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The Nuclear Challenge (10): Seventy Years After Hiroshima & Nagasaki: Against Binaries

10 Sep

[Prefatory Note: This is the tenth, and mercifully the last, in this series of posts prompted by the 70th observance of the atomic attacks in 1945. The intention has been to explore several of the more important dimensions of what is called here ‘nuclearism,’ the securitization of nuclear weaponry in the face of international law, international morality, and simple common sense, and what can and should be done to achieve desecuritization of such weaponry of mass destruction, reviewing the stubborn adherence to nuclearism by the nuclear nine, the marginalization of the UN with respect to disarmament and denuclearization, and the rise and fall of antinuclear activism in civil society. Hopefully, the time will come when a less gloomy depiction of the nuclear challenge can be made by some future blog practitioner. This text is a slightly revised version of what was initially posted, written in grateful response to comments received.]


There have been a variety of philosophical assaults on either/or thinking, perhaps most notably flowing from the deconstructionist pen of Jacques Derrida. In more policy related contexts, the debate about dichotomizing gender has featured two sets of arguments: first the contention that it is important to distinguish lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people, hence the LGBT designation of sexual ‘otherness,’ which enriches the either/or-ness of the reigning male/female gender binary. Identifications of sexuality also cuts against the grain of the dominant heterosexual or straight template, and is further contested by ongoing debates surrounding the societal, legal, and conceptual legitimacy of ‘same sex marriages.’


The New York Times columnist, Charles Blow, pushes the sexual identity envelope further by developing the case for ‘fluidity’ of preferences, that is, neither purely this or that. He personalizes the issue, indicating that he generally is attracted to women, but on occasion might also be attracted to men, which because the feelings of attraction are greater for women than men, it is not accurate to define himself as ‘bisexual.’ Such a blurring of boundaries corresponds with the actuality of his feelings that even cut across supposedly liberating socially constructed categories as LGBT is meant to be. [Sept 7, 2015] The point being that the biopolitical reality of life often does not divide neatly into binary categories, and when we address the issue as one of upholding societal norms by enacting laws disciplining sexual limits, adverse social, political, and psychological self-alienation and arbitrary distinctions follow. This encroaches upon our freedoms in unfortunate, often unconscious, ways, leading many individuals to stay in the closet to hide their true feelings or be open and face subtle punitive consequences. Or, at best, individuals conclude that their failure to fit their feelings into a single box is somehow ‘abnormal.’ Relaxing traditional roles of state, church, and society in policing politically correct identities is one of the few areas in which freedom in American can be said to have expanded in the last couple of decades, and this, largely due to the transcendence of gender and sexual binaries thanks to robust civil society activism that cut against the grain of majority sentiment.



Perhaps, the most blatant of all binaries bearing on nuclear weapons is between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ nuclear weapons states, which immediately reminds us of Mahmood Mamdani’s devastating critique of the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Muslims. [See Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (2005)] The United States and its allies regard themselves as ‘good’ nuclear weapons states that the world has no reason to worry about while Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan are ‘evil,’ or at best ‘irresponsible’ or ‘insecure’ states that should if at all possible be disallowed to acquire nuclear weapons. It is this primary binary that provides the moral/political disguised infrastructure of NPT treaty regime, which when established was confined to the P5 of the UN Security Council, which while not conceived of as ‘good’ by the West were at least not part of ‘the axis of evil’ depicted by George W. Bush during his presidency.


In this series on the nuclear challenge as of 2015, I have myself succumbed to the ‘binary temptation’ in at least two respects—distinguishing arms control from disarmament, and separating nuclear disarmament from conventional disarmament. Relying on binaries can contribute to a certain clarity of analysis, leading I believe to useful political discourse, but it is also misleading unless qualified and transcended. Dichotomizing choice and consequences in these ways can be especially useful in pointing out weaknesses and pitfalls in ‘politically correct’ methods of solving societal problems. In this spirit, I continue to believe it is illuminating to insist on the critical difference between complete nuclear disarmament as transformative of the security scene as now embedded in world order and arms control as a series of more or less helpful reformist moves that stabilize and manage the role of nuclear weaponry in contemporary security structures. These arms control moves are made without posing any challenge to the fundamental distribution of power and authority in the world, and tend to make such a challenge appear less urgent, and even of questionable benefit.

