Nuclear Complacency and the Dangerous Drift toward a New Cold War with China
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 24 Aug 2020
22 Aug 2020 – The text below is a somewhat modified text of an interview conducted by Daniel Falcone. I am increasingly worried by the either/or quality of the U.S. November elections that effectively suppresses concerns about a bipartisan drift toward a second cold war focused on China as geopolitical adversary that will be confronted. Because it is desperately important to defeat Trump, with its fascist undertones, a view I share, the conventional wisdom of the moment is to wait with such concerns until Biden is safely in the White House. But suppose ‘later’ never comes!
On this 75th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can you reflect on that moment historically and how it has shaped your view of American foreign policy since?
At the outset, I would point out that for me this is the saddest of anniversaries, and I try my best to avoid the use of the word ‘anniversary.’ I prefer ‘observance,’ which signals a certain solemnity in the course of acknowledging the occasion. Such an observance is not merely looking back as this weaponry has unfortunate continued relevance to human destiny after the horrifying events of 75 years ago.
It is also notable that the United States has never officially apologized for these unlawful attacks on heavily populated cities with no military significance in the closing days of World War II, nor even expressed public regret for the unprecedented suffering imposed on the Japanese civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a result of the atomic bombs, which was experienced as a deadly assault on the Japanese people as a whole. Barack Obama was the first sitting American president to visit the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park in 2016, but refrained from offering an apology, and directed his remarks to the future, affirming efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
As a frequent visitor to Japan I can testify that despite the extraordinary recovery made by the country after 1945 the national wounds inflicted by the bombing have not healed, nor can they heal so long as nuclear weapons are poised for use and relied upon by several countries for security.
As many specialists have argued, the principal motivation for dropping the two atomic bombs, grotesquely named ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ was not, as in the publicly proclaimed justification, to avoid the loss of American lives arising from an invasion of Japan, and so to bend the will of the Japanese leadership toward an immediate acceptance of the demands of ‘unconditional surrender.’ Historians increasingly agree that the overriding purpose was to send Moscow and Joseph Stalin a chilling message: don’t push the West too hard in negotiating European political arrangements after the defeat of Germany and don’t challenge the United States in relation to the spoils of war in the Pacific or your future might come to resemble that of these two devastated Japanese cities.
In other words, the decisive motivation was geopolitical and not based on the only relevant international law justification, which required upholding a claim of military necessity in an ongoing war. Given the indiscriminateness of the devastation it would be highly doubtful that such a claim would be accepted by any impartial tribunal. Such a claim would be especially flimsy here as Japan had indicated through diplomatic circles that it was ready to submit to Allied terms subject to only one condition–that Japan be allowed to retain its emperor system. In the end, this condition was dropped by the victorious Allied Powers. This meant that the war could have been ended diplomatically without the atomic attacks. This also meant that the much relied upon pretext of the bombing being necessary to achieve ‘unconditional surrender’ was at best misleading, and more probably, simply false.
As indicated, a consensus among respected historians have concluded that the main idea behind the use of this weapon of mass destruction was to warn the Soviet Union, still a supposed ally, a country that endured as many as 30 million deaths in the common anti-fascist war effort. In retrospect the bombs were the opening salvo in an all-encompassing geopolitical rivalry that would last for more than four decades under the rubric of the ‘Cold War,’ This geopolitical confrontation diverted energies and resources from constructive uses as well as causing acute anxieties about the onset of nuclear war at crisis moments. It is a matter of conjecture as to whether the Cold War would have been the sequel to World War II if the atomic bomb had never been used, and instead unilaterally placed by the United States under strict and responsible international control as codified in a lawmaking disarmament treaty. Of all the roads not taken this may have been the most crucial one as it might have allowed post-1945 history to evolve in a less violent, more benign, manner, giving grounds for hopes to build world order around peace, justice, and ecological stability rather than rest the future of humanity on militarism and predatory capitalism.
Passing the 75th year since the bombs were dropped should remind us of another moral deficiency that has given a distorted shape to the nuclear age. The atrocities inscribed in world memory most vividly can be summoned to awareness by citing two place names: Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Because Germany lost the war it was made to repudiate the Holocaust, pay reparations to Jewish and other death camp survivors, and join the front ranks advocating the criminalization of genocide. Because the United States won the war its atomic attacks on Japanese cities was never subject to political, legal, and moral scrutiny, let alone repudiated or properly commemorated, much less made subject to criminalization.
Despite the clear treaty obligation in Article VI of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to seek nuclear disarmament in good faith negotiations, a legal obligation unanimously affirmed in 1996 by the International Court of Justice in its Advisory Opinion on the legality of nuclear weaponry, the United States and Russia retain large arsenals of nuclear weapons, backed by deployments and doctrines mandating use under certain undisclosed conditions. Seven other countries also have nuclear arsenals whose numbers, deployments, and doctrines of use are kept secret in many cases from even elected officials. This means that a sociopathic leader of these governments could make a snap decision to end life on the planet as we know it, and even an accident or mistake could change the course of global history.
