Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Everybody's Bomb: Urgency, Inclusion, and Hope in Response to Nuclear Weapons

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery byDouglas B. Shaw on March 16, 2010
At a Woodstock Theological Center Forum on "God and the Bomb: Deterrence, Disarmament and Human Security" at Georgetown University

In December, the fellows and leadership of the Woodstock Theological Center engaged in a discussion on the topic of “Nuclear Deterrence or Disarmament: A Global Human Choice.” With their help, I better understand that the weighty historical choices humanity faces today are not between deterrence and disarmament but between engagement and what Woodstock Senior Fellow Delores Leckey termed “a kind of great apathy that we are part of and complicit in.” In response to my greater awareness of my own complicity in this great apathy, I am grateful to Father Lo Biondo for organizing this forum and Archbishop Migliore, Father Langan, Professor Maryann Cusimano Love, and all of you for the opportunity tonight to offer my thoughts on urgency, inclusion, and hope in response to nuclear weapons. My hope is that everyone here tonight will leave carrying a little more responsibility for what I think of as everybody’s bomb.

I. Nuclear weapons require an urgent response

A little more than twenty years ago, the fall of the “iron curtain” revealed a “nuclear archipelago” of vulnerable fissile material – plutonium and highly enriched uranium that could be used by terrorists to make nuclear weapons – across the former Soviet Union. At the same time, glacially slow arms control negotiations between the United States and Russia finally began to result in actual agreements requiring on-site verification and implementation. The prospect of nuclear terrorism displaced the Cold War order; as President Barack Obama has observed, “[i]n a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.”

In light of these developments, some of which are now two decades past, many people think that nuclear weapons are yesterday’s news; that the danger nuclear weapons pose went away with the end of the Cold War. The truth is that as long as nuclear weapons exist, they pose an extraordinary threat to human life and civilization and this danger requires urgent action.

Immediate danger

This danger is immediate and stems from a combination of factors: terrorists intent on using nuclear weapons, the potential availability of these weapons or materials that could be used to make nuclear weapons, and lapses of security. In the asymmetric struggle against terrorism, nuclear weapons are worse than useless – they are a liability: a potential source of incredible destructive power for terrorists, an obstacle to reductions in nuclear weapons and weapons-usable nuclear materials elsewhere, and used by some as evidence of the injustice and indiscriminate violence embedded in the contemporary world order.

Founding Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Graham Allison predicted in his 2004 book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, that “if the United States and other governments keep doing what they are doing today, a nuclear terrorist attack on America is more likely than not in the decade ahead.”[1] Such an attack could kill hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Preserving our agency

In addition to the lives lost, our agency to respond to the danger may not outlast the first act of nuclear terrorism. In 1996, Senator Richard Lugar ran a campaign ad dramatizing a conversation in which a child asks her mother about the future possibility of nuclear terrorism; the ad closes on the little girl asking: “Mommy, won’t the bomb wake everybody up?”[2]

Johns Hopkins University Professor Daniel Deudney offers an alarming answer to this innocent question: “that a 9/11 to the fourth or fifth power could lead to a Patriot Act to the fourth or fifth power and the end of constitutionalism” – the next nuclear attack could undermine the American way of life and the basis for our free society.

For Americans, I believe this argues strongly that anything we might want to do the day after a nuclear attack, we would be better off to do the day before. This requires citizen engagement. Just like health care, the federal deficit, and every other issue important to our future, the responsibility for nuclear weapons policy cannot belong to the Government bureaucracy alone.
The day after the next nuclear detonation in a major city, I believe that many Americans – including some in this room – might feel called to respond personally. Unfortunately, this calling will come in the context of a global political environment of fear unprecedented in human history. The bomb will wake everybody up, but our options afterward may be constrained by this fear. Many may wish then that they had acted now.

Shaping our future capacity to respond

This challenge is not new, but it may be accelerating. Throughout the nuclear age humanity has made choices that have shaped our capacity to respond to nuclear weapons dangers today. We have come to many forks in the road, made several wrong turns, and been enormously lucky many times. But we also have a number of important choices immediately ahead of us that will shape our future capacity to respond to the dangers posed by nuclear weapons. I’ve listed eight of these in a hand-out tonight. Each of these represents an important opportunity for citizen engagement.