From this perspective, then, a critique of the NPT regime as the preeminent stabilizing structure in relation to nuclearism seems justified. It provides the basis for setting forth an argument that the NPT approach is antagonistic, rather than complementary to denuclearization and disarmament. This is contrary to the way the NPT regime is generally explained and affirmed, which is as step toward achieving nuclear disarmament, and an indispensable place holding measure to reduce the risks of nuclear war. It is true that inhibiting the spread of nuclear weaponry seems to be in the spirit of what might be described as horizontal denuclearization, although even this limited assertion is not without controversy. The recently deceased Kenneth Waltz with impeccable logical consistency seemed to believe so deeply in rational decision making as embedded in the doctrine of deterrence that he favored the spread of nuclear weapons to additional countries because it would tend to make governments more cautious, and hence nuclear war less likely. Others, including myself, are more ambivalent about such an out of the box position, worrying about any further spread of the bomb, but thinking that only when there is a sense of a loss of control in the capitals of the nuclear nine will there arise a sufficient interest in denuclearization as a genuine political project (as distinct from more or less sincere rhetorical posturing). Obama’s Prague speech in 2009 still seems sincere as of the time of its delivery, but we need to notice that it lived and died as rhetoric because it lacked legs, that is, the rhetoric was never converted into a political project. In contrast, the NPT is definitely a political project and enjoys strong geopolitical support.


The policy emphasis on horizontal denuclearization has the sometimes intended and sometimes unintended effect of shifting public attention away from the greater problematique of promoting vertical declearization, that is, inducing the nuclear weapons states to enter a diplomatic process that would finish with zero nuclear weapons in their military arsenals. Again such a distinction, while useful for some purposes, employs the artificial binary of horizontal and vertical, and misses the nuance actuality of hybridity and interactivity, or what Blow describes as ‘fluidity’ or others have been delimiting by dwelling on the fifty shades of gray positioned between the black and white of conventional thinking. Decuclearization for each of the nuclear nine raises different issues depending on the outlook of their leadership, the political context, and the ease of making alternative non-nuclear security arrangements, as well as their interaction with one another and with neighboring states.


Perhaps, the most salient false dichotomy of all is between ‘nuclear weapons states’ and ‘non-nuclear weapons states.’ When countries have the enrichment facilities and materials, as well as the technical knowhow, they possess a breakout capacity that could materialize in a matter of months, or maybe already exists as a result of a secret program (as was the case with Israel). Yet without acquiring and exploding a bomb such states retain their status as non-nuclear. Israel is treated as belonging to the nuclear nine because its possession of the weaponry has been documented convincingly, although it has never officially admitted its possession of the weaponry, and keeps vindictively punishing Mordechai Vanunu because he exposed the truth about Israel’s nuclear program. North Korea may not have assembled a bomb when it was charged with violating NPT constraints. Germany and Japan, and perhaps a few other countries, are latent or threshold nuclear states, although their overt posture is one of being ‘non-nuclear.’ The fluidity of reality makes the binary classification, at best, a first approximation. At worst, it creates a deceptive distance between states that have nuclear weapons and those that do not presently possess the weaponry, but could do so in a short time. Or between those that pretend not to have the weapon but actually have it and those that pretend to have it but do not have it. The binary classification ignores the many differences with respect to nuclear weapons and doctrines surrounding use of the nuclear nine, but also the many nuances of technical and political proximity to nuclearism of non-nuclear states. Some states have allowed deployments of nuclear weapons on their territory, others have prohibited ships carrying nuclear weapons from entering their ports for even a short visit.



The situation becomes even more complicated if inquiry is extended to secondary political effects. It has been argued that vertical denuclearization undertaken by the United States would likely lead to horizontal nuclearization on the part of Japan and South Korea. Contrariwise, it is reasoned in strategic circles that the nuclearization of countries in Asia and the Middle East could induce vertical denuclearization on a systemic basis to avoid the instabilities and raised risks of a growing number of hands on the nuclear trigger, and to clear the way for regional securitization based on American conventional military dominance. Worries about continued proliferation combined with the realization that American military power would become more usable and effective in a world without nuclear weapons even led such realist mainstays as George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, and Sam Nunn to support nuclear disarmament in the normally militarist pages of the Wall Street Journal. [“A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” Wall Street Journal, Jan 4, 2007.]


A similar line of reasoning applies to the relationship between nuclear disarmament and conventional disarmament. Focusing on nuclear disarmament as a distinct undertaking avoids difficult issues of whether disarmament rests on a premise of pacifism and thus would be imprudent in view of centuries of political consciousness supporting the right and practical necessity of political communities acting in self-defense to uphold their security against external threats. This logic of a collective right to bear arms underlies the modern system of state-centric world order that conceives of security within bounded territorial entities as integrally linked to the war system.


