Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, March 02, 2008

The Moral Equivalent of Empire

by Jonathan Schell

Harper's Magazine Notebook (February 2008)

The nuclear age has entered its seventh decade. If it were a person, it would be thinking about retirement. But historical periods, unlike human lives, have no fixed limit, and the nuclear age just now is showing youthful vigor. In Tehran, Pyongyang, and Islamabad, among many other capitals, very much including the Washington of George Bush and the Moscow of Vladimir Putin, new forms of nuclear peril, like peat fires that burn underground and then reappear in unexpected places, are springing up. The nuclear threat is back. To understand how this has happened and to decide what we might do about it, we must place current events in the larger context of the long nuclear story.

Since the end of the Cold War, the nuclear threat has had a strange career. At first, it was simply forgotten, apparently in the profoundly misguided belief that the Cold War and the nuclear threat had been one and the same, and that the end of one meant the end of the other. This turning point in international affairs marked the fourth time that the question of the fundamental purpose of having a nuclear arsenal had been placed before the United States. On each of the previous occasions, a clear answer had been found.

In the beginning was the fear that someone else would get there first. When Franklin Roosevelt ordered work on the atomic bomb in 1939, Nazi Germany was believed to have the scientific resources to build nuclear arms, and the aim was to defend against that eventuality. When Germany approached defeat, the targeting shifted half a world away to Japan, which was rightly believed to have no prospect of developing a nuclear capability. Targeted on Japan, the bomb could be used only as a first-strike weapon. Within the US government, the retargeting occurred smoothly, with little recorded discussion; but for the scientists in the labs of the Manhattan Project, there was consternation. Many of them were refugees from countries occupied by Hitler, and their belief that they were heading off a possible Nazi nuclear monopoly had served to trump serious moral objections they had about building such a terrible weapon. Almost all of them nevertheless suppressed their qualms and stuck to their work. Similarly, when the Soviet Union replaced defeated Japan as the target of our weapons, the transition was not undertaken lightly or without reflection. During 1946, when John Hersey's Hiroshima (1946) and other writings on the bomb's effects were published, the crushing moral weight and existential dread imposed by this instrument of unlimited and indiscriminate destruction received a considerable airing. American officials acknowledged that civilization, even the continued existence of human beings, was at stake. To justify such a risk to humanity, they felt required to invoke an immense balancing of political and moral stakes - the survival of the United States, of freedom worldwide, the superiority of being "dead" over being "red".

Such was the background of the issues faced by the United States when the Soviet Union liquidated itself, and, for a fourth time in the nuclear age, the question of what nuclear weapons were for was put on the table. But now the silence fell. The Clinton Administration announced a "detargeting" agreement with Boris Yeltsin's Russia, but it was no more than a smoke screen, as the weapons could be retargeted in hours or minutes. Yet no new target was announced. The United States faced what Senator Sam Nunn called a "threat blank". In the bowels of the Pentagon, some spoke of a counterproliferation role for nuclear weapons, but such a goal could not even in theory justify arsenals of many thousands of warheads, which entered a sort of policy-free zone. During the Cold War, a sprawling intellectual edifice, centering on the deterrence doctrine, had been built up to justify nuclear arsenals and their use. Nothing of the kind emerged in the post- Cold War era.

A few former officials, including the former commander of STRATCOM, General Lee Butler, and former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara asked the question why, if the political reasons for having nuclear weapons had disappeared, the weapons themselves should not be eliminated, but their voices were drowned in the silence.

Unfortunately if unsurprisingly, this inattention did not extend to other countries. The governments of India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea, among many others, were fully aware that the Cold War nuclear powers had tacitly decided to hold on to huge arsenals in the post- Cold War period. Forced to decide whether, in such a world, to remain without nuclear weapons or to acquire them - whether to stay in the second class of nations or to break into the privileged circle - they made the latter choice. In 1998, India conducted five tests and declared itself a nuclear power; Pakistan followed suit two weeks later. Iran and North Korea, among other countries, stepped up their nuclear programs. An age of renewed nuclear proliferation was under way.

Thus things remained, more or less, until just after September 11 2001, when George W. Bush launched a full-scale revolution in the nation's nuclear policies. He gave an answer to the basic questions that had gone unasked since the early 1990s: What were nuclear weapons for? Who, if anyone, should possess them, who should not, and who should decide which was to be which, and make the decision stick? Bush's answers were simple, bold, clear, and pursued with tenacity. The United States and its allies would possess nuclear weapons, and others - especially "rogue states" - would not. The United States alone would enforce the rules in this double-standard world, and would do so with the application of overwhelming military force, including nuclear force. The threat blank and the policy vacuum were now at an abrupt end. For better or worse, the United States was at last in possession of a comprehensive nuclear policy.

