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Nobel Peace Prize 2017: International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)

8 Oct


Finally, the committee in Oslo that picks a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize each year selected in 2017 an awardee that is a true embodiment of the intended legacy of Alfred Nobel when he established the prize more than a century ago. It is also a long overdue acknowledgement of the extraordinary dedication of anti-nuclear activists around the planet who for decades have done all in their power to rid the world of this infernal weaponry before it inflicts catastrophe upon all living beings even more unspeakable that what befell the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on two infamous days in August 1945. Such a prize result was actually anticipated days before the announcement by Fredrik Heffermehl, a crusading Norwegian critic of past departures from Nobel’s vision by the prize committee. In making the prediction that the 2017 prize would be given in recognition of anti-nuclear activism Heffermehl prophetically relied on the outlook of the current chair of the Nobel selection committee, a distinguished Norwegian lawyer, Berit Reiss-Andersen, who has publicly affirmed her belief in the correlation between adherence to international law and world peace.



The recipient of the prize is ICAN, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, a coalition of more than 450 civil society groups around the world that is justly credited with spreading an awareness of the dire humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and of making the heroic effort to generate grassroots pressure sufficient to allow for the adoption of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons by 122 UN members on 7 July 2017 (known as the ‘BAN Treaty’). The treaty was officially signed by 53 governments of UN member states this September, and will come into force when 50 instruments of ratifications have been deposited at UN Headquarters, which suggests its legal status will soon be realized as signature is almost always followed by ratification.


The core provision of the BAN Treaty sets forth an unconditional legal prohibition of the weaponry that is notable for its comprehensiveness—the prohibition extends to “the developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, possessing, stockpiling and deploying nuclear weapons, transferring or receiving them from others, using or threatening to use them, or allowing any stationing or deployment of nuclear weapons on national territories of signatories, and assisting, encouraging, or inducing any of these prohibited acts.” Each signatory state is obligated to develop “legal, administrative and other measures, including the imposition of penal sanctions, to prevent and suppress” activities prohibited by the treaty. It should be understood that the prohibition contributes to the further delegitimation of nuclear weapons, but it does nothing directly by way of disarmament.

The BAN Treaty no where claims to mandate disarmament except by an extension of the reasoning that if something is prohibited, then it should certainly not be possessed, and the conscientious move would be to seek a prudent way to get rid of the weaponry step by step. In this regard it is notable that none of the nuclear weapons states are expected to be parties to the BAN Treaty, and therefore are under no immediate legal obligation to respect the prohibition or implement its purpose by seeking a disarmament arrangement. A next step for the ICAN coalition might be to have the BAN prohibition declared by the UN General Assembly and other institutions around the world (from cities to the UN System) to be binding on all political actors (whether parties to the treaty or not), an expression of what international lawyers call ‘peremptory norms,’ those that are binding and authoritative without treaty membership and cannot be changed by the action of sovereign states.


Standing in opposition to the BAN Treaty are all of the present nuclear weapons states, led by the United States. Indeed, all five permanent members (P-5) of the UN Security Council and their allies refused to join in this legal prohibition of nuclear weapons, and to a disturbing degree, seem addicted sustainers of the war system in its most horrific dimensions. Their rationale for such a posture can be reduced to the proposition that deterrence is more congenial than disarmament. Yet the nuclearism is a deeply discrediting contention that the P-5 provide the foundations of responsible global leadership, and therefore have accorded favorable status.


What the BAN Treaty makes clear is the cleavage between those who want to get rid of the weaponry, and regard international law as a crucial step in this process, and those who prefer to take their chances by retaining and even further developing this omnicidal weaponry and then hoping for the best. Leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jung-un make us aware of how irresponsible it is to hope to avoid the use of nuclear weapons over time when such unstable and impulsive individuals are only an arm’s reach away from decreeing a nuclear Armageddon. What the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 should have taught the world, but didn’t, is that even highly rational governments of the world’s most powerful states can come within a hair’s breath of launching a nuclear war merely to avoid an appearance of geopolitical weakness (the U.S. initial refusal to remove nuclear missiles deployed in Turkey even though they were already scheduled for removal because obsolete as it feared that such a step would be taken as a sign of weakness in its rivalry with the Soviet Union). Further, we know that it was only the unusual and unexpected willingness of an unheralded Soviet submarine officer to disobey a rogue order to fire off a nuclear missile that then saved the world from a terrifying chain of events.