At the same time, as discussed in relation to Gorbachev’s vision of nuclear disarmament discussed in The Nuclear Challenge (3), it is unrealistic to think of deep disarmament without introducing demilitarization into the process. Otherwise as Gorbachev points out, governments will be reluctant to take the last steps in a denuclearizing process if they understand that at the zero point for nuclear weapons, the world will be confronted by American military dominance, already prefigured by the U.S. government spending almost as much to maintain and develop its military machine as the entire rest of the world. For meaningful commentary it is necessary to view different types of disarmament as complements rather than as alternatives, and not to ignore different levels of interactivity. Although both Gorbachev and the Shultz group advocate nuclear disarmament, their geopolitical agendas are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Gorbachev seeks a demilitarized world of equally secure sovereign states whereas the Shultz group favors stabilizing American military hegemony.


One of the most frequently identified binary is that between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy or power. This binary is built into the NPT regime, giving non-nuclear states reassurances in Article IV that by foregoing the bomb they will not be denied the supposed benefits of nuclear energy, and that they can look forward to a denuclearized world as the nuclear weapons states accepted a legal duty to negotiate disarmament in Article VI. And then in Article X parties to the NPT are given a right to withdraw after giving three months notice in response to security imperatives, a right that can be overridden by the geopolitical insistence on non-acquisition of the weaponry as with Iran. The reality of the nuclear world subverts such a binary in a number of ways. If a nuclear energy program is established it creates conditions that makes it easier to cross the weapons threshold by having the capability to produce enriched uranium or plutonium and the technical knowhow to produce a nuclear warhead. Also, the kind of nuclear accidents that occurred at Chernobyl and Fukushima suggest that nuclear facilities are nuclear time bombs awaiting an igniting natural disaster or human error. Such nuclear power plants are also could be a priority target for unscrupulous political extremists. These nuclear facilities pose unknown risks of devastation that could terrorize millions of people, and spread intense fear across the globe following the release of large amounts of intense radiation. Vagaries of air currents might determine whether communities become afflicted or not.


And then there are issues of geopolitical fallout stemming from managing the NPT regime. Instead of the NPT contributing to stability, its maintenance can provide the rationale for recourse to threats and uses of aggressive force. The 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq was mainly justified as a NPT enforcement operation as was the imposition of damaging international sanctions on Iran coupled with frequent reiterations of the military option by American and Israeli leaders. In effect, the alleged need to prevent certain instances of unwanted proliferation is providing political actors, especially the United States, with geopolitical justifications for costly unlawful wars that displace millions and disrupt existing political arrangements. Characterizing nuclear energy as ‘peaceful’ does not seem compatible with the spirit or substance of a fully denuclearized world.


There is an even deeper divide that needs to be bridged conceptually and practically. Can drastic forms of demilitarization reliably occur without also addressing poverty and gross disparities of individual and collective existence? And can such socio-economic issues be resolved without a combination of life style adjustments and the dismantling of neoliberal capitalism as the ideological linchpin of economic globalization? And are any of these radical changes worth contemplating without the inclusion on the policy agenda of global warming and threats to biodiversity? And on and on.


What I favor, in effect, is retaining binaries to clear up basic choices that can be better understood without the complexities and subtleties of fluidity, but also moving toward a second level of interpretation that is immersed in the existential realities of the lifeworld. On this level, evaluation would be contextual and configurative, and not be pre-judged or appraised by reference to a reductive binary. From such angles, the NPT would be seen as both helpful and harmful, making its assessment change with time and context. The NPT may have, on balance, been a constructive step in 1968 when it was possible to believe that inhibiting proliferation would give nuclear disarmament time and space to establish a more favorable climate for negotiations. By way of comparison, in 2015 the world possesses overwhelming evidence suggesting the disinclination of the nuclear weapons states to consider disarmament as a serious policy option. Such an understanding may shift the balance sufficiently to make it now more constructive to repudiate, or at least challenge the NPT regime. Such an altered approach seems quite reasonable in light of the militarist and unlawful tactics of implementation employed to victimize the peoples of Iraq and Iran.


The question of how to think about nuclear issues is itself daunting, yet crucial. One way to go about it is the recognition of distinct discourses with some sensitivity to overlaps between binary and contextual or configurative forms of analysis as discussed above. Among the substantive discourses that seem particularly useful for the promotion of denuclearization and disarmament the following can be commended: international relations; geopolitics; international law; international morality; denuclearization; demilitarization; securitization. Obviously, the path to nuclear zero is long with many twists and turns, and where it will lead remains unknown. What is known is that the struggle for nuclear disarmament, denuclearization, and demilitarization bears heavily on the destinies of the human species, and we each have a responsibility to become a participant rather than a spectator.