It marked a radical departure not only from the deterrence policies of the Cold War but also from the nonproliferation policies of all earlier administrations, which had relied solely on diplomatic agreements to rein in proliferation. The triumph of that policy had been the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, under which, even today, nearly 200 nations agree to voluntarily forgo nuclear weapons.

The new dispensation, correctly called "imperial" by its champions as well as by its detractors, was set forth in an array of speeches and official documents in the wake of the September 11 attacks. In a series of concentric rings racing outward like a shock wave from the site of the fallen World Trade Center towers, the Bush policies quickly encompassed the whole globe. The first ring was formed by the phrase "war on terror". The word "war" meant that the stupendous machinery of the American military would be summoned into action, and the generic word "terror" guaranteed that the war would be global. The second concentric ring was the addition of states that supported terrorists to the list of enemies. But it was the third ring, Bush's discovery of an "axis of evil" consisting of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, that incorporated nuclear policy as a subdepartment of the war on terror. What allegedly united those nations was their desire to possess nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Using the classical language of great-power ultimatums, the president declared, "The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons". It followed naturally that the wars must be preventive. The first consequence was the invasion of Iraq.

Today, almost five years later, this policy is manifestly in ruins. Proliferation has not been checked; it has gained new force and breadth. Existing arsenals still provoke proliferation, and vice versa. North Korea is a fledgling nuclear power, and Pakistan is in the midst of a deep political crisis, raising fears that its nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. The mirage of a smoking gun/mushroom cloud in Iraq lured the United States into a disaster that has acquired a dangerous and unpredictable life of its own. Military dominance of the globe by an imperial United States, whether aimed at counter-proliferation or anything else, is a vanished dream. Meanwhile, there are signs of renewed confrontation between the old Cold War nuclear powers, where, after all, the mother lode of nuclear danger still lies. Russia and the United States are sparring over missile defenses that the United State proposes to deploy in Eastern Europe. Putin has likened the Bush Administration to "a madman running around with a razor", and has threatened to withdraw from nuclear arms-control agreements made during the Cold War.

Comprehensive errors of the kind displayed by Bush's nuclear policies are, however, rarely gratuitous. Almost always, they are at least in part misbegotten solutions to a problem that is real. Let us give the Bush Administration its due. It framed an audacious, comprehensive doctrine to address the problem of nuclear proliferation and acted resolutely on the basis of its beliefs. A plan for global dominance was a solution on the proper scale, for the problem was and is in its very nature global: The universal pretensions of global empire matched the universal availability of the bomb. A solution that required a virtual revolution in the way the world was run was a solution at the proper depth, for the problem cannot be addressed without structural change in the international order.

Moreover, the Bush doctrine was governed by a logic that was consistent, even necessary, if its key assumptions were accepted: First, that in a time when the worst technologies are on the edge of falling into the hands of the worst people and regimes (and they are) , an unmanaged world is no longer acceptable; second, that we live in a world in which power in the last analysis is based on force (an assumption that events have thrown into serious doubt); and, third, that the United States possessed greater force than all other countries combined. The conclusions followed: If force was the ultimate arbiter of proliferation as of other matters, then it was true that preemption would be necessary, since action after the fact would either be deterred by the proliferator's arsenal or lead to nuclear war. If preemption was necessary, then regime change had to follow, since a regime that had made nuclear weapons could build them again if it were left in power and waited out the storm. If preemption and regime change were necessary, then a global master capable of performing these tasks was required, not only for its own sake but for the sake of all peoples. If the need for a global master was accepted, then the United States, owing to its unmatched military might, was the only available one in sight, and, whether eagerly or reluctantly, must assume the burden. Finally, if the United States was to perform this service, its hands should not be tied by the rules governing others, for then it would be unable to perform its assigned role.

