch codes. The reality of nuclear war is so painful that young or old, male or female, we watch cat videos rather than saving our poor planet.” In this way, she reminded us that we are all in this together, gender differences related to feelings notwithstanding. The truth is that most citizens of the planet are distracted by more immediate concerns than nuclear Armageddon and have an insufficient awareness of nuclear dangers to play an effective role in pressing for their elimination. There can be no doubt, though, that bringing feelings and passion to the endeavor is an important project for both men and women. Both are needed.
What needs to be done to abolish nuclear weapons? There are obviously no easy answers to this question. If there were, the goal would have been accomplished already. We continue to live in a world in which a small number of leaders in a small number of countries with nuclear arms are holding the world hostage to their perceptions of their own national security. A starting point would be to shift the public perceptions of the ability of nuclear weapons to provide for their security. One way to do this is to debunk nuclear deterrence, as did David Barash, who concluded, “In short, deterrence is a sham, a shibboleth evoked by those seeking to justify the unjustifiable.”
Other commenters discussed the importance of building trust among states and of increasing cooperation among them. Some commenters, including Andreas Bummel, argued that it would be necessary for states to cede some of their sovereignty to international organizations and that strengthened international institutions would be needed. Bummel wrote, “What is required…is to relinquish sovereignty in this domain and to accept a global authority that would provide for enforcement and collective security.” Lawrence Wittner stresses the need for an “international security system based on governance by either a strengthened United Nations or a world federation.”
The creation of new global institutions presents us with a chicken-and-egg dilemma: can we afford to wait for such new institutions to form and be accepted given the urgency of the nuclear dangers confronting the world? Or, on the other hand, can we afford not to seek to create such new institutions, given the same urgency of nuclear dangers? What we can say with certainty is that national security is threatened, not enhanced, by nuclear arms, and it would be wise to shift the focus from national security to global security.
Ian Lowe touched upon the relationship between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Although I did not address the issue in my essay, I fully agree with the premise that nuclear power reactors and research reactors have often been a façade for developing nuclear weapons. In addition to the link to nuclear weapons proliferation, nuclear power has other serious problems, such as no adequate plan for long-term storage of high-level radioactive wastes, which will remain dangerous for tens of thousands of years; a history of serious reactor accidents, such as those at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima; offering potential targets for terrorists and war-time enemies; and high capital costs. For all these reasons, most significantly the relation to nuclear weapons proliferation, nuclear power remains an extremely poor alternative to truly safe renewable energy sources.
I will conclude with three important quotes with which I strongly agree and which I believe carry deep seeds of wisdom.
The first from T. S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is offered by Judith Lipton in her contribution:
Do I dare Disturb the universe? In a minute there is time For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
The second quote is from Richard Falk’s comment: “In such a time [as ours], it is itself an act of will to keep the flames of hope and possibility from being snuffed out.”
The third is a quote offered by David Barash drawing from ancient Jewish wisdom: “It is not for you to finish the task, but neither is it for you to refrain from it.”
We must not lose sight of the fact that, as T. S. Eliot reminds us, with nuclear arms, everything could change in a moment’s time. That is the dangerous nature of the Nuclear Age. It is only by our commitment and acts of will that we may be able to keep hope alive, protect our world, and pass it on intact to future generations. We may not finish the task, but we must accept the challenge and engage in it with passion if we are to create the awareness, trust, cooperation, and institutional framework to achieve the goal of nuclear zero.
I appreciate the work of the Great Transition Initiative, and the opportunity to share my thoughts with you and to receive yours in return.
Cite as David Krieger, "Author's Response to Roundtable on How to Ban the Bomb," Great Transition Initiative (August 2018), https://www.greattransition.org/roundtable/nuclear-abolition-author-response.
As a forum for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.
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