The nuclear weapons states, governed by political realists, basically have no trust in law or morality when it comes to national security, but base their faith in the hyper-rationality of destructive military power, which in the nuclear age is expressed in the arcane idiom of deterrence, an idea more transparently known in the Cold War Era as Mutually Assured Destruction (or MAD!!). It is impossible to grasp the essential links between geopolitical ambition and security without understanding the complementary relationship of deterrence and the nonproliferation regime (its geopolitical implementation to avoid the disarmament obligation of Article VI).


In essence, the grandest Faustian Bargain of all times is contained within the confines of the Nonproliferation Regime, which is a geopolitical instrument of control by permanently dividing the world between those that have the bomb and decide who else should be allowed to develop the capability and those who are without the bomb but also without any way to secure a world in which no political actor possesses a nuclear weapons option. In a central respect, the issue between the militarized leadership of the nuclear weapons states and the peoples of the world is a question of trust—that is, a matter of geopolitics as practiced versus international law if reliably implemented.


Everything in the human domain is contingent, including even species survival. This makes it rational to be prudent, especially in relation to risks that have no upper limit, and could produce massive suffering and devastation far beyond tragedies of the past. Of course, there are also risks with a world legally committed to prohibit the possession, threat, and use of nuclear weapons, although if nuclear disarmament were to carry forward the overriding intent of the BAN Treaty, a disarming process would seek with the greatest possible diligence to minimize these risks. A world without nuclear weapons would almost certainly be a safer, saner, more humane world than the one we now inhabit.


Beyond that it would move national and international policy away from the gross immorality of a security system premised on mass destruction of civilian life along with assorted secondary effects of ‘nuclear famine’ caused by dense smoke blockage of the sun, potentially imperiling the wellbeing of all inhabitants of the planet. The dissemination of toxic radiation as far as winds will carry is an inevitable side effect with disastrous consequences even for future generations. Such an ecocidal gamble is not only a throw of the dice with respect to the human future but also in relation to the habitability of the planet by every living species. As such, it profiles an aggravated form of Crimes Against Nature, which while not codified, epitomize the peak of anthropogenic hubris.


It with these considerations in mind that one reads with consternation the cynical, flippant, and condescending response of The Economist: “This year’s Nobel peace prize rewards a nice but pointless idea.” Such a choice of words, ‘nice,’ ‘pointless’ tells it all. What is being expressed is the elite mainstream consensus that it is the height of futility to challenge conventional realist wisdom, that is, the Faustian Bargain mentioned earlier. The challenge is declared futile without even considering the dubious record of geopolitics over the centuries of war upon war, which in the process has deprived humanity of untold resources wasted on generations of deadly weaponry that have inflicted massive suffering and could have been put to many far better and necessary uses.


Of course, the BAN Treaty as an expression of faith in the path of international law and morality radically diverges conceptually and behaviorally from the political path of nuclearism, hard power, and political realism. It will require nothing less than a passionate and determined mobilization of peoples throughout the world to get rid of nuclear weapons, and its accompanying deep ideology of nuclearism. This is a far preferable alternative than passively waiting for the occurrence of a traumatizing sequence of events that so jolt political consciousness as to topple the power structures that now shape security policy throughout the world.


What the BAN Treaty achieves, and the Nobel Prize recognizes, is that the cleavage is now clear between international law and geopolitics with respect to nuclear weapons. The BAN Treaty provides likeminded governments and animated citizen pilgrim throughout the world with a roadmap for closing the gap from the side of law and morality. It will be an epic struggle, but now at least there are some reasons to be hopeful, which should itself strengthen the political will of the global community of anti-nuclear militants. It is helpful to appreciate that this BAN Treaty was achieved despite the strenuous opposition of the geopolitical forces that run the world order system. Just as Nehru read the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 as a decisive sign that European colonialism was vulnerable to national resistance, despite military inferiority, so let us believe and act as if this occasion of the Nobel Peace Prize is another tipping point in the balance between morality/legality on one side and violent geopolitics on the other.