II. Nuclear weapons require greater inclusion

We are witnessing today an irreversible widening of responsibility for the problems nuclear weapons pose to human security across dimensions of geography and sovereign authority, legal rules and diplomatic fora, scientific disciplines and technical skill sets, as well as society and culture. The effect of the problem is the same – a species-level danger to humanity in its physical and moral aspects – but we are increasingly aware that its causes and our capacities for response are more diverse, complex, and multifaceted than we previously understood.

Our deepening understanding of this global human danger shares important attributes with our deepening understanding of climate change. The difficulty of fully parsing expert disagreement about climate change has not prevented a widening sense of public responsibility for the problem and appropriate responses. People around the world are making economic and political choices that reflect this priority. They don’t know for sure that they will save a polar bear, but they’re collective attention and action changes the political context for policy making by elevating the issue, attracting more resources and critical focus to the effort to find solutions, and raising the political price of neglecting the problem.

A similar increase in public engagement could also improve the context for nuclear weapons policy making, by supporting governments exhibiting more political commitment; more scholarly research across more disciplines; better education and more technical experts; and more public awareness. We need to act out of a heightened awareness that the bomb is the problem, and that it is everybody’s problem – everybody’s bomb.

Global inclusion

Inequality is the crack that threatens to shatter the future of nuclear proliferation restraint. In explaining his country’s 1998 nuclear tests, Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh used the term “nuclear apartheid” to describe the current international legal order in which most countries have forsworn nuclear weapons in exchange for the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology and a vague and largely unfulfilled pledge by the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China to work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. He’s wrong – the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons – the NPT – did not create two classes of states but merely recognized that this destructive technology had already spread to five states and that it was in the common interest of all to stop this spread and for those who already had these weapons to work toward their elimination. The problem is that Minister Singh’s logic is seductive. Some on the “have not” side of history seek a greater role in world affairs through nuclear weapons. More productive means of inclusion must be found.

Inclusion means listening to those with whom we disagree to specify and work to reduce areas of disagreement. Not every disagreement can be resolved and not every partner is willing to earnestly undertake this work – the governments of both Iran and North Korea are both clearly engaged in behavior that threatens global efforts to reduce and control nuclear weapons as well as every other milestone in the field of international law and organization. But diplomacy is about talking to – and about – the “bad guys.” It is about maintaining agreement across a wider global community so that when Iran or North Korea breaks the rules, their behavior is aberrant and unacceptable. Clear solutions for lawbreaking may not always exist, but long-term peace and stability demand that we maintain international agreement about standards for responsible global citizenship.

This is properly the work of diplomacy. Archbishop Migliore has observed that multilateralism is an important and superior alternative to violence as a means to security. But it is also the work of social organization and scholarship, to find ways to overcome disagreements by establishing new standards of responsible global citizenship.

Social inclusion

A tradition of social activism for inclusion in nuclear solutions has contributed to our ability to live with our bomb. In the 1940s, the Federation of Atomic Scientists coined the term “education for survival” to characterize their work to educate the public about the danger they had brought into the world in response to wartime necessity.[3] In the 1960s, His Holiness Pope John XXIII responded to the extraordinary danger of the Cuban Missile Crisis through his encyclical Pacem en Terris. In the 1980s, Randall Forsberg sparked a Nuclear Freeze movement and the U.S. Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter on war and peace in the nuclear age. Perhaps closer to home for this community, in the pages of America Magazine just five years ago, the late Father Robert F. Drinan asked “[w]ould it be possible to educate and arouse America’s 64 million Catholics to become a church that is a strong political force aimed at persuading the Congress and the White House to renounce and defuse nuclear weapons?”

Epistemic inclusion

Some who study the role of nuclear weapons in world politics believe that the elimination of nuclear weapons is impossible and dangerously destabilizing to attempt. Some research traditions have rigorously constructed elaborate theoretical responses for managing the problems of the nuclear age that depend on nuclear weapons – and in some cases quite a few nuclear weapons – for stability. We cannot turn our back on these but must translate them forward to new generations and map them to new political facts and technical developments.
Some disciplines – including medicine, public health, and theology – are often excluded from some important discussions about nuclear weapons. This exclusion should be considered critically, because some of these disciplines have a history of pushing their way into the discussion with important positive effects. In the 1960s, for example, members of Physicians for Social Responsibility raised public awareness about the dangers of nuclear testing by demonstrating that Strontium-90, a by-product of nuclear fission, could be found in the baby teeth of American children.

