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"Forget the Rest" blog

One Minute to Midnight

in Reaching Critical Will “News in Review" (pdf), Geneva

4/22/08, Greg Mello

We have entered an era of global crises that have neither obvious ends nor easy solutions.  These crises are not something that might happen in the future.  They are present now and are growing in severity and import week by week. 

These emergencies are plowing up prospects for “business as usual” outcomes in every field, including international security.  In addition to the usual and predictable litanies of woe about nuclear proliferation, failure to disarm and so on, frightening and powerful realities – such as large-scale famine – are here now.  The hoary assumptions, hesitations, complacencies, and gradualist priorities that states and NGOs alike have brought to nuclear diplomacy must be reexamined.  We need to discard many of these assumptions or our efforts are going to end up being irrelevant and overtaken by events.  History is speeding up. 

Disarmament advocates can and must take heart even in the face of these events, most of which will be tragic.  Humanity’s unprecedented crises make our work more imperative, meaningful – and yes, much more politically salient than ever.  The turbulence of the times brings opportunities, provided we have the wisdom to see them and the gumption to seize them.  And seize them now we must. 

What are these emergencies?  Here are four of them. 

A long-expected crisis in the availability and price of grains, threatening starvation for millions of people, is now upon us.  In the absence of rapid and effective new policies, very large numbers of people may be priced out of existence.  At present there is little to stop famine from growing more widespread and pronounced, affecting literally hundreds of millions of people.  Effective policies are available but so far we only hear of stopgap measures. 

In the case of U.S. and European biofuel policies, terrible damage is being done.  Prices communicate very quickly and compound with other market stresses, predictable and otherwise (weather, disease).  Policies that are already converting billions of bushels of grain, other foods, and megatons of palm oil into fuel can kill more people, more quickly, than U.S. policymakers (to pick an especially benighted group) can imagine. 

Second, petroleum production has been flat for the past three years and will begin its inexorable decline very soon, very likely within the next half decade.  Exports (and therefore imports) will decline farther and faster than production as exporting states husband their resources and use more domestically.  Prices are rising and will keep on rising.  Supplies are now unreliable in many places and this will become more common, with dramatic consequences. 

In North America, home of the current military hyperpower and would-be global hegemon, natural gas production is also dropping, masked for the time being by a steep decline in total industrial use.  Prices are likely to rise, and shortages appear, far more suddenly than is the case with oil. 

The economic, social, and political consequences of “peak oil” are starting to ramify through our economies.  Their full impact is difficult to overstate.  Obviously access to fuel is a potent cause of conflict within and between states.  We do not have a lot of time to prevent this.  Neither do we have a lot of time to sufficiently stigmatize nuclear weapons, and sufficiently damage nuclear weapons enterprises, so that nuclear war is taken “off the table” as a war planning option. 

Third, the world’s climate has degraded past major tipping points and could pass an apocalyptic “point of no return” in just a few years if immediate and drastic action isn’t taken.  Global environmental security is not just threatened.  It’s been lost and must be regained, not only by reducing greenhouse gas emissions but also by active removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.  The hour is very late. 

Fourth, the crisis in global finance exported from America, and inextricable from these other crises, is much more than any cyclical adjustment.  It is a global crisis of capitalism in which the very survival of civilization, billions of people, and most species, are at stake.  In the U.S., the primary alternative to a “soft landing” seems to be accelerating economic and social decline accompanied by unpleasant political transformations and horrific foreign policies.  The total U.S. debt, public and private, now exceeds $50 trillion, making the United States a very dangerous country.  It must be externally restrained; the prospects for internal democratic restraint are in grave jeopardy. 

Disarmament advocates seldom if ever have had less time to act than today.  In this context, a nuclear gradualism that leaves the basic legitimacy and ideas of nuclear militarism unquestioned (such as nuclear “deterrence,” so-called) does not serve us well. 

Yet in the U.S., the business of arms control continues more or less unchanged -- much as if the Cold War never ended.  Nuclear deterrence is discussed not only as if it were real but as if it were good.  We know that the assumptions of stability, control, predictability, and an all-defining single conflict that is primarily ideological in character, all of which help form the foundations of arms control as we know it, are false.  We have not yet changed what we are doing to march these realities.  All too often we are still fighting the struggles of 10, 20, and 30 years ago. 

