Nuclear Weapons and The Way We Think
Two strategic goals of the U.S. are an apparent desire to control Middle East oil and the express commitment to help keep Israel safe. This requires the U.S. to refuse the laudable vision of the Middle East as a nuclear weapons-free zone, which would demand that Israel dissolve its nuclear deterrent. Instead, news reports indicate that Israel may be gearing up for a preventive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Ahmadinejad’s perspective is a not-unexpected mirror image: western governments have been bullies in the region, meddling in Iranian affairs since the U.S. replaced an elected Iranian president with the Shah in1953. Iran feels surrounded, and needs nukes to redress a strategic balance that overwhelmingly favors the U.S. and Israel.
Add to this the irrational anti-Semitism in the record of Iranian officials. They are not merely critical of this or that Israeli policy, but assert that the Nazi holocaust is a historical fabrication and that Jews are a disease that must be wiped off the face of the earth. From this arises Israel’s inescapable perception that a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat. Add further the potentiality of Iran handing off nuclear weapons to one of its proxies for detonation in a city of one of its many perceived adversaries.
Israel and the U.S. possess the military means to delay the moment when Iran becomes the tenth nuclear nation. But when we look at the larger unfolding of the human story, absent a fundamentally new approach, the direction of world events is only a relatively slower or more rapid movement toward disaster.
Changing direction does not appear to be in the present strategic repertoire of nation-states, because leaders of democracies cannot get elected to power without looking tough and making threats, and leaders of non-democracies must look and be tough to take power at all. Ultimately toughness means possessing nuclear weapons and threatening to use them. But no one wins if they are used.
Truly a toxic stew: nuclear weapons; imperial ambitions to control a vital resource; extreme ethnic hatred; the possibility of nuclear terrorism; and the need for political leaders to talk tough, because fear wins elections. Admitting we’re stuck is a political third rail.
This is what has been called a “performative contradiction.” At this level of thinking there is no conceivable solution, because the thinking itself is all problem, ending in planet-irradiating wars without victors. This emptiness at the heart of international affairs has led that pitiless realist Secretary Kissinger to advocate for total nuclear abolition.
What mental model will help us climb out of a stew that will boil us alive if we stay in the pot? Here, as so often, Albert Einstein offered hints of the way out, when he said that you couldn’t solve a problem on the same level that created the problem.
Where else can we go but toward a post-nuclear categorical imperative: if we all want to live, I must behave in such a way that helps you survive, and you must behave in a way that helps me survive. This ideal—no, this practical truth—of reciprocity based on common survival goals appears in all the world’s major religious traditions. This is the thinking that ended fifty years of cold war.
Living the truth of interdependence (inescapable in all our trans-national challenges, first and foremost global climate change) can only be undertaken by citizens—worldwide. Only then will leaders follow. In so many ways, American and Israeli and Iranian citizens should feel solidarity as their three governments tie themselves in knots that can only be cut by citizens themselves. It is damnably difficult to do this in present-day Iran, and for different reasons it is equally difficult to do it in the U.S. and Israel. But there is no other way. Though Israelis and Palestinians of good will are reaching out to each other across high walls and barbed wire, they remain a minority in an ocean of paranoia. The sooner we all join these brave reconcilers, the better.
Two millennia ago a radical Jewish teacher (a man whom Muslims hold in high regard as an authentic prophet), while he could not possibly have foreseen the destructive power of weapons to come, perceived with laser clarity the end-consequence of “an eye for an eye.” He called out to us from Einstein’s “new level:” If we succumb to fear and try to save ourselves as a separate being whose fate is not intertwined with everything else, we will die. Instead, don’t resist evil, but overcome it with good. Love not only your neighbor, but reach out even to your adversary. Learn to forgive. Love the creation within which our lives unfold. Take these risks and we all will live.
Winslow Myers serves on the board of Beyond War, a nonprofit foundation, and is the author of the recently published book, "Living Beyond War: A Citizen's Guide." Myers lives in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.