Specificity of the Nuclear Weaponry: Déjà Dit!


Biljana Vankovska – TRANSCEND Media Service

Photo by James Albertini from Malu Aina, Hawaii

18 Nov 2021 – Recently I was invited to take part in a debate on the specificity of the nuclear weaponry. Immediately I felt like an outsider: how can a person (although a scholar in international security) who comes from the Global south contribute to an academic and intellectual debate that had been going on among the best experts and minds ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki moment? Is there anything meaningful to add to the issue of “the unthinkable” (as the consequences of the possible nuclear catastrophe are usually depicted)? With brilliant minds and authors such as Richard Falk sitting across you, one has to ask herself/himself: is there anything new to add?

Therefore, it’s honest to say: déjà dit! The moment when the world witnessed the horrors of the unleashed power of the atom, any excuse for keeping such a destructive force at hand has become impermissive and immoral. None of the world leaders may say: we did not know or we are not aware of the potential danger that hangs like Damocles’ sword over all our heads. So why the debates are still ongoing? Why do we think we have time to discuss our potential annihilation? The theory and practice of nuclear politics and nuclear governance operate with various means and concepts, which could be generally classified as deterrence/arms control/non-proliferation approach and a disarmament approach. In that context, we may list a number of treaties that regulate the current ‘nuclear order’. However, the debate boils down to basically two frameworks of thinking (or alternatives): are we to live with the real-politics of nuclear weapons existence and persistence or there is a possibility (as Richard Falk would put it, a policy of possibilism) of a nuclear-free world?

From the ethical point of view, the dilemma is deceitful because the answer of any decent human being is easily predictable. The mantra of keeping a nuclear arsenal for the sake of peace and stability (hegemonic stability in a multipolar world is a problem of a different type) is morally unacceptable, although legally possible and justified in many ways. In sum, thanks to the national security policies and strategies of the nuclear haves (including here the fact that NATO, the mightiest military alliance in the world history, is nuclear alliance per se), we are all enforced to live either with the awareness that we sleep with our worst enemy and nightmare – or with our denial and escapism.

The second reason why scholars and activists like myself feel like outsiders in the debate has nothing to do with their academic credentials or interests (although I openly admit I am not an expert in nuclear politics or nuclear governance). It has to do with the place I many of us are coming from. Indeed there are nuclear free zones across the world (regions that have decided not to ever get involved with production, stocking or using nuclear weapons), but for instance my region, the Balkans is not one of them. To the contrary! However, in terms of the dominant public/general perceptions, it may well be a zone freed of any concern or fear of nuclear weapons.

The vast majority of laymen are so self-absorbed with everyday worries that there is simply no room for one more. Again, the war drums are loud in Bosnia and Herzegovina (strangely, the war fever is incited by those righteous ones who allegedly want to preserve stability, peace and democracy), instabilities in Montenegro and Kosovo, Macedonia is fully entangled into identity politics (against its will but for the sake of NATO and EU membership), energy crisis all over the region and beyond, let alone the highest death rates in the covid-19 pandemic – that’s the general picture of the region I am coming from at this very moment.

Probably I am quite subjective or even too harsh in my (self) criticism arguing that this “perfect storm” of fears and insecurities that disempowers ordinary people is specific only for my region. The wider picture shows that apparently, the citizens in the ‘nuclear haves’ (i.e. the states that possess and include nuclear weaponry into their national security strategies) are not primarily concerned with this issue. The people on the streets may protest against human rights violations, covid-19 biopolitics, wokeism is on the rise, etc. – everything except nuclearism (defined as dependence on or faith in nuclear weapons as the means for maintaining national security)! It seems the effects of nuclear weapons use are so unthinkable that we do not really often think of them! In some corners of the world (like mine) it is politically incorrect to think and publicly speak against them, especially if the identified address of complaints belongs to “our mighty allies”.

The citizens in the Western countries have been excluded from the democratic debates over the national security policies. Charles de Gaulle’s statement that politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians applies even more to the defence and security policies. Wars is too serious a matter to be left to the military establishments. The citizens of allegedly developed (old) democracies have given up their liberties for the sake of alleged protection by their states, and the global war on terrorism is just one good example of this unfair exchange.

