The Futility of Trying to Debate Our Way to Disarmament

THE DEPROLIFERATOR -- You're passionate about the abolition of nuclear weapons. But isn't owning up to an uncompromising position on disarmament just a way of marginalizing yourself? Perhaps not. In the long run, those in the margins -- grassroots types sprouting by the side of the road -- may have a better chance of implementing disarmament than those steering policy limos down the middle of the road.

Take the Obama administration's nuclear initiatives -- the new START, the security summit, a revised nuclear posture review. However tentative, they might seem like steps in the right direction toward disarmament. Yet, in what can only be called a perverse experiment in cognitive dissonance, that same administration is requesting a 10 percent increase in funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration over the year before. Now fold that $7 billion into the $180 billion it's requesting to upgrade U.S. nuclear weapons production for the next ten years. You can be forgiven for wondering what happened to the "dis" in disarmament.

Some assume that these budget hikes are the administration's way of securing votes needed from conservative congresspersons to pass START. In reality, what it shows is how deluded are those who believe that decisions about nuclear weapons are predominantly determined by political instead of financial considerations. Darwin BondGraham, Nicholas Robinson, and Will Parrish explain at ZComm (emphasis added):

Rather than allowing a neat policy process carried out at the executive level to determine the future of the nuclear weapons complex, forces with financial . . . stakes in nuclear weaponry, working through think tanks like [the Hoover Institute], or corporate entities like Bechtel and the University of California, are actively attempting to lock in a de-facto set of policies by building a new research, design, and production infrastructure that will ensure nuclear weapons are a centerpiece of the US military empire far into the future.

According to the authors, among those forces, if not necessarily with financial stakes, but acting on their behalf, are two of the "four horsemen" who, along with Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn, wrote a series of op-eds for the Wall Street Journal ostensibly calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Former defense secretary William Perry is a senior fellow at Hoover, as is George Schultz, who was president of Bechtel for eight years before he became Ronald Reagan's secretary of state. Even more worrisome, prior to her appointment as Obama's undersecretary of Arms Control and International Security, Ellen Tauscher was a congressperson who worked to secure federal funding for the Lawrence Livermore and Sandia nuclear laboratories in her California district.

With the four horsemen's last WSJ column, How to protect our nuclear deterrent, the cat was out of the bag. First, the title was a giveaway because as a rule only hawks or realists subscribe -- as, no doubt, they were advised by some communications firm -- to the re-branding of nuclear weapons as "our nuclear deterrent." Neither offensive nor even defensive any longer, apparently they're now just the equivalent of a big stick that we don't need to brandish, nor even keep in plain sight. In short, proponents of nuclear arsenals can be disarming in the service of their advocacy.

"But as we work to reduce nuclear weaponry," the four horsemen wrote, "and to realize the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, we recognize the necessity to maintain the safety, security and reliability of our own weapons." Suddenly their support for disarmament was reduced to smoke and mirrors behind which the nuclear-weapons industry could stage a strategic fallback to a position where it could retrench, secure in the knowledge it occupy it in perpetuity. In other words, if disarmament were a shell game, our eye is on the politics when it should be following the money.

Tilting at Windmills

Another obstacle to those who seek disarmament through policy channels is just how difficult it is to dispute "realist" arguments against disarmament. Among them, as enumerated by center-right nuclear-weapons analyst Bruno Tertrais in a recent issue of the Washington Quarterly, are:

The bottom line is that it is very difficult to explain the absence of war among major powers in the past 65 years without taking into account the existence of nuclear weapons.

[It] is far from certain that even modern conventional weapons alone would be able to hold a major power such as Russia or China at bay.

Proponents [of disarmament] argue that driving toward zero would [by demonstrating leadership or setting an example, help prevent] the emergence of a nuclear-armed North Korea and Iran. [Yet disarmament measures] have not had any impact whatsoever on the nuclear programs of India, Iran, Iraq . . . Israel, Libya . . . North Korea, or Pakistan.

Worse, Tertrais maintains in his realist-representative argument, disarmament might even incite proliferation.

Smaller countries that seek to balance Western power may actually feel encouraged to develop nuclear weapons . . . if they believed that the West is on its way to getting rid of them. ... the smaller the U.S. arsenal becomes, the less costly it would be to become "an equal of the United States."

Here's the essence of the realist argument:

The emphasis on abolition would distract the current nonproliferation regime from the "real world" priorities of rolling back Iran and North Korea. ... The argument that arms control [settling for halting the spread of nuclear weapons as opposed to abolishing them -- RW] is [a diversion] from the more valuable goal of abolition should in fact be reversed: abolition as a vision would distract from arms control.

Those who seek absolute disarmament operate under the assumption that by ratcheting back its top-end weaponry, a state eases the strains between hostile states and creates the conditions for peace. Realists flip that around and assert that defusing the tension over disputed regions such as those cited by Tertrais -- Kashmir, Palestine, Taiwan, and the Korean Peninsula -- is required to beget disarmament (in however distant a future).

