Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Planning a generation of research on abolition

Over the weekend I finished the late Sir Michael Quinlan’s ultimate contribution to public discourse on nuclear weapons, Thinking About Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects (Oxford, 2009). I will be wrestling with the breadth of his important insights for some time, but one observation stood out to me immediately: the specific scale of time over which those who support (and those who contest) the nuclear disarmament enterprise need to be thinking:

“Neat prediction is plainly impossible, but few informed commentators would be likely to rate at better than fifty-fifty the changes of [existing nuclear armouries] being entirely dissolved before, say, the centenary in 2045 of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki catastrophes.” (page 166)

The figure of 36 years isn’t shocking, but the act of suggesting a specific date brings the need to plan, institutionalize, and establish a sustainable tempo for the project of nuclear disarmament into clearer focus – perhaps comparable to the specific challenge established by the Millennium Development Goals in creating a fifteen-year timeframe for reducing poverty. Quinlan identifies new research as am important early step:

“The aim of study would be in the first instance not to establish or advocate a program of action or to inaugurate a negotiation, but simply to lay a better foundation of understanding upon which debate about prospects, options, and possible path-clearing work might be advanced.” (page 164)

He also observes that this research:

“needs to be tackled whether or not one believes in the realism of [nuclear weapons abolition] – optimists and sceptics can find common ground.” (page 166).

Aligned with these important insights, I offer a piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists today:

“The trade-offs between uncertain paths forward should be explicitly debated both by today's experts and tomorrow's nascent explorers. These tensions of zero--institutional transformation, universality, peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and deterrence--will never be cleanly resolved. But if we're lucky, we will be managing them long after the legal abolition of nuclear weapons. Learning to do so effectively is the work of a generation, and we are a generation behind in preparing our best and brightest for this work.”

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