The Nuclear Challenge (8): 70 Years After Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Civil Society Activism on Behalf of Nuclear Zero

6 Sep


The Jeffersonian faith in the future of democracy rested on the cumulative impact of education on citizen participation encouraging a robust and vigilant civil society. The United States has developed a number of institutional paths to academic excellence, and can claim world leadership in crafting the modern university experience. At the same time, this type of excellence has become increasingly a disappointment from a Jeffersonian perspective, with the quality of American democracy declining in many respects since the earliest years of the republic despite several crossing several humane thresholds: including ending slavery, enfranchising women, and more recently, legally entrenching same sex marriage. Yet the role of money as linked to corporate power as well as the lavish funding of special interest lobbies has undermined the functioning of government and university education of, by, and for the people. There are several plausible explanations of this outcome that have nothing, or little to do, with the nature of the educational experience, yet I believe that our high schools and universities bear a significant responsibility for qualitative decline of democracy, which is also a result of education itself being relegated to a role of providing a skilled labor force for the neoliberal world economy that includes what I would label as ‘normative pacification.’


I would relate this contention to the tendency of most universities, with a few notable exceptions, to conceive of their primary role as one of imparting knowledge, by and large avoiding normative domains of ethics and citizenship. In the midst of the Vietnam War there was a brief period of epistemological revolt on the part of students on many college campuses that was carried out under the unifying banner of ‘relevance,’ which was a code word for what I would prefer to call engaged citizenship. This rallying cry for relevance translated into demands by students for participation in all aspects of their educational experience, and more broadly with respect to societal life. Underneath this call was an insistence on normative knowledge, how American society might be made more equitable and satisfying for all of its residents. Although the initial motivation for the student movement of the 1960s was the perceived imprudence and wrongfulness of the Vietnam War, unjustifiably endangering life and limb of young American males via the draft, the activist agenda was deeper and broader, being constructed around a proposed invigoration of democracy in the critical spirit of “as if people mattered.” The triple revolution (calls for universal controlled disarmament, reform of the Democratic Party, and university reform) proclaimed in the Port Huron founding document of Students for a Democratic Society in 1962 or the Mario Savio clarion call at Berkeley two years later on behalf of the Free Speech Movement to ”put your bodies upon the gears” of the machine that was destroying meaningful life were signifiers of this preoccupation with what needed to be done to make democracy work on the home front.


This student movement and its wider reverberations became increasingly threatening to mainstream American society, especially as it lengthened its agenda to accommodate an emergent militant feminism, glimmerings of LBGT movement, Black Panther radical anti-racism, and a grassroots cultural Spring featuring flower girls, psychedelic drugs, and rock music. Although these movements persisted, and realized many goals, there occurred a well-funded backlash orchestrated under the auspices of what Richard Nixon called ‘the silent majority,’ which itself seemed to derive from Jerry Falwell’s ‘moral majority.’ We should also not forget that the 1960s were a decade of political assassinations that were unwittingly very effecting in bursting the balloon of an incipient cultural revolution: John F. Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy (1968). It must also be acknowledged that the bright promise of this period also collapsed under its own weight, a series of internal contradictions dramatized by two grisly incidents in 1969: the Manson Family murders and a homicide committed by the Hells Angels in the course of an unruly Rolling Stone concert at the Altamonte Speedway. These occurrences, in particular, epitomized what middle America thought was ‘the new normal’ being brought about by those who were celebrating the 1960s as inaugurating a new era of permissivness.


An active and anxious political consciousness associated with the menace of nuclear war was an integral part of the early phases of the Cold War, highlighted by the Berlin crises climaxing in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 that might well have produced a nuclear exchange had not cooler heads prevailed in Moscow and the most belligerent voices in Washington kept in check. The peace movement expressed its anti-nuclear mood by adopting the survival slogan “better red than dead.” Despite this display of biopolitical common sense, the operational code of the established order, at least in the West, mindlessly based its strategic doctrine and geopolitical activities on the opposite sentiment of “better dead than red,” privileging regime survival over human survival. Any doubt as to this morbid orientation was removed by building an elaborate underground shelter structure designed exclusively to enable the political leadership of the country to carry on the work of government in the aftermath of a nuclear attack even if American society was substantially destroyed—its people slaughtered, its cities reduced to rubble, and its smoke-filled skies saturated with intense radiation. School children were instructed in these years to duck beneath classroom desks, a pathetic gesture of official concern for protecting the wellbeing of the nation’s young people, which did more to call attention to their vulnerability than it did to offer them safety in the event of nuclear war.


