Our political culture becomes surreal when one views it like an alien from another galaxy homing in for an overview. The third presidential debate was meant to examine differences in approach to foreign policy. Like everyone I have a genuine investment in the character of the person upon whose desk sits a telephone wired directly to the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. In the event, there were few differences between Governor Romney and President Obama, because polarization works like a vise upon creativity. No one can risk thinking aloud outside the box.
What neither candidate could say, because it would cost them the election, is that rational foreign policy cannot be conducted with nuclear weapons (Kissinger so stated in no uncertain terms once he was out of office). Nor could Romney and Obama admit that the meaning of security in the nuclear age has utterly changed. Nor could they admit that it may be impossible to keep nuclear weapons entirely in the hands of the “good guys,” and out of the hands of the “bad guys.” Nor that deterrence in the age of terrorism has become obsolete. Nor that the “nuclear winter” that would ensue from even a “regional” nuclear war, say between India and Pakistan, could shut down agriculture worldwide—in essence, omnicide. Nor that global climate change is a challenge that requires a level of cooperation between nations that renders all arms races, conventional or nuclear, irrelevant.
Instead, in order to acquire votes, our leaders mouth pieties about Israel or Iran and refrain from discussing human-caused global warming,. A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize must ratify his cojones by extra-judicial killings of Osama bin Laden and other leaders of Al-Quaeda—when proper criminal trials might have been a light to the world.
The human species is a couple of millennia beyond the so-called Axial Age, when the wisdom of religious geniuses like Jesus and the Buddha ripened and began to spread the notion of radical interdependence as expressed in the various forms of the Golden Rule. And still we do not see the all-too-practical point in the age of climate instability and world-destroying weapons of loving our enemies.
Fifty years beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis, seventy-three years beyond Auden’s writing “we must love one another or die,” we know that a nuclear arms race leads only to catastrophe. I may not feel love for Ahmadinejad or Netanyahu. But at least I can see with a compassionate eye the karmic causation of history that informs their complementary paranoia. Germany, crushed by vengeful terms of surrender after World War One, became vulnerable to Hitler’s demagoguery and attempts to wipe out the Jews, leading to the need to create a Jewish homeland, which in turn resulted in a state partially occupying the lands of others, eliciting the enmity of the Persian/Arab world (Auden, same poem: “Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.”). Ahmadinejad’s perspective is informed by the fact that the U.S., Israel’s knee-jerk ally, messed with Iranian politics in the 1950s, tilted toward Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, and dispatched, perhaps with Israel’s help, a computer virus to sabotage Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges.
What nations have to do together, faced with no alternative but mass death, is collaborate on the basis of the common survival goals of the millions of citizens whose lives are at stake. “Collaborate” is a word with severe negative connotations—collaborators were shot after World War Two. French women who had fraternized with German soldiers were forcibly shorn of hair. But what is intended here by the word “collaborate” is the highest form of conflict resolution for the good of the whole, on the basis of Auden’s truth, the truth of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the truth that we can only solve our climate challenges together.
Were I president, far from saying as Governor Romney did that sitting down with the likes of Ahmadinejad showed weakness, I would be on a plane to Tehran so fast it would make Mitch McConnell’s head spin. I would acknowledge our past meddling in Iran’s internal affairs. I would try to be an honest broker across the Israeli-Palestinian divide—for Israeli’s sake as well as Palestine. I would admit that we’re deeply apprehensive about where the nuclear arms race could lead, that we know cyberwar can work both ways and probably already has, and that we have to break the cycle and find a way where everybody wins, whether that might be a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, or even better, Earth-wide.
Our presumed security sits shakily atop a house of nuclear cards, where one misinterpretation within the command-and-control systems of India or Pakistan or Israel or the U.S. or Russia or France or China, could lay waste all that we love. From the perspective of the stars, who is the “enemy”? Is it not the awesome destructive power of these weapons, our stubborn insistence on obsolete notions of national pride, war itself? If an alien were looking down upon us she would shake her head in perplexity, raise a delicate tentacle to her puckered brow, and blink her six eyes in astonishment. Her strangeness would be nothing next to our own.