Sunday, November 17, 2013

Nuclear Weapons and the Unfolding Universe

Through the work of the eco-philosopher Thomas Berry and his protégés, a new way of looking at the universe and our human place in it has been established. While still not “mainstream,” this new story has given hope not only to hundreds of thousands of environmental activists around the world, but as well to thoughtful people in many fields, including economics, theology, education, politics, and science.

The new story of the universe goes something like this: we moderns, using tools like the Hubble Telescope, are the first generation that possesses the resource of the continuous 14 billion year story of the unfurling from the original flaring forth, through the establishment of the galaxies, stars, and planets, to the development of cellular life, to the expanding diversity of life here on earth, to the rise of a particular kind of self-reflective consciousness that is the hallmark of human beings. The cosmologist Brian Swimme offers one of the most concise and beautiful retellings of this story in his prize-winning one hour DVD, “Journey of the Universe” (‎). This life-changing account of our origins and creative potential ought to be seen by every student, every congressman, every pastor, rabbi, mullah, every businessman, in short, everyone.

What are the implications? First, this scientific story of the universe is the basis for all stories, all religions, all the mythic systems humans have devised to give meaning to our presence here—and further, this story is the basis not only for our religious myths and symbols, but also for our educational systems, our economics, and our political arrangements. We humans belong in this universe. We emerged from it. The elements in our bodies, carbon and oxygen and calcium, were forged in the furnace of the stars.

A second obvious implication is that our economic systems must be based in the reality of the economics of the earth itself. As Berry said over and over, you cannot have healthy humans on a sick planet. We cannot extract more resources than the planet can naturally replace, or pollute its systems to the point where it is unable to heal itself. At present our world economic system is based on doing exactly that.

A third clear implication is that all humans are intimately related and connected in their collective story and their collective fate, and connected to all the living systems of the earth without which our lives would be impossible. All our divisions, in the context of the universe story, are artificial abstractions based upon fears, labels, and projections: Arab and Jew, Shia and Sunni, Islam and “the West,” capitalist and socialist, Republican and Democrat.

The degree of this interdependence has taken on a fresh intensity of meaning in the light of our ecological awareness of global interdependence. We cannot save the earth in parts. If Brazil fails to preserve the rain forest, the very lungs of the earth, none of us will breathe oxygenated air. Among thoughtful citizens worldwide, such ideas are already well-worn clichés. But the cliché falls far behind the actions we need to undertake to actually address the problems.

It is astonishing to realize that as a part of this awesome unfolding story, our reflective self-consciousness has also managed to unlock the enormous destructive power at the heart of the atom—threatening everything on our small planet. In the same way our minds and hearts have not caught up with the need for radical concerted action to address our ecological challenges, we also experience a distance between the reality that humans cannot afford to use nuclear weapons, and concrete political efforts to abolish them, efforts which are still considered pie-in-the-sky by our leaders.

Nuclear weapons are a symptom of our security fears, but these very fears can become a motive for action toward disarmament if the shared system of mutual fears is made the basis of diplomacy. The fatal combination of our us-and-them thinking and weapons themselves, no matter who has them, is the threat. It is an illusion to think that just because we are American or French or Pakistani or Chinese, we are infallible and wouldn’t misuse them. There is no going back. They can’t be uninvented. They cannot provide security, because if they were detonated above a certain not-so-large number (some scientists speculate about 5% of existing weapons), a planet-ending nuclear winter would ensue.

Most of the media seems utterly wed to the apparently unchangeable truth of this fear system. But the normative political gesture of people who understand that they all emerged from one universe begins with reaching out beyond an automatic assumption of competitiveness toward the familiarity that establishes safe spaces for dialogue, friendship and gradually-built trust, in the context of challenges shared by all.

Were I a diplomat, I would base my confidence-building overtures with perceived adversaries on this new way of thinking—that this nation or that may be enemies on one level, but on a planetary level we all face this threat together. I would pledge no-first-use. I would push hard for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, especially difficult as that might be.

In the larger context of the universe story, may there soon come a time when the nations of the world, accepting the uselessness of nuclear weapons in war, might cooperate to create a reliable system of rockets and warheads for diverting asteroids on a collision path with our earth. People tend to cooperate more effectively if they can join forces toward a common goal. Then these destructive weapons will take their place in the creative context that we already know to be true: we’re all in this 14-billion-year-old adventure together.

Friday, September 27, 2013

What On Earth Are Nuclear Weapons For?

Eric Schlosser’s hair-raising new book about actual and potential accidents with nuclear weapons, “Command and Control,” sharpens the dialogue, such as it is, between the peace movement and nuclear strategists who maintain that these weapons still enhance the security of nations. 

