Putting the Nuclear Genie Back in the Bottle

Frederick N. Mattis, Banning Weapons of Mass Destruction (Praeger, 2009)
George Perkovich and James M. Acton, Abolishing Nuclear Weapons:A Debate (Carnegie Endowment, 2009)

By Ron Shirtliff (reviewer)

In the spring of 1963 I had the pleasure of briefly joining with more than 100,000 others on the Aldermaston March from London, part of the Ban the Bomb Movement. We had wisdom and moral righteousness on our side, though officials called us fringe lunatics, or dupes of the enemy, at that time the USSR. For innocents like myself, it was a simple matter: the Bomb was too obscene to exist, so it should be banned. That reality has not changed over the last half century. Over the years officialdom kept raising the ante of nuclear terror until Mutual Assured Destruction, MAD, coupled with Launch on Warning, became the official logic of both sides in the Cold War, and continues, in practice, even today. That such a nuclear exchange would probably destroy civilization (and possibly all human life) did not seem to weigh heavily on the warring strategists.

Despite the inertia of strategists, there has been change. Some state officials have come to realize that the monopoly on terror held by the USA, Britain, France, the USSR, China, and (unacknowledged by the West), Israel, is now slowly but inevitably ending; upstarts like India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, are getting into the act. Every industrialized country can get into the nuclear terror game. Some of this potential for super terror will inevitably fall under the control of non-state activists – people we call terrorists – who might do a Hiroshima on London, New York, Moscow, or Beijing. The balance of terror is getting out of balance.

Henry Kissenger, George Shultz, William Perry, Sam Nunn, Air Force General Lee Butler, and 61 other retired military professionals in the US and others in Great Britain, have spoken out collectively about the need to take a new approach to controlling nuclear proliferation. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970 has failed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Western powers acquiesce to the open secret of Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear weapons, and the established nuclear states fail to uphold their end of the central bargain of the NPT, their promise that they would begin to reduce, and eventually to eliminate their nuclear weapons in return for the rest of the world’s states refraining from developing their own nuclear weapons.

Courageously, President Obama, has followed up on his surprising election promise, and has committed himself to putting the nuclear genie back into the bottle. I say ‘courageously’ because that commitment sets him apart from the conventional big nuclear power thinking that has dominated debate since Hiroshima. The old logic went, if you have enough of the terror weapons, and if you have them on appropriate high alert, you need not give a damn about what minor powers think. Obama has faced the new reality that the old wisdom is flawed, that the new reality requires the old nuclear powers to reduce and eliminate their terror arsenals in return for a fair Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is onside, another first at the official level. The existing NPT is so faded that counties could not find common ground for terms of its renewal at its last meeting.

Two serious books on the subject of banning the bomb have been published in the past 12 months: Banning Weapons of Mass Destruction, by Frederick N. Mattis, and Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, by George Perkovich and James M. Acton. These authors do not waste time railing, as we did on the road to Aldermaston, against the obscenity of these terror weapons; they take the obscenity for granted.

Their focus is on what must be done to enable the nations of the world to bring the nuclear threat to heel. They do a fine job, the best of intellectual analysis of a complex situation. They are on the right side, and I can only say God bless them and give them perseverance.

But the challenges to these noble objectives are daunting. They emphasize the inherent logic of national states regarding their interests and security. No nation is likely to consciously act against its conceived self-interest, and only a Nuclear Ban Treaty that serves that self-interest has any chance of gaining universal acceptance. More ephemeral or transient political positions are generally not dealt with, except to acknowledge that local political situations might scuttle the possibility of a treaty.

None of the authors suggest that a comprehensive, binding non-nuclear treaty is likely. Their mission is to set out their roadmaps of the requirements for achieving that objective when the political will (around the globe) is there.

Life seemed simpler when carrying a Ban the Bomb banner from London. Over the years, the obscene weapons of terror have proliferated and the problems of their elimination have grown proportionately. One can only hope that Obama’s vision of a nuclear free world will inspire idealists and hard-nosed realists to take seriously the need to bring an end to this madness. These two rather technical books are a part of the new thinking that just may make that old dream possible.

Reviewed by Ron Shirtliff, an editor at Peace and a retired professor at Ryerson.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2010

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2010, page 29. Some rights reserved.

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