Still more insidious are assumptions of stability in our personal lives and careers.  There is, in nearly all professional discourse, a deep-seated aversion to taking risks that could end one’s privileged and seemingly-empowered position.  So people go along to get along.  In the U.S., arms control is a largely-bureaucratic endeavor, and its mores and priorities also influence NGOs in many other countries.  It is not the nuclear belligerency of the Bush administration (or the next administration) that is our central problem. It is our own lack of opposition. 

Perhaps we need to examine whether more vague, aspirational platitudes endorsed by celebrities of various kinds (diplomats, scientists, etc.) will get us anywhere.  I don’t know about other countries but here in the U.S. they have little or no value, either in actual policy forums or for organizing in civil society.  We’ve done that work and done it well. 

What’s missing is specificity.  Global civil society is four-square with us already – we could hardly have more support.  What has been lacking is true leadership on our part, leadership of the kind willing to call a spade a damn shovel, to do so in the places that actually matter and in a manner that will inform and awaken consciences.  Generally speaking this can only be done by a conscious sacrifice of status and prestige. 

For one thing we need to get out of the United Nations and go to the nuclear labs and plants.  Talk directly to the workers there.  Because the healthy human conscience cries out against mass slaughter, and against the threat of mass slaughter, the transmission of nuclear weapons ideology from year to year, from manager to worker, and from generation to generation is fragile and deeply problematic.  It is very sensitive to rhetoric, intervention, and of course to the direction of funding.  The PrepCom is very important, but when it’s over we need to bring our concerns directly to the labs and plants just as Gandhi went to the mills of Lancashire.  Very few of the people at the American nuclear labs and plants actually want to make weapons of mass destruction.  They want good jobs, of course.  Congress could help provide those jobs, but their elected representatives find it simpler and easier to speak for laboratory management.  We can help them.  The U.S. nuclear weapons program of today is primarily a jobs program.  

We needn’t linger over victories that are in essence already won, such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).  In the U.S., enormous hand-wringing continues over whether the U.S. will always be able to “certify” its nuclear arsenal (as if that were an appropriate goal) and ratify the CTBT.  A host of issues are related to these.  This swamp of issues, seemingly unresolved, is the primary breeding ground for pestilential ideas like the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) and so many others.  For example, a possible “master deal” is under development in some circles that would advance the RRW, CTBT ratification, the construction of new weapons factories and more, together. 

These issues are “unresolved,” and such deals attractive, only because we allow them to be.  There are no technical obstacles, only political ones.

In this regard we need to consider whether the U.S. will ever conduct another nuclear test under any circumstances whatsoever.  Think about it.  Nuclear testing is deeply contrary to U.S. interests and almost everyone whose opinion matters understands this.  What’s missing, again, is firm opposition – and a willingness to have a debate in the glare of domestic and international opinion.  The “threat" of nuclear testing is a political bluff that should be straightforwardly called, even ridiculed, at every occasion – not assigned to panels of interest-conflicted scientists for more secret study.  This bluff can be called in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) context as well as in Congress.  Doing so is the fastest, surest path to CTBT ratification. 

A great deal of fine work has been done by NGOs and diplomats within the NPT framework.  Our greatest technical, legal, and diplomatic expertise relating to nuclear weapons and related issues can be found in these circles.  How can these talents, and centuries of combined experience, find the most traction? 

I think a clue lays in the potential interplay between specific domestic nuclear decisions and international actors in highly-intrusive forums, which in the U.S. at least we have not had.   Why not?  Why is the U.S. in particular, and most other nuclear weapon states as well, virtually free from the detailed analyses, site visits, and examinations foisted upon states defined as potential proliferators?  Hypothetical future nuclear weapons of a decade from now are indeed a proper concern, but what about the real weapons of today and tomorrow? 

The NPT’s disarmament requirement famously lacks detail and implementing institutions.  International civil society can and should provide that.  With near-total international popular, as well as legal, stigmatization of nuclear weapons, very productive efforts could be made with no further legal or diplomatic basis.

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