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Nuclear weapons are still there

Who protests against nuclear weapons nowadays? People seem to have half-forgotten them.

But they are still there, patiently lying in wait. In The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2007), Jonathan Schell even speaks of a “nuclear renaissance” in the new century.

True, there are fewer nukes than there used to be. The number of active nuclear weapons has declined from a Cold War peak of some 65,000 to below 20,000. In another decade it may fall to 10,000. But this is scant consolation, for several reasons:

* Many decommissioned weapons are not destroyed, but only partially dismantled and placed in storage.

* The 10,000 remaining nukes will still suffice to wipe out the human race many times over. Even the use of 100 would cause disaster on an unprecedented scale. Atmospheric scientists at UCLA and the University of Colorado modeled the climatic effects of the use of 100 Hiroshima-type bombs – just 0.03% of the explosive power of the global arsenal – in a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. These countries have fought four wars and now have about 75 nukes each. Direct fatalities would be comparable with World War Two, while millions of tons of soot borne aloft would devastate agriculture over vast expanses of Eurasia and North America.

* Nuclear weapons do not serve merely as status symbols or for mutual deterrence. Resort to them remains an option for the contingency of a serious setback in a conventional war, and new types of high-precision nukes, such as the so-called “bunker busters”, have been designed for that purpose. Nuclear weapons may even be used to stop a state acquiring nuclear weapons, or to suppress nuclear capacity that is in danger of falling under “terrorist” control (say, in the context of a disintegrating Pakistan).

* Finally, the number of nuclear weapons states has increased and is likely to increase further. The nuclear nonproliferation regime is gradually losing its ability to inhibit the chain reaction. The double standard on which it is based – one rule for members of the nuclear club, another for the rest – is (as Schell argues) no longer viable. If all states with the requisite economic and technological capacity are not to acquire nuclear weapons, then they must all agree to renounce them.

The numerical decline might be cause for optimism if it could be seen as progress toward nuclear disarmament. Unfortunately, there are no grounds for such an interpretation. Nuclear weapon states are determined to maintain and upgrade their arsenals. Total numbers are falling as Russia and the US shed what they consider excess capacity, but they are restructuring their nuclear forces, not giving them up. Once this process is complete the decline in numbers will level off.

So why have people half-forgotten the nuclear threat?

For one thing, it has been overshadowed by another threat to the human species – global warming.

Even before people became fully aware of this new peril, however, the end of the Cold War had largely dispelled the fear of nuclear war. A reformist at the time, I was closely involved in the peace and disarmament movements of the 1980s. With benefit of hindsight, I realize now that these movements did not perceive the nuclear threat in its broadest sense because they were too preoccupied by the specific context of the superpower nuclear confrontation of that period. This was especially true of European Nuclear Disarmament (END).

Western governments told us that “we” needed nuclear weapons to deter the Soviet threat. We anti-nuclear campaigners did not believe they were right, but we were naïve enough to believe that they believed what they told us. We drew the logical implication that they would become favorably disposed to nuclear disarmament if relations with the Soviet Union could only be sufficiently improved. So we hopefully looked forward to the new and deeper East-West détente heralded by Gorbachev.

Not only did the Cold War come to an end; the Soviet Union itself collapsed. No more “Soviet threat” to worry our rulers! But did they heave a sigh of relief and rush to dispose of their nuclear weapons? No, they started to come up with substitute rationales for keeping the things. Thus Blair, announcing renewal of the Trident program in 2006, explained that nuclear confrontation with another major power “remains possible in the decades ahead.” Schell sums it up nicely: “By reviving and refurbishing their arsenals, the nuclear powers signal that they expect that great-power rivalries will return” (p. 210).

The Cold War is dead. Long live the Cold War!

The unpredictability of the future, they tell us, is itself a good reason to hold on to nuclear weapons. And the future is always unpredictable.

The world is dominated by a system based on conflict – conflict over resources of all kinds, conflict between competing property interests and the states that represent them. Once nuclear weapons were discovered and became tools in this conflict, they were bound to threaten human survival. The threat only seemed to have a necessary connection with the specific pattern of global power that happened to exist at the time. That pattern has started to change, there are new potential adversaries, but the conflict-based system remains. So does the nuclear threat.

Schell calls for “action in concert by all the nations on Earth” (p. 217) to abolish nuclear weapons, halt global warming, and tackle other urgent global problems. His eloquence is moving, but his vision is only very briefly sketched and lacks substance. True, he has some technical and organizational proposals. Like IAEA director Mohammed ElBaradei, for instance, he would revive the Baruch Plan put forward by Truman in 1946 and place all nuclear fuel production under the control of an international agency. But he fails to consider what political, social and economic changes might be necessary to create and sustain the international trust and cooperation that he seeks.

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that nuclear disarmament were somehow to be achieved within the existing conflict-based system. Many states would still have the technological capacity to make nuclear weapons again if they so decided. This is known as the “breakout” problem. It is hard to imagine countries resisting this temptation when at war or even under conditions of acute military confrontation. As we need not just to achieve but maintain nuclear disarmament, we therefore also need to abolish war in general, together with all weapons that can be used to threaten war. A close reading of Schell suggests that he accepts this point, though he does not spell it out.

But take the argument a step further. Wars arise out of conflicts over the control of resources. Doesn’t this mean that an end has to be put to such conflicts? And how can this be done without placing resources under the control of a global community – that is, without establishing world socialism?

Socialists are not against nuclear (or general) disarmament within capitalism. We know that the world faces problems of the greatest urgency and we know that the global social revolution is not an immediate prospect. We have no wish to hold human survival hostage to the attainment of our ideals. Please go ahead and prove us wrong by abolishing nuclear weapons without abolishing capitalism. Nothing, apart from socialism itself, would make us happier. The trouble is that we simply don’t understand how it can be done. That is why we see no alternative to working for socialism.

The Socialist Standard, No. 1242, February 2008

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