There are many abhorrent features of the nuclear age that have not been given appropriate attention from its very outset. In the most dramatic possible way, it was demonstrated that losers in a major war will be held individually accountable by reference to international criminal law while the winners will enjoy absolute impunity.
The London Charter, also known as the Nuremberg Charter, setting forth the framework for the prosecution and punishment of surviving German civilian and political leaders was formally adopted on August 8, 1945, two days after the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and one day prior to the bombing of Nagasaki. Such monumental insensitivity has never attracted the bitterly ironic commentary it deserves. There is not much doubt that had the Germans or Japanese developed an atom bomb and used it against Allied cities, and nevertheless gone on to lose the war, those responsible would have been prosecuted as war criminals, nuclear weapons criminalized, and a likely effect that this weaponry might never have been developed.
Such double standards were carried forward in the UN System by endowing the five winners in World War II with permanent membership and a right of veto in the Security Council, the only UN political organ with the authority to impose obligations as distinct from offering recommendations. Even during the pandemic, in the face of humanitarian appeals, the U.S. maintains unilateral sanctions meant to exert pressure on a range of. countries the governments of which it disapproves, including Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and Zimbabwe. It is one more manifestation of the enforcement mechanisms used by geopolitical actors to impose their arbitrary and often greedy political will on weaker sovereign states. Such coercive tactics represent a defiant repudiation of the first principles of international law in contemporary state-centric world order: the equality of sovereign states.
With specific reference to nuclear weaponry this hierarchical and hegemonic character of world order is nowhere more clearly present than in relation to nuclear weapons. The countries that possess, develop, deploy, and deter, rely on threat diplomacy, and might at some point use nuclear weaponry remain internationally unregulated whatever form their reliance on nuclear weaponry assumes. In contrast, the more than 180 other countries in the world are legally and geopolitically prohibited from acquiring the weaponry however much under threat from hostile countries. Iran, threatened by hostile political actors possessing nuclear weapons, is geopolitically prohibited from acquiring such weaponry. These non-nuclear states face threats of aggression and occupation if seen as moving close to the nuclear threshold. Such a regime is illustrated by the experience of Iraq since 2003 or the pressures exerted on Iran.
Such coercive implementation of the nonproliferation regime runs contrary to the spirit of the treaty itself, which in Article X gives parties the right to withdraw from the treaty if ‘extraordinary events’ ‘jeopardize the supreme interests of the country.’ Withdrawal is achieved by submitting a notice three months in advance that specifies the extraordinary events. The geopolitical regime of counter proliferation ignores this sovereign right of non-nuclear states to determine their own security needs, including by the acquisition of nuclear weapons. The geopolitical regime possesses the features of ‘nuclear apartheid’ in which the dangerous nuclear weapons states are unregulated while the non-nuclear states are subject to the most coercive imaginable regulation that overrides basic sovereign rights. Additionally, the regime has not even been applied in a non-discriminatory manner. Israel’s covert acquisition of nuclear weapons as abetted by the complicity of France (documented in Seymour Hersh’s The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Option (1991)) was completely overlooked.
Reflection and commentary on all of these aspects of this 75th year after the initiation of. the nuclear age is as necessary in 2020 as it was in 1945, and yet remains more absent now than it was then when the moral triumphalism of victory in just war blunted critical discussion. Alarm bells are clanging but almost no one is listening, and those that could do something, seem more than content to do nothing. The overall public mood is now one of dangerous complacency, bordering on calculated indifference, while nuclear establishments around the world continue to go effectively and mainly covertly about their nefarious business. This includes undercutting any serious denuclearizing initiatives of world leaders, and includes even the occasional positing of denuclearizing visions by the leaders of the dominant states (e.g. Gorbachev, Reagan, Carter, Obama).
You recently stated that it’s never been more urgent that we repudiate nuclearism in all forms. What rationales or forms do proponents of nuclearism put forth?
It is important to view with skepticism the justifications offered by the governments of nuclear weapons states for retaining the weaponry, and to articulate the unacknowledged, yet true, rationale that relates to geopolitical status, leverage, conflict, and expanding the foreign policy options of leading nuclear weapons states. Secondary nuclear weapons states, including India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea are motivated by a mixture of considerations: regional rivalry, defensive security, and regional geopolitics. There are several different rationales given for retaining nuclear weapons that can be enumerated in distinct categories, but there exists the need to take account of operational variations in motivation and situation of each state that further reflects evolving conditions and varying leadership styles:
- despite global tensions no nuclear weapon has been used since 1945, suggesting that the management of nuclear weaponry has stood the test of time;
- nuclear disarmament is not considered practical given this record of non-use, It is viewed by the governments possessing nuclear weapons and strategic discourse as more dangerous than management as abetted by prudent measures of arms control;
- leading nuclear weapons states rely on nuclear weaponry for defensive security via deterrence, and for geopolitical leverage in some global crisis situations.
