Nuclear Realism

05/29/2015 12:33 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2016

There's a category of political intellectuals who proudly proclaim themselves "realists," then proceed to defend and advance a deeply faith-based agenda that centers on the ongoing necessity to prepare for war, including nuclear war.

These intellectuals, as they defend the military-industrial status quo (which often supports them financially), have made themselves the spokespersons for a deep human cancer: a soul cancer. When we prepare for war, we honor a profoundly embedded death wish; indeed, we assume we can exploit it for our own advantage. We can't, of course. War and hatred link all of us; we can't dehumanize, then proceed to murder, "the enemy" without doing the same, ultimately, to ourselves.

That isn't to say there's an easy way out of the mess we find ourselves in, here in the 21st century. Indeed, I see only one way out: a critical mass of humanity coming to its senses and groping for a way to create a peace that that has more resonance than war. We don't have much political leadership around this, especially among the planet's dominant -- and nuclear-armed -- nation states. But there is some.

Finding it and connecting with it, however, seems almost beyond the realm of possibility. Robert Dodge of Physicians for Social Responsibility wrote recently, for instance, that the U.N.'s recent, month-long Review Conference on the 45-year-old Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons "was officially a failure due to the refusal of the nuclear weapons states to present or even support real steps toward disarmament."

They displayed, he wrote, "an unwillingness to recognize the peril that the planet faces at the end of their nuclear gun and (are) continuing to gamble on the future of humanity." But to conceal this, they are "presenting a charade of concern, blaming each other and bogging down in discussions over a glossary of terms while the hand of the nuclear Armageddon clock continues to move ever forward."

The "realists" attempt to scale back the intensity of such anti-nuclear outrage by balancing these fears with the certainty that greater dangers exist, at least for Western civilization, in a world without nuclear weapons.

Keith B. Payne, president of the National Institute for Public Policy, defending the nuke realism perspective this week in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, ended his essay by quoting that iconic realist Winston Churchill: "Be careful above all things not to let go of the atomic weapons until you are sure, and more than sure, that other means of preserving peace are in your hands."

Payne adds: "The emergence of a new, benign world order at this point is nowhere in sight, and the prospects for the cooperative move to nuclear zero appear to be zero. Realists do not pretend otherwise."

Humanity has now been officially poised at nuclear standoff for 70 years. This isn't just an academic debate about the nature of geopolitical dangers. What the self-proclaimed realists have on their side is something that looks an awful lot like reality: that is to say, a convergence of economic, political and social forces locked into the continued existence of nuclear "deterrence." This locked-in determination to maintain the nuclear status quo continues to make the anti-nuclear viewpoint appear both idealistic (unreal, impossible) and naïve (ignorant of the real dangers our enemies, nuclear-armed and otherwise, pose to us).

There are multiple flaws in this sort of "realism," however. Here are two:

First, while Churchill's advice may (or may not) have been temporarily sound when he uttered it at the dawn of the Cold War, it's not immortal; nor is it consequence-free. "Not letting go of the atomic weapons" has meant, 70 years later: an expenditure of unfathomable trillions of dollars by the world's Nuclear 9; the radioactive contamination of testing sites around the world; the ongoing possibility of nuclear accident and unintentional nuclear war; and the empowering of military obsessives, who keep looking for excuses to develop "tactical" nukes, which can actually be employed in battle (because, come on, what fun is a weapon you never get to use?).

Furthermore, the enormous profit to be had in nuclear preparedness has created the rise of the military-industrial complex, which has a financial -- and emotional -- stranglehold on Congress and the mainstream media, pretty much guaranteeing that government policy will continue to be chained to the concepts of military dominance and nuclear deterrence. This means continued development of nuclear technology and the wasting of further trillions of dollars that might otherwise be spent for the good of humanity.

Second, Payne laments that "the emergence of a new, benign world order at this point is nowhere in sight." This is the destructive cynicism of faux-realism, dismissing the possible future with a shrug -- as though peace either arrives hand-delivered as a gift from God or it doesn't arrive at all.

What he's really saying is that a benign world order is nowhere in sight and we're not going to help create it, because our vested interest is in the nuclear status quo, precarious and toxic though it may be. We're living on the brink of human annihilation; what could possibly go wrong?

Countering this vested-interest realism is a global movement demanding the creation of a nuke-free world order and the transcendence of war. At last December's Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, the state of Austria made a pledge to devote itself to the elimination of nuclear weapons on Planet Earth. More than 90 nations have so far endorsed the pledge, which is now called the Humanitarian Pledge. It includes such wording as:

"Emphasizing that the consequences of a nuclear weapon explosion and the risks associated with nuclear weapons concern the security of all humanity and that all states share the responsibility to prevent any use of nuclear weapons...

"Affirming that it is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances..."

I don't know. I have my doubts that such a movement will succeed before a nuclear accident -- or something else -- shatters the political and economic power of the vested-interest nuclear "realists," but I reach out to it in solidarity. "All states share the responsibility..."

Maybe this is how a new sort of world, with foundations planted in human solidarity and connectedness, will come into being. Maybe this is the true value of nuclear weapons: to scare us into learning how to get along.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at or visit his website at