Albert Einstein, the full measure of whose prophetic stature still has not been taken, wrote in a telegram in 1946: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
Einstein was implying that we need a new mode of thinking where we see clearly that a security program based in the possession of nuclear weapons leads nowhere—exactly the conclusion to which foreign policy establishment heavyweights Kissinger, Schultz, Nunn and Perry came in their famous 2007 Wall Street Journal editorial.
An authentic paradigm shift always requires time to accomplish itself, but the hour is getting late. The family of nations goes on insisting in its various ways that rational security goals can still be achieved with nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir, and each has made nuclear threats against the other as if one of the parties could “win.” Smaller nations assume that nuclear weapons will equalize their relations with their more powerful neighbors. Dictators hope to secure their political longevity with nukes. And non-state entities cling to the illusion that they could accomplish some redress of injustice if they could only get hold of one.
The reality that the murderous chaos in Syria has begun to spread over the border into Turkey reminds us not only that enemy-posing and vicious cycles of paranoia have always been with us independent of nuclear weapons, but also that small sparks have set off gigantic conflagrations in the past.
Nuclear weapons not only ratchet up the consequences of accident or misinterpretation; they distort and confuse our current “modes of thinking.” Mutual enemy-images become a dance of self-fulfilling paranoia that is stoked up to white heat by real or potential weapons. One nexus of distortion is the enemy dance between Iran, the U.S., and Israel. The United States grossly interfered in Iran’s internal affairs in the 1950s to install the Shah, took sides with Iraq in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, and more recently sabotaged Iranian computers attached to uranium enrichment centrifuges—and then it wonders why Iranian leaders remain hostile and suspicious. As Auden famously wrote, “those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.” Meanwhile “enemy” is such a flexible thought-form. When the Iranian people went into the streets in massive numbers a few years ago to protest the corruption of their democratic process, were they our enemy? Or an early, Persian manifestation of the Arab Spring?
No leader can remain in power by acting credulous, but nuclear paranoia has no limits. Fear, hate, and separation become the stock in trade of world leadership. The Iranian leaders, fearful of Israel’s presumed 300-odd nuclear weapons, mouth self-destructive anti-Semitic clichés on the international stage. Israel, possessing an overwhelming nuclear “advantage,” draws lines in the sand on the basis of Iran’s mere potential. The distinction between good guys who can be trusted with nuclear weapons and bad guys who cannot becomes futile when the combination of the weapons themselves, their fallible command and control systems, and the sleepy assumption that they will keep us safe are the real enemy.
When the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. came within a hair’s breadth of destroying the planet in 1962, who was the enemy? Wasn’t it war itself? If a Muslim extremist detonated a nuclear weapon in any large city on the planet, how many of their co-religionists would they obliterate? It’s not enough to argue that “they” don’t care who or how many they kill. If the U.S. ever used even a small portion of its arsenal, no matter against whom, the holocaust would be equally indiscriminate.
We forget that the cold war ended when Russians and Americans realized that they had a mutual interest in survival, and that this mutual interest is performatively universal—meaning it applies in every future case of nuclear confrontation around the globe. There are only two possible outcomes: eventual catastrophe, or the goals to which Einstein calls us on the other side of a radical shift in our modes of thinking: a nuclear-free Middle East and a nuclear-free planet.
Einstein also wrote that you cannot solve a problem on the same level of thinking that created the problem—another way of saying what he telegraphed so long ago. We have arrived at an astonishing place in the history of our planet where it has become a matter of life and death to initiate not further cyberwar with our adversaries, but dialogue in a spirit of good will on the basis of what is best for Jewish, American, Iranian, and everyone else’s grandchildren.