We can imagine a hypothetical moment somewhere in time. No one can say when exactly, but for my money it is definitely far in the past. Before that moment—perhaps it was the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, or perhaps one of the terrifying incidents Schlosser describes, when computer glitches caused the Soviets or the Americans to misperceive that nuclear missiles had been launched—realists could argue that the deterrent effect of the balance of terror was preventing world war. After that moment, the more nuclear weapons, the more risk and insecurity for the planet as a whole and therefore for all nations whether they have the weapons or not.

One of the important points that Schlosser makes, one which former Secretary of Defense William Perry has also emphasized, is that our present moment is not less dangerous because the cold war has passed and treaties have reduced the overall numbers of warheads, but much more dangerous—because military service in the nuclear weapons sector is considered a career dead-end, and the very lack of post-cold-war tension increases potential carelessness. At least General Curtis Lemay, whom John Kennedy had to restrain from attacking Cuba in 1962 (which would have begun World War III) pushed the Strategic Air Command to adhere to strict protocols for the safe handling of the weapons—though even his rigor was insufficient to prevent some of the near-disasters that Schlosser chronicles in such vivid detail.

The ultimate absurdity of the whole system of security-by-nukes is the potentiality of nuclear winter, which posits that it would only take the detonation of a small percentage of the total warheads on the planet to loft enough soot into the atmosphere to shut down world agriculture for a decade—in effect a death-sentence for all peoples and nations.  Wherever the hypothetical line is before which nuclear weapons enhanced international security, the possibility of nuclear winter demonstrates irrefutably that we are on the other side of that line.

If some superior intelligence equipped with an interstellar version of the Diagnostical and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders looked closely at the accepted order of things on our planet, they would have serious misgivings about our mental health. As such a visit from aliens seems unlikely to happen, we come to the question of authority here on earth. Ever since Oppenheimer and other scientists gave us nuclear weapons, other deep thinkers like Herman Kahn in his book “Thinking about the Unthinkable” and Henry Kissinger have tried to make rational the permanently irrational subject of mass death. In retirement, Kissinger has thrown up his hands and works now for total abolition. He does this because he knows from experience that nuclear weapons put us in the realm of Rumsfeld’s unknown knowns—no matter what experts may assert, we do know that no one knows how a nuclear war might begin. We have a somewhat clearer idea of how it would end, and “victory” is not one of the words that we associate with such an end.

No one defined more exactly the reasons why we have been so slow to acknowledge our own madness than Dag Hammarskjold:

“It is one of the surprising experiences of one in the position of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to find in talks with leaders of many nations, both political leaders and leaders in spiritual life, that the view expressed, the hopes nourished, and the trust reflected, in the direction of reconciliation, go far beyond what is usually heard in public. What is it that makes it so difficult to bring this basic attitude more effectively to bear upon the determination of policies? The reasons are well known to us all. It might not be understood by the constituency, or it might be abused by competing groups, or it might be misinterpreted as a sign of weakness by the other part. And so the game goes on—toward an unforeseeable conclusion.”

On Thursday, September 26th the UN hosted the first ever High-Level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament. Russia and the United States boycotted the meeting.

The urgent and primary task is educational, and that is where you and I can do our small but necessary part, with letters to our newspapers and our legislators. The task is to seed into worldwide discourse the complete dysfunctionality of “realist” nuclear rhetoric—an act of love on behalf of our beautiful and deeply threatened planet. If we succeed in changing the paradigm, a moment in time will come, again a hypothetical, indefinable moment, when the majority of the world’s people and leaders, Obama and Putin and Netanyahu and Hasan Rouhani, the new head of Iran, the thinkers and the generals of the nine nuclear powers, the corporations who make money off these weapons, all will come to realize the futility of the course we are on. And together we will begin to change. God help us, may no fatal accident or misinterpretation happen before that moment arrives.

Friday, August 30, 2013

"Credibility" is Obsolete

Lord have mercy, a half-century beyond the Cuban Missile Crisis and almost as many years beyond Vietnam, our erstwhile leaders are still mouthing stale clichés about “credibility.” Remember Dean Rusk saying we went eyeball to eyeball with the Soviets and they blinked? Of course the world almost ended, but never mind.

And to go back a little further into the too-soon-forgotten past, some historians surmise that Truman dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki not to force an already forthcoming Japanese surrender, but to make ourselves more threateningly credible to the expansionist Soviets as World War II wound down.

Credibility was the main motif of Secretary of State Kerry’s statement ( rationalizing possible military action against Syria. If we’re going to kill a few thousand non-combatants in the next few days or weeks, and it looks increasingly as if we are, could we not do it for some better reason than maintaining to the world, as if the world cared, that we are not a pitiful helpless giant?

