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The Audacity of Hype? A world without Nuclear weapons
by Dr. Binoy Kampmark
2009-10-05 10:53:50
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Last Thursday, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a U.S-drafted resolution that did much to place Barack Obama’s views regarding a ‘world without nuclear weapons’ on the table.  Opinions on the calamitous use of nuclear weapons were plentiful.  State representatives proved solemn and hopeful.  Security Council Resolution 1887 was the result, calling for ‘locking down vulnerable nuclear weapons materials in four years’, encouraging full compliance with international treaties and resolutions on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, while reproaching Iran and North Korea for non-compliance.

The policy platform by such bodies as the International Commission for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, a joint Australian-Japanese initiative, is based on the cast-iron assumption that, if you have such weapons, you will eventually use them.  The very presence of the weapons is an excuse to possess more, and for others to develop them.  Ergo, abolition must be the priority.  The trigger is unlikely to remain untouched forever.

Such stances face enormous institutional challenges.  There are 23,000 nuclear warheads in existence, 9,000 in the hands of the U.S., 13,000 in the hands of Russia.  The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty remains unratified by such powers as the U.S.  States and institutions confronted with nuclear weapons often fidget and fumble at prospects of abolishing them, let alone declaring them ‘illegal’ or contrary to the laws of war.  Treaties are made to look like paper tigers, ready for an unceremonious shredding.

The advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (8 July 1996) on the subject of whether the use of nuclear weapons might be contrary to the laws of war was one such case.  Activists who cite the legal authority of this opinion should look at it again.  The judges, in a scattered and often diverging set of opinions, could only agree that the use of such weapons would be subject to the standard laws governing the conduct of armed conflict.  They could find common ground on little else.  The issue of legality remained unresolved, making experts scratch their heads on how any application of nuclear weapons might actually be contained within the acceptable limits of humanitarian law.  We are left with that cardinal principle of threatening an unspeakable terror that compels good behaviour.

One fundamental, and troubling problem, remains.  Nuclear deterrence, a concept regarded with much loathing and fear amongst abolitionist circles, remains part of a state’s security furniture.  Moves against such stubbornly entrenched practices often fail.  We saw that in the 1920s and 1930s, when states articulated a desire to ban war as a means of resolving state disputes.  This view found its genesis in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, a remarkable yet ultimately unworkable document.  Reservations to its effect limited its effectiveness.  States flouted it with vengeance, calling it a contract without penalty and consequence.  The harshest critics argued that, in taking this abolitionist perspective, wars would become more attractive, not less.  War, in short, was here to stay, whether people wanted it or otherwise.

The mad yet serious contention that global stability has been maintained through the option of terror signified by the nuclear weapon is a hard one to challenge.  Stability, according to this line of thinking, lies in proliferation, not limitation.  Former French Air Force General Pierre Gallois argued that nation states with nuclear weapons had no moral right preclude other states from acquiring nuclear weapons.  Besides, nuclear proliferation stabilized, rather than destabilized the international system.  North Korea and Iran have most likely taken heed of this in the face of scolding accusations by such figures as Nicolas Sarkozy.  As long as nuclear weapons persist in being a manic signature of power and sovereignty in the international system, they will remain, the cherished prize of the ambitious state, the possession of the secure and supposedly safe.

Those who endorse the durability of nuclear deterrence have a very simple premise: why has the world not annihilated itself in the last sixty years?  Like all absences and negatives, this is a hard one to show.  To test the faultiness of the premise, we would have to witness the use of such weapons.  We would be asked to prove the unthinkable.  Deterrence with nuclear weapons would then collapse as a principle, but so would everything else.  This policy, to be abandoned, will require more than the audacity of hype. 


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com


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Emanuel Paparella2009-10-05 15:24:12
Albert Einstein once quipped that "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones." Meaning, I suppose, that it is not the weapons that need to be changed but the Machiavellian mind-set. Till that happens war will continue in some form or other. For after all, it was not nuclear weapons that brought down the twin towers in New York but razor cuttin knives, and all the US nuclear weapons were useless to avert the catastrophy. So much for security and safety found in nuclear weapons. William James wrote an essay titled "The moral equivalency of War" which ought to be required reading for all the moral midget strutting the world stage and deluding themselves that they are statesmen.

Alex2009-10-05 23:24:04
Emanuel can you please elaborate on the meaning of Einstein's statement? I am not sure I follow..

Emanuel Paparella2009-10-06 06:19:21
Taking your question at its face value, Alex, one would have to reply, I suppose, that what Einstein is referring to is the ability humankind now possesses to return back to the stone age with an act of ultimate destruction and thus, barring a complete destruction of life itself, return to fighting with sticks and stones. The return to the stone age has in fact already occurred in the moral field with the Holocaust and the Gulags where actions were don unknown even to primitive man. When man has returned to a primitive brutish existence the process will repeats itself, since war and not the mind set that produces it will not have been eliminated. Indeed, it appears that until humankind can muster enough wisdom not only to eliminate weapons of mass destructions but eliminate the mind-set that creates war, we are condemned to a deterministic and fatalistic process of destruction upon destruction. William James, for one, or Ghandi for that matter, has a better idea for anyone who will seriously read his essay on the moral equivalency of war where he suggests that it is not the energy and passion of man for war that should be eliminated, rather that drive should be channeled into more constructive and positive endeavors and goals.

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