- the possession of nuclear weapons elevates the status of a country in world politics;
- regional hegemons and expansionist states rely on geopolitical leverage within geographical limits;
- beleaguered countries claim security imperatives to support their acquisition of nuclear weapons capabilities;
- international practices suggests that secondary states that do not possess nuclear weapons are more subject to military intervention than those that possess the weaponry (for example, Iraq, Libya versus North Korea).
The most explicit and unqualified overall rationale for nuclearism is set forth in the statement issued by the U.S., France, and the UK as to why these governments are unalterably opposed to the UN Treaty of Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), stressing distrust of North Korea and others combined with a reaffirmation of confidence in the managerial capabilities of the NPT regime and collective security arrangements to continue to offer the best approach to the prevention of nuclear warfare. In effect the objectives of the TPNW are considered neither politically attainable nor a constructive contribution to world order. See response to Q-5 for more detail.
Can you comment on the most concerning geopolitical shifts or points of confrontation that are directly pertinent in this current age of autocrats?
The most serious geopolitical concern to rise to the surface relates to the increase of tension and hostility between the United States and China. This disturbing development that threatens a second cold war, with a mixture of similarities and rather distinct differences from the Cold War between the Western alliance led by the U.S. and the Soviet Bloc dominated by the USSR, and waged mainly on Third World battlefields and via ideological competition for hearts and minds in the West. In contrast, the emergent confrontation with China focuses on trade wars and friction between China’s claims of to a regional sphere of influence and growing technological superiority and the U.S. resolve to retain its globality, an extensive reality as the first global security state in history with even cosmic pretensions manifest in extending geopolitical rivalry including war preparations to space.
In the background is the Thucydides Trap by which historical experience would seem to incline the U.S. to have recource to war to fend off China’s challenge to overtake the U.S. as the ascendant world power. We should also be nervous about what I call ‘the Clausewitz Trap’ by which ‘the fog of peace’ blinds powerful states to the benefits of peace, as well as to the terrible costs of war and the high costs of preparations for geopolitical war, which is raised to apocalyptic heights by risks of nuclear war. Unlike the Cold War, there was not present challenges of the magnitude or severity of the climate change crisis, which requires focused geopolitical attention which will be almost impossible to achieve if the U.S. and China end up with a confrontation comparable to that of the post-1945 Cold War.
The alignments of such a struggle for global ascendancy emphasize the secondary roles of India and Russia, as well as the diminished role of Europe as the geopolitical epicenter of geopolitical confrontation. Also, the West relied on ‘containment’ to address the supposed danger of Soviet expansionism, but can China be similarly ‘boxed in’ considering that its primary modes of expansionism have been based on soft power instruments, which have been economistic, as well as by providing win/win infrastructural assistance to vulnerable countries throughout the world, especially in Africa and Central Asia.
There are also significant shifts in geopolitical alignments at the regional level. In the Middle East, although commentary is fraught with uncertainty, the primary alignment of the Arab countries has shifted from antagonism toward Israel to Iran, with Israel becoming a tacit partner and coupled with U.S. backing. This has effectively marooned the self-determination struggle of the Palestinian people, leaving them more dependent than ever on their own efforts to resist Israeli occupation and annexation as reinforced by global solidarity initiatives such as the BDS campaign. It should be noted that this geopolitical shift from an anti-Israeli to an anti-Iranian focus is fragile, reflecting elite recalculations that ignore the continuing solidarity of the citizenries of the Arab countries with the Palestinian struggle.
The various Asian regions have also shifted their policy agendas due primarily to the greater regional assertiveness of China as well as the more geopolitically aggressive stance taken by India under the autocratic leadership of Modi. There have been several severe issues of human rights in Asia that have raised regional tensions and global concerns that are manipulated by the background of U.S./China confrontation: suppression of protest activity in Hong Kong, oppression of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang Province, genocidal treatment of the Rohingya by Myanmar, repression in Kashmir.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) website currently has their doomsday clock reading 100 seconds till midnight. This is a terrifying and unspeakable reality. What are your thoughts on the Bulletin as an indicator of possible nuclear war and devastation?
I believe the editorial consensus at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is the most objective and informed assessment of the risks of nuclear war that is available, and should be accorded respect by the public, media, and political leaders. In this case grave concern as was expressed by moving the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight than at any time since it was established in 1947, and is now placed at 100 seconds away from doomsday, that is, nuclear conflagration. In an unusual move signifying deep concern, the Elders, a group of global leaders established by Nelson Mandela in 2007 to promote peace, justice, and human rights, endorsed this challenge to nuclear complacency.