The magnitude of this administration's mistakes, you might say, gives us the measure of the problem. For notwithstanding the travesties of fact and judgment involved in the Iraq war and elsewhere, the idea of a global master, once duly recognized, was, at least theoretically, adequate to the administration's stated goals. As every political-science major knows, dominance has been one of the very few remedies for anarchy on offer. Since what threatens today is the worst of all imaginable sorts of anarchy, the nuclear kind (with the other weapons of mass destruction thrown in for good measure), this traditional solution at least recognizes the problem for what it is. The classic text on the subject is Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1651), his name for a state that puts an end to the horrifying war of all against all by concentrating the means of violence in its own hands and bringing all rebels and rogues to heel. Peace in this scheme was not a casualty of dominance but the product of it. From early modern times down to the present, these tenets have been embodied in the concept of sovereignty, which rests on the idea that in every political system there must be a single, unified power whose decisions are final because it possesses a monopoly on the means of force. (The proponents of absolutism, then as now, have never lacked cogent arguments. )

With remarkable consistency, the Bush doctrine proposed this logic for our time. In this thinking, the idea of global dominance is to today's world what the idea of national sovereignty was to the time of the foundation of nation-states. It would amount to a system of something like Earth-rule by one nation. In a very real sense, Bush was proposing the United States as a benign global Leviathan. (His unprecedented assertion of presidential powers at home, under the doctrine of the "unitary executive", would make the president a kind of sovereign over the United States as well.) In such a system, a double standard, in regard to nuclear weapons and much else, is not a flaw but a first principle and a necessity, as all consistent absolutists know. Whether in the context of nation-state formation half a millennium ago or of international order today, as large a gap as possible in both rights and power between the lord and the vassals is essential, for it is precisely on this inequality that the system, promising law and order for all, relies. If there is no double standard, there will be no dominance; and if there is no dominance, there will be no peace; and if there is no peace, there will be nuclear anarchy; and if there is nuclear anarchy, there will be nuclear war. And is it wrong to suggest that today, in a widening sphere, the business of the world, going far beyond the management of nuclear danger, must be dealt with on a global basis or not at all? And if the dominance of a single power is to be rejected, has any serious alternative been recommended?

In the early modern age, an alternative to dominance was proffered at the national level. It was the conception of the state based on law and the will of the people embodied in the long tradition of democratic consent. It took root in England, in the Glorious Revolution of 1689, and was developed further in the hands of the American revolutionaries of 1776 and the Constitution builders of 1787. In responding to the universal danger posed by nuclear proliferation, the United States therefore had two suitably universalist traditions that it might have drawn on, one based on consent and law, the other based on force. Bush chose force. It was the wrong choice. It increased the nuclear danger it was meant to prevent. It engendered pointless - and unsuccessful - war and destruction. It set back democracy at home and abroad. It degraded the United States, and disgraced it in the eyes of the world. It launched the world on a vicious, escalating cycle of violence that could not succeed yet could not, as long as the doctrine was pursued, be abandoned. It collided head-on with the deep-seated conviction of peoples everywhere who, whatever else they may want, are firmly resolved not to bend the knee to any imperial master.

Yet to invoke the tradition of consent and law is not to name a solution to the nuclear dilemma, for obviously none yet has been initiated. Bush has been taken to task for the stubborn willfulness of his leadership as well as for the ambition and audacity of his doctrine, but those qualities are to his credit. They correspond to the immensity and urgency of the task at hand. In this respect, Bush is a model. If such is not granted, the ruin he has brought will not be repaired - it can only be compounded, though possibly at a slower pace. It will be of no use to revive the tepid measures, vacillating and half-hearted, of the Clinton years, which created the vacuum that Bush so disastrously filled with his imperial doctrine. The deeper tragedy of our times is that no comparable ambition, no comparable audacity, no comparable will, has been mustered by the exponents of the tradition of consent and law. On the contrary, they fearfully offer only half a loaf of their prescription, or, worse, watered-down Bushism, or something in between. Their failing has been as great as his, and more contemptible, since they are the guardians of the path that in all likelihood alone offers hope for delivery from the multiplying perils of our day.

What might that path be? The enterprise lying within the tradition of consent and law that, by meeting the needs of the hour in their full sweep and urgency, must take the place of the misconceived project of American empire can be only one thing, the measure recommended by Butler and McNamara but not acted on at the end of the Cold War: the elimination of nuclear weapons. This, indeed, is the proposal made by a new quartet of former statesmen, former Secretary of State George P Shultz, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William J Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn, who, in an article in The Wall Steet Journal, have called for a "world free of nuclear weapons". To paraphrase William James, nuclear abolition is the moral equivalent of empire. Like all equivalents, it has similarities with what it would replace. Like global empire, abolition is universal. Like empire, it decisively changes the structure of the international order. Above all, like empire, it would constitute, if realized, a comprehensive solution to the problem it addresses, which is the mounting nuclear danger of our time.


Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at The Nation Institute. He is the author of, among many other books, The Fate of the Earth (1982) and, most recently, The Seventh Decade (2007), from which many of the ideas in this essay are drawn.

Bill Totten