Many of us who were old enough to assess this period of bipolar confrontation and mad doctrines of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) came haltingly to the conclusion that only the peoples of the world could emancipate the world from the militarists who were exerting almost total control over the governing process in the countries possessing nuclear warheads. It was this turn to civil society, accompanied by mobilizing efforts in an atmosphere of grassroots fear and apprehension, that produced a measure of political pushback that mounted principled challenges to the moral, political, and cultural postulates of nuclearism, challenges that could be met in the end only by the elimination of the weaponry.


Such anti-nuclear radicalism, although gaining many adherents throughout the world and a few surges of support, never threatened the nuclear weapons establishments around the world in any sustained way. What seemed more effective from a political perspective were liberal incremental initiatives that focused on the excesses of nuclearism such as first strike technology and doctrine and an unregulated arms race, and didn’t view it as realistic to question nuclearism itself. The ‘freeze movement’ that peaked in 1980 was a characteristic liberal effort to curtail the nuclear arms race without directly challenging the wisdom, morality, legality, and most of all the structure of belief and bureaucratic commitment to continuing to ground the security of the West on its reliance on nuclear weaponry. Societal support for such liberal initiatives ebbed and flowed, seemingly tracking the rise and fall of fears in the general public that nuclear warfare would occur as a consequence of Cold War geopolitics. This liberal orientation may have moderated the arms race and mitigated the risks of unintentional nuclear war, but it proved irrelevant, or worse, with respect to the existence and partial normalization of nuclear weaponry as the ultimate foundation of the global security system.


In many respects, the civil society focus shifted from activism to education, a process accelerated by the end of the Cold War, which induced a different set of concerns that can be comprehended as societal complacency or denial. Such attitudes gave rise to a new variety of false consciousness with respect to nuclear weapons, understating risks and ignoring opportunities. The immediate aftermath of the Cold War in the decade of 1990s provided the best geopolitical opening since Hiroshima for the elimination of nuclear weapons, but the leadership in nuclear weapons states saw no reason to depart from its nuclear comfort zone by engaging with a disarmament process. The absence of pressure from below meant that the nuclear status quo would not be significantly questioned despite the erosion of the deterrence rationale that had served as the principal justification for nuclearism put forward by the realist consensus throughout the entire Cold War.


Seeking out of deep resolve to fill this political and normative vacuum with respect to nuclear policy, which is itself a disturbing sign of the times, are a few largely educational efforts of which the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy are two of the longest lasting, most dedicated, and most respected. In my view, although strongly supportive of such an educational outreach, premised on the supreme sanity of the belief that only a world of zero nuclear weapons is morally and political sustainable, these organizations do not clearly enough draw a line separating the stabilizing managerial impulses underlying arms control and the maintenance of the nonproliferation regime from their proclaimed and genuine transformative raison d’ětre of nuclear disarmament. As a result the educational message conveyed is incomplete, and in my view, confusing. To some extent this ambiguity it understandable, and even commendable: nuclear disarmament is not currently on the political agenda in any meaningful sense, and so nudging the nuclear status quo may in certain respects reduce immediate risks (for example, moving away from hair trigger alert for strategic missile forces). From this angle, it makes a certain sense to exert a short-term policy influence by supportive arms control measures while reserving purely educational efforts to explaining the strong case for a world without nuclear weapons with or without an accompanying demilitarization of securitization and geopolitical interaction. What is left insufficiently explored is whether arms control/nonproliferation has the negative effect of sucking most of the energy away from more drastic repudiations of nuclearism.


There are two issues that relate to filling the educational gap created by the failure of universities to prepare students to be citizens in the nuclear age:

–first, the shift of the center of pedagogic gravity from academic institutions to civil society organizations, most notably the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation;

–secondly, to explore whether the path to nuclear disarmament can proceed in tandem with arms control and the nonproliferation regime, or that a choice must be made and explained as between these two approaches. I believe the long record since 1945 of incremental small steps forward combined with the structural rigidity of the nuclear establishment points in the direction of incompatibility. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, the most credible strategy for achieving a world without nuclear weapons requires, in my view, a renunciation of the logic of arms control and nonproliferation. And even a step further, the advocacy of nuclear disarmament must become joined at the hip with the recognition that global demilitarization and conventional disarmament are part of a retrofitted political package of unconditional anti-nuclearism.