Interestingly, on the very same day when my panel was discussing nuclear weapons, another one brought together Noam Chomsky and his interlocutors talked about climate change (I followed the latter afterward on YouTube). There was one word that brought together the concerned people from both panels – hope! Thus in the context of the definition of the exemplary person (a line from The Analects of Confucius), meaning the person who keeps on trying even though he knows there is no hope, Chomsky concludes that we are far from exemplary people since we still believe there is still hope to turn the developments. Yet, we pretend not to know how to do so, giving nuclear weapons supernatural power as if they exist without the will of (some) people.

However, I am so skeptical to even doubt hope: what the hell was Hope doing in Pandora’s Box in the first place? In a 2014 interview, Chomsky said: “… for the first time in history, the human species is now on the edge, rushing toward a precipice like the proverbial lemmings. I think of two crises. One, the threat of nuclear war which we’ve miraculously avoided so far, but there’s no reason to expect the miracle to continue. The other one, which has been there for a long time but is only recently and clearly apparent to any literate person, is the crisis of environmental catastrophe. We have this curiously historic situation that the most advanced, richest, educated societies — the United States and Canada — are leading the race to disaster with eyes open.”

Indeed, déjà dit! The only ‘novelty’ about the nuclear politics as of today is the ongoing process of modernization and proliferation (hypersonic missiles are only the latest ‘Sputnik moment’ the media are talking about) as we speak today, including media games and political jokes such as the mushroom cloud over Moscow published the in a British daily a few days ago. Probably an element of novelty is the rapidly changing international order that witnesses the Second and even the Third Cold war along with the US defeat in Afghanistan. Or maybe not? Right after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, George Orwell spelled it clearly: “We have before us the prospect of two or three monstrous super-states, each possessed of a weapon by which millions of people can be wiped out in a few seconds, dividing the world between them … [and] a permanent state of ‘cold war’.” In other words, the cold war is a product of nuclear order and not of the Berlin wall or any other divide.

Now just briefly, about nuclear weapons ‘specificities’ (although in my view, for the victims it is all the same if they die out of hunger, cold, covid-19, or democratic bombs):

First, there is an alleged consensus against nuclear weapons (especially emphasized in the Western nuclear powers), the so-called nuclear taboo. But it coexists with the immediate claim that “we cannot afford to give them up” (because the “bad guys will nuke us immediately”). The best example of this Orwellian doublethink (the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct) is President Obama’s speech in Prague in 2009, but the same type of attitude could be found in the positions of all nuclear powers during the debate about the abolition of nuclear weapons in the UN General assembly in 2017. Obama combined these two sentences into one message: “the US seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” and “the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal”.

Second, there is almost a dialectical unity in the claim that nuclear weapons are a symbol of human’s technological victory – and the greatest moral defeat (Jan Oberg). The human’s own invention may spell the end of the entire race. The Marxist utopia invested all the hopes in human emancipation and development that would enable it. The dystopia we live in turned the table other way around: the technological development such as the atomic bomb has left deep scars not only on the Japanese society (ironically, nowadays becoming as militaristic as before) but even more on the American one that inflicted unprecedented human suffering and never even tried to express remorse and ask for forgiveness. The invisible and almost divine power over Life and Death – according to the US presidents, who are mostly war criminals even without nukes – is still a source of American exceptionalism.

The belief in one’s self-righteousness (and therefore, a right to decide on human’s existence) is nothing but an assertion of arrogance and moral corrosion. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki events, Gandhi said: “So far as I can see the atomic bomb has deadened the finest feeling that has sustained mankind for ages. There used to be the so-called laws of war which made it tolerable. Now we know the naked truth. War knows no law except that of might. The atom bomb brought an empty victory to the allied arms but it resulted for the time being in destroying the soul of Japan. What has happened to the soul of the destroying nation is yet too early to see.” Unfortunately, later generations have seen that the first nuclear power opened the spiral of arms race including the nuclear one. As for the soul of the destroying nation, one can only say that there has been hardly any collective soul-searching and dealing with the horrible past. Once the US went unpunished and even turned into a moral champion of the ‘free world’, the others only followed the suit.