What prompted this august body to issue this ominous distress signal is worth pondering, and commenting upon. The BAS called attention to three developments: deteriorating efforts to seek stability via arms control, highlighted by the abandonment of agreements in the context of U.S./Russia relations, which is alleged to weaken nonproliferation barriers; failures to address adequately the challenges of climate change; disinformation technologies that have undermined trust in state/society relations. I would question whether this assessment is adequate as it ignores the greater relevance of nuclearism to militarized geopolitics and it does not refer to the greater risks of war arising from the most dangerous intensification of geopolitical tensions, especially U.S./China but also U.S./Russia.
The prospect of geopolitical confrontation, entailing arms races and periodic global crises is greater now than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As the current preoccupation with the Coronavirus Pandemic has dramatized, diverting attention from the urgent need to address the menace of climate change, world order will be greatly undermined by a new cold war even if it manages to avoid any use of nuclear weaponry. The global policy agenda seems incapable of mobilizing systemic responses to more than one issue at a time.
Can you talk about anti-war organizations and peace groups around the world at the local, state, national, and global level that are working hard to ensure that a cataclysmic event is avoided? How has this work changed over time over the course of your career and what are the prospects for it impacting policy.
There are many civil society organizations around the world dedicated to peace with and without support from some governments. In line with my earlier responses, the overall geopolitical situation is giving rise to a warmongering global atmosphere that is more dysfunctional than ever from the perspective of humane values, including ecological stability. I would stress the troublesome reality that the U.S. global decline in legitimacy and capability has left Washington without the confidence or imagination to exert global influence except by relying on its military might, making threats, imposing sanctions, while flaunting international law and the UN that has included repudiating the most important recent instances of global cooperation with respect to climate change and Iran’s nuclear program.
The realities of geopolitical confrontation and nuclearism are overshadowed in public consciousness by the concreteness of immediate pressures associated with the pandemic, climate change, global migration, economic downturns, and autocratic patterns of governance. This has led to public complacency about nuclear dangers, making the work of the global anti-war movement more difficult at the very time that it has never been more necessary. This necessity flows not only from dangerous international developments but also from complementary national developments associated with the spread of autocratic leadership more disposed to seek militarist and nationalistic approaches to security, including choosing sides in the intensifying hostility between the U.S. and China, especially in the region surrounding China.
Civil society energies have been devoted in recent years to promoting the UN Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), seeking the 50 ratifications needed to bring the agreement into force among the parties. So far, 44 countries have ratified the TPNW, although when negotiated in 2017, 121 countries approved, with only The Netherlands voting against, and Singapore abstaining, and at the time 82 governments signed the agreement as a step toward ratification. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in 2017, and widely understood as a step taken in recognition of the significance of its worldwide efforts to encourage support for TPNW, and of the assumed importance of the treaty. We need ask the hard, somewhat uncomfortable question, ‘of what real impact will the TPNW if the nuclear weapons states oppose the treaty and are not bound by its terms?’
In view of the refusal of NATO countries to take part in even the negotiations of such an international agreement, and the issuance of a defiant statement of opposition by the U.S., UK, and France after the TPNW text was released, it has become evident that there is a fundamental cleavage in world politics between the nine nuclear weapons states, and especially the NATO nuclear powers, and most of the rest of the world. The NATO view implicitly affirms the permanence of nuclearism, resting its claims for stability and order on preventing further nuclear proliferation via the geopolitical implementation of the NPT regime to control non-nuclear states from acquiring nuclear weapons. For relations among states having nuclear weaponry, stability is achieved by relying on various forms of deterrence combined with the implementation of the nuclear apartheid regime.
It seems appropriate and timely to challenge this managerial approach to nuclear weapons, which actually supersedes the Nonproliferation Treaty, which called for reciprocal commitments to forego nuclear weaponry and to pursue in good faith nuclear disarmament. Instead the NATO managerial regime that emerged, has refused ever to consider nuclear disarmament as a policy option, refuses to validate the security claims of non-nuclear states facing dire threats, and claims a right of enforcement that contravenes the UN Charter and is not conferred by the text of the NPT. The illegitimacy and unlawfulness of nuclear apartheid should be a major focus of civil society activism and aspiration, but it should not be the whole story.
There are continuous developments that call for civil society initiatives, ranging from exerting pressure to seek verified nuclear disarmament, to opposing any resumption of weapon testing and the development of smaller nuclear weapons designed for possible battlefield use, to warning against costly and destabilizing nuclear arms races, and to exploring the connections between nuclearism and militarism.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 60 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to two three-year terms as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and associated with the local campus of the University of California, and for several years chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is On Nuclear Weapons, Denuclearization, Demilitarization, and Disarmament (2019).
Tags: Anglo America, China, Cold War III, Elections, USA
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