They claim that they're just echoing the language of the preamble to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons argument. Those signing the treaty, it reads, seek to "further the easing of international tension and the strengthening of trust between States in order to facilitate" disarmament. [Emphasis added.]

Whether or not they were intended to be the watchwords that realists and conservatives regard them as is open to debate. But when all the arguments are assembled, it becomes apparent how difficult it is to argue for disarmament without sounding like you're soft on national security or in a state of denial about the facts on the ground.

True disarmament cannot be reasoned into existence. The simple truth is that many of us are, at heart, incapable of consenting to the continued possession of nuclear weapons until states begin to solve the underlying differences between them. However unassailable some realist logic may be, I think I speak for many in the disarmament movement when I say we simply don't have the stomach for such a regimen.

"What price security?"

In the end, disarmament won't spring from a fruitless quest for ironclad rationales. Its establishment will be the result of a groundswell of reactions ranging from disgust with to bewilderment at a national security policy that puts the lives of tens of millions at risk. Never mind preserving the sanctity of the state, this will even be seen as too high a price a pay to keep not only us from dying, but our families. "What price security?" indeed.

That's not to disparage the head-banging work of those who hammer out treaties, summits, and posture reviews, as well as the recently completed nuclear non-proliferation Treaty review conference. At worst, as mentioned above, they're a cover under which the nuclear-weapons industry can continue to flourish. But viewed in a more positive light, these undertakings are stopgap measures, or delaying tactics, to keep hawks and the nuclear-weapons industry at arms length until the day that worldwide disarmament momentum might build to a crescendo.

But how do we rally Americans around disarmament? For most of us the fear of nuclear weapons has narrowed to a nuclear terrorist attack. We believe either that the end of the Cold War has freed us from the threat of war between nuclear powers or we're convinced that deterrence works. Speaking of tough arguments to win, demythologizing deterrence is almost as difficult as explaining to pro-lifers that pro-choice is not murder.

Still, avenues to the consciousness of the public, remain. For example, two can play the "messaging" game. In a report titled Talking about Nuclear Weapons with the Persuadable Middle, an organization called U.S. in the World analyzed various research projects undertaken to facilitate communication with what might be called political independents. In the following passage, the phrases that are emphasized highlight two of its essential recommendations:

Peace and security advocates should . . . "re-frame" the issue [of nuclear weapons] to help people see that it is the existence of the weapons themselves -- not who has them -- that poses the primary threat to global and national security. The fact that nuclear weapons are a source of risk -- not the fact that they are morally wrong -- should be presented as the underlying reason why the issue of nuclear weapons matters.

An evangelical group, of all things, agrees with both points. As the Two Futures Project's founder, Rev. Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, sees it, even with the devout, "the moral argument doesn't [always] run the show. The first question that everyone has is, 'What makes us safer?' So it's important to lead, at least in most contexts, with the fact that nuclear weapons don't make us safe anymore -- that the problems they cause are far worse than any they purport to solve."

Rev. Stevenson also addresses the "What price security?" question in a piece on the Washington Post website (emphasis added):

There's nothing wrong with a strong military [but] we cannot simply take a secular utilitarian, value-less approach to security policy. [If] we take seriously the whole witness of Scripture, we must also recognize that the unfettered pursuit of strength -- fearing mortal enemies more than God's judgment -- in fact leads to an ungodly arrogance and idolatry.

When it comes to fear, we need to understand that nuclear weapons are not just a greater risk than those who possess them. But, what the messaging reports don't address, as implied by the word risk they're a more legitimate source of fear than states we deem hostile.

IR (international relations) types may argue that the human psyche comes in a distant second to political considerations as a cause of war. But as with nuclear methods, there's no way we can win that debate. Common sense, or our own intuition, tells us that safer methods of addressing our fear than by arming ourselves to the point of overkill exist. They include, on an individual basis, psychotherapy, meditation, and body work. Even better, let's nip incommensurate fear and its consequence, the reflex to violence, in the bud before they have a chance to gain a foothold in a child as a default state.

The first goal is to halt the abuse of children: emotional, physical violence, and sexual. As the influential and recently deceased Swiss psychotherapist and author Alice Miller wrote (emphasis added): "The total neglect or trivialization of the childhood factor operative in the context of violence . . . sometimes leads to explanations that are not only unconvincing and abortive but actively deflect attention away from the genuine roots of violence."

In other words -- surprise, surprise -- abusing a child predisposes him or her toward violence and, arguably, an inclination to advocate or support violent solutions to international conflict.

How do we reverse centuries of violent tendencies? By promulgating methods of enlightened child-rearing. Measures to that end have already been implemented: laws banning corporal punishment' community centers and high-school programs to teach parenting skills. Or as linguist and "framing" master George Lakoff suggests: "The president should ask the First Lady to sponsor a major government program to do research on and support empathetic parenting."

The more these programs are implemented, often at little cost with staffing consisting of volunteers, the more children will grow up without being marked by abuse and devoid of the impulse to respond to fear by turning to or supporting violence. One day, individuals in positions of authority will wake up and find that the public is no longer on board with national-security strategies that put enormous numbers of individuals in harm's way.

First posted at the Faster Times.