Third, nuclear weapons are usually seen as an existential threat, a force that may erase human civilization from the face of Earth. There is a serious problem with this claim: first, human arrogance is so immense to make people believe that without them there would be no life on the planet. That’s not true! Flora and fauna may well be better off without the humans. They will surely survive nuclear Holocaust, even at a cost of serious mutations. Secondly, how is it possible to speak of civilization in a sentence that refers to nuclear destruction? Again, Orwellian doublethink helps us reconcile two contradictory claims: yes, we are civilized people, and yes – we are able to annihilate innocents in millions, i.e. to commit crimes against humanity for the sake of (our) national security.

As seen from the perspective of Copenhagen school of security studies, dealing with the current nuclear order (as is called the present state of affairs) assumes both desecuritization (of ‘our/good’ nukes) and securitization (of ‘their/bad’ nukes). It is nothing but a use of selective lenses and delusion that nuclear bombs can be harmless to civilians, can be used on a limited space and with limited effects. Nuclear weapons are probably harmless, as they are not here to be used in warfare but ‘merely’ as a political instrument of extortion, geopolitics and rivalry, say some experts.

That’s nothing but desecuritization and an appeal to remain calm because the leaders are just playing geopolitical chess game. On the other hand, the most securitized objects of mass concern, at least according to the media and Western power centres, are North Korea (the country with the smallest nuclear arsenal) and Iran (a country with no nuclear weapons at all). Securitization means that the existential threat (to us) should be moved out from the political sphere and ‘resolved’ in the security domain by use of extraordinary (non-political, even forceful) means. Hence, sanctions against these two states are legitimized despite all the human suffering they involve.

However, (de)securitization dialectics creates a special dilemma when applied to domestic audiences, too. Nowadays, fear is probably a bigger driving force than love. At the time of relative wellbeing, the establishments used to rely on inventing desires with the citizens-consumers (Marcuse’s one-dimensional man), but at times of crisis, fearology works better. It requires a constant re-invention of enemies and sources of insecurity. Militant media rhetoric and even factual marches of military (NATO) troops across Europe for alleged training purposes serve only as a reminder that the enemy is not far away and we have to be alert.

These days it’s interesting to follow how this mechanism works in Germany: one issue in the government coalition negotiations is the demand of one party for the removal of nuclear arsenal from the state’s territory. The US, as expected, try to convince the Germans that these are dangerous times and nuclear weapons serve successfully as deterrence. The Western media comment that Kremlin is satisfied with the fractures in the Western alliance. It is how nuclear weapons become a bargaining chip in domestic and also global politics. Any argument in favor of abolishment is seen as a distraction and a dangerous (perfidious) move of the enemies.

When Jan Oberg and other peace researchers stress the importance of not attacking the weapons themselves but the structures and the security thinking that replies on them, they are echoing Albert Einstein’s words: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Einstein was wise enough to anticipate the developments and to warn against them, but in the meantime, a few generations have been raised in the belief that there is no alternative (to nuclear order and balance as if they are an outcome of some natural law or predestined by divine force or fate. Before we turn the focus on the institutionalized structural violence on the international and domestic levels equally, as well as the cultural violence infiltrated through the media and academia, let’s have a quick view of the current context.

The already mentioned second and Third Cold wars are accompanied by normalization of militarism, as Merje Kuus argues so brilliantly. In such a world, even NATO is seen as a peace force. Laura Considine speaks of standardization of catastrophe, Naomi Klein of disaster capitalism, and all that leads towards waging (mostly proxy wars or military interventions) war for the war’s sake. Nothing of this could be possible without the deeply embedded Military-Industrial-Media-Academic Complex (MIMAC), a syntagm coined and promoted by Jan Oberg. No wonder, the people engaged (directly or indirectly) use newspeak, in the context of nuclear weapons – nuke-speech. Many authors have concluded that the talks about nuclear danger have turned into a cliché, and its ultimate function is to be non-creative, not radical, and able to normalize the unthinkable. Nuclear weaponry is legitimized by the appeals to preserve the so-called nuclear order (which is per se an oxymoron in the world of global disorder), made of a plethora of conventions, institutions, summits, norms, and rules… One can even hear about research projects on ethics and nuclear sovereignty, the latter being something analog to R2P (sic!).