Georgetown University’s President, Jack DeGioia, suggests that while scholarship demands impartial methods to reveal truth, sometimes the truth makes demands of us – that the creation of knowledge will sometimes demand action. If we agree, then everyone who holds legitimate knowledge about the danger nuclear weapons pose should be part of the conversation about their future.

III. Everyone is a source of hope for living with the bomb

In arguing for the development of the hydrogen bomb, its designer Edward Teller argued that “[i]f the development is possible, it is out of our powers to prevent it.”[4] But while this technological determinism may be logically seductive, history has not borne it out. There are still only two handfuls of nuclear armed states and there are reasons to hope to reduce that number toward zero. The momentum to move toward the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons has been renewed by President Obama and by four renowned leaders of the Cold War era: Sam Nunn, Bill Perry, Henry Kissinger, and George Shultz.

Nuclear weapons are a familiarizing and globalizing technology

During the conversation about nuclear weapons at Woodstock in December, Father Haughey recalled the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, emphasizing that “[t]he use of nuclear weapons awakened me to our vulnerability and our common humanity.” The images of the atomic bombings may be lost to the popular imagination, but they can be recalled. Even some who take a more coldly rational view of nuclear weapons allow that they build a certain sort of global community by placing the cost of war so high that no rational person would risk it. As Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb observed, “[t]he true security of this nation, as of any other, will be found, if at all, only in the collective efforts of all.”[5] However horrible, nuclear weapons can serve to emphasize the unity of global humanity.
Powerful interests are engaged

In fact, among major global dangers to human security including poverty, pandemic disease, and environmental degradation, nuclear weapons are unusual because they command the immediate attention of the most powerful people on earth.

Nuclear weapons are the one issue that literally follows the President of the United States everywhere he goes in the person of a military aide carrying the “football” that could enable the use of American nuclear weapons. Moreover, the United States spends tens of billions of dollars of each year and has spent more than $5 trillion total on nuclear weapons.[6] Unlike some causes for citizen engagement, nuclear weapons already command the attention of our leaders. It is the public that remains complacent.

We know what we ought to do; the real problem is how

I am calling for radical change tonight. I am not asking you to support the abolition of nuclear weapons – I do happen to believe it to be necessary and find myself in good company from Henry Kissinger to Richard Branson in doing so – but our discussion at Woodstock suggests to me that this is not the argument I need to win. Brilliant people disagree for the most careful and thoughtful reasons on this topic – I only need to convince you to be one of them.

The human family has not concluded that nuclear weapons are a moral evil, the way we have about slavery – although important institutions including the Catholic Church have come close. Even in the act of committing the United States to the abolition of nuclear weapons last Palm Sunday, President Barack Obama allowed that it would probably not happen in his lifetime. But for all the complexity of and disagreement about nuclear weapons, there are some things we know about them. We ought not to live comfortably behind the threat of killing millions of other human beings in an afternoon – because it is morally dubious at best and because it is an unreliable means to guarantee our security. If it is our lot to carry this burden today, we ought to try to relieve it for future generations. We – all of us here tonight in this room and throughout the human family – ought to engage this challenge deeply.

In response, and as a political scientist, I find an insight offered by Archbishop Migliore particularly illuminating: “Here the recognition of the values of morality would play an instrumental role in effecting political will.”[7] Religious and social institutions can call people to learn and embrace their share of nuclear dangers. My hypothesis is that leaving each of you with a greater sensitivity to your potential control over the bomb – your own imaginary “nuclear football” over your shoulder and always present in your conscience – will lead to more and better ideas more carefully and reliably acted upon for living with everybody’s bomb and reducing the danger that you will use yours carelessly.

[1] Ibid., page 203.
[2] Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (New York: Henry Holt and Company) 2004, page 209.
[3] Ibid. page 220.
[4] As quoted by Joseph Cirincione, Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons (New York: Columbia University Press) 2007, page 71.
[5] J.R. Oppenheimer, “The New Weapon: The Turn of the Screw,” Chapter 5 in Dexter Masters and Katharine Way, eds. One World or None: A Report to the Public on the Full Meaning of the Atomic Bomb, (New York: The New Press) 2007 reprint, page 68.
[6] Stephen I. Schwartz, Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (Washington: Brookings) 1998 see press release at:
[7] Archbishop Celestino Migliore, “Nuclear Weapons Contravene Every Aspect of Humanitarian Law,” Official Documents of the Roman Catholic Church, January 29, 2009, pps. 2-3.

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