Nuclear weaponry is an issue debated in numerous (mostly non-effective) talk-shops run by the so-called “nonproliferation complex”, i.e. the web of think tanks, university programs, NGOs, commissions, and expert groups. This is how Campbell Craig and Jan Ruzicka have dubbed the ideological apparatus of the current nuclear order. In this context, the prohibition and abolition of nuclear weapons is hailed but at the same time presented only as a vision, something to come in years ahead, almost unreachable utopia, while everything else (the real-politics thinking) is de facto focused on the preservation of the nuclear status quo.

Regardless the way we think (or decide not to think) of nuclear weaponry, it is not an abstract notion at all. It produces concrete effects on human lives on a daily basis. For instance, they have an enormous share in draining state budgets, and thus creating even greater human insecurity. It is almost unbelievable that the idea of free health system is presented as a bogeyman, while nuclear weapons are seen as something appropriate for human protection! For many of us born in that ‘bad’ socialist system, this is difficult to grasp.

The dangers of misconduct in the storage of nuclear weapons, human and/or technical mistakes, use of alcohol and drugs by the people responsible for taking care of the silos and similar objects are well documented by some independent media researchers, but the problem is totally marginalized. Daniel Ellsberg has reminded us again on the concrete intentional military plans and proposals to nuke some countries by the US. Even when they do not exist, the nuclear weapons serve as a pretext for military interventions, such as the one in Iraq, or sanctions (against Iran).

What can we do about the problem of ‘living with our worst nightmare’, i.e. with nuclear weaponry? As seen in a historical perspective, there is progress, the latest proof of which is the Treaty for Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) that came into force at the beginning of 2021. It is legally binding document but only for the states signatories, de facto non-nuclear states. The balance of power remains the same, with the nine nuclear haves, a number of states that host nuclear weapons on their territories, and a big number of satellite-states that did not even dare vote for or against the Treaty in the UN General Assembly. Sadly, Japan and Germany are among them. As for the country I am coming from, Macedonia, being a NATO member state means a source of biggest political legitimacy as the story that is sold to the population is that the Alliance’s umbrella gives perfect protection against all evils in the world (but also in the country, i.e. ‘domestic enemies’ that are against NATO & the West). In other words, whoever is critical towards the militaristic way of thinking is the enemy of peace and security as well as a national traitor. The political elites behave as if they have been given a share in the ‘divine’ power, so they openly point the finger at the ‘bad guys’ – thus creating enemies all around the world. Ironically, Macedonia is a signatory of the Humanitarian Initiative, but de facto behaves as if it is a nuclear power. To sum up, the progressive treaties, initiatives and so, remain just dead letter or nice declarations that have no effects on real life.

Gandhi’s words and deeds would sound as silly and ridiculous today as the people who still oppose MIMAC and cherish genuine peace research and activism. Actually, we are almost extinct species. We may be invited to join some big projects and asked to think big/creative/radical for a better world, but risk to be seen as not academic enough, not serious or even delusional because we do dare talk and write about a nuclear-free world as a starting point for a peaceful world and human civilization. Nevertheless, the peace studies are on their deathbed all over the world – either closed down or (probably worse scenario) coopted into the MIMAC.

Nuclear weapons are not a natural force, they are man-made. Therefore, one of the first tasks for anyone who works for peace is to deconstruct the myth of their deterrent function. The rhetoric should be liberated from clichés and from the perverted nuke-speech. Also, especially the West has a great responsibility (that goes with its military power and economic strength and international influence) to see that it is a source and partner in crime with all those that are blacklisted as autocrats and crazy and irresponsible guys. Let’s not fool ourselves: UN (with P5, i.e. the current configuration of the Security Council), NATO and EU are deeply implicated in the current nuclear order. They are its main pillars – so one should not idealize them as forces for peace and security.

No matter how important is to frame the nuclear weapons debate on a global scale, let’s be honest: nuclear weapons exist, produced, legitimized and used within national frameworks. Global civil society and international deals and treaties sound great but they all remain empty rhetoric and lip-service unless the internal democratic forces start fighting against current security and defence policies. Years ago when I had the privilege to teach at the European Peace University in the beautiful and peaceful town of Stadschlaining (Austria), my students used to ask me: what should we do to help spread peace in the world? My simple answer was (and would have been if there had been Peace University now): please, do your homework instead of running all around the world to preach peace and democracy while your governments drop humanitarian bombs! Human security begins at home, otherwise it becomes perverted biopolitics that differentiates worthy from deplorable lives.


Biljana Vankovska is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 22 Nov 2021.

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