I love my country, but by what divine right do we become judge, jury and executioner in international affairs? It is particularly painful to hear valorous-sounding, but actually exhausted, toothless locutions from John Kerry, who began his political career with electrifyingly refreshing congressional testimony opposing the Vietnam War, a war pursued on the basis that if we did not maintain a credible presence in Southeast Asia, country after country would fall to the Commies, ultimately the Chinese Commies. Meanwhile the historical record of a thousand years showed that China had been Vietnam’s mortal enemy. Never mind.

Only a day before Secretary Kerry’s rationalizations, we listened to our first black president commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The truth-force of Martin Luther King Jr. seemed to hover above Barack Obama like a tired and angry ghost, because any person with half a brain could feel the cognitive dissonance between the president’s mealy-mouthed obeisance to the mythology of King’s non-violence, and the hellish violence soon to be visited upon Damascus from our cruise missiles. Mr. Obama, Mr. Kerry, surely you cannot have forgotten how steadfastly Reverend King stood against militarism, how he made the connection between inequality at home and the waste of foreign adventurism.

Our missiles will unleash stupid violence. Unnecessary violence. Hypocritical violence.

Stupid violence because it extends yet further the hatred that so many in the Middle East must feel for our crudely righteous meddling.

Unnecessary violence, because the resolution of the civil war in Syria will not come one wit closer on account of our missiles—even if we kill Assad. There are now too many conflicts folded into the Syrian tangle, the Shia-Sunni conflict, the Iran-Israeli conflict, even the proxy Russian-American conflict.

Hypocritical violence, in view of the U.S. military’s own indiscriminate use of depleted uranium in the Iraq war—and our government’s eagerness to look the other way when Saddam, back when he was our ally, gassed Kurds and Iranians.

Hypocritical violence also because we Americans rationalize our looking to violence as the “solution” to conflict by hiding behind the fig-leaf that gas is so much worse than our other well-trod paths of war-making.  It is not gas that is uniquely horrific. It is war itself.

When will my country begin to enhance its credibility for “living out the true meaning of its creed”? The worldwide equality of humans, their equal right to life and liberty and happiness, is fundamentally threatened by Orwellian political shibboleths like “credibility,” especially coming from a nation that possesses vast piles of weapons of mass destruction that could make death by Sarin gas look like a family picnic. This kind of credibility is incredible.

All this being so, there is zero loss of credibility in admitting that there is no military solution to the civil war in Syria, because the world already knows. The Syrian impasse is horribly difficult, but at least we don’t have to ham-fistedly make it worse. There are so many creative things we could do besides throwing around our power. First of all, restraint itself can be a creative act, when lack of restraint such as what we are contemplating leads nowhere but further into chaos. Don’t just do something, stand there. Or at least stand for credible, consistent values.

Stand against reflexive unilateral military posturing. Stand for the encouragement—and funding—of U.N. Peacekeeping troops going into Syria in large numbers to create buffer zones between adversaries. Stand for supporting the creation of a parallel Syrian government-in-exile that could make halting steps toward processes of truth and reconciliation when the violence finally exhausts itself.  Stand for giving ten times more resources to career diplomats in our State Department, in order that a larger number of people get trained not only in foreign languages and cultures, but also in the arts of diplomatic conflict resolution.

We have forgotten the kind of credibility slowly but steadily built up by Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary-General of the U.N., the first person to undertake endless, patient shuttle diplomacy as a better solution than war.  Hammarskjold lived a consistent, impartial ethic bent upon steadfastly reconciling the interests of nations with the interests of the human family. Oh that my country could be led by stout hearts like King and Hammarskjold. They were giants of credibility.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Anna Gunn and the Underside of the American Psyche

Anna Gunn is the female lead in the riveting AMC series “Breaking Bad.” In an August 23 editorial piece in the New York Times, she writes:

“My character, to judge from the popularity of Web sites and Facebook pages devoted to hating her, has become a flash point for many people’s feelings about strong, nonsubmissive, ill-treated women. As the hatred of Skyler blurred into loathing for me as a person, I saw glimpses of an anger that, at first, simply bewildered me.

For those unfamiliar with the show: Skyler is the wife of Walter White, a high-school chemistry teacher who, after learning he has lung cancer, begins cooking and selling methamphetamine to leave a nest egg for Skyler, their teenage son and their unborn daughter. After his prognosis improves, however, Walter continues in the drug trade — with considerable success — descending deeper and deeper into a life of crime.”

Apparently the hate even began to transfer from her character to Ms. Gunn herself, reaching the point where she has had to hire protection.

Ms. Gunn’s troubles suggest a deeper look at the series as an American cultural phenomenon. To some extent people far more qualified than me have already done this. For example, the book “Difficult Men,” by Brett Martin, explores the creative process of the producers, writers, directors and actors behind such excellent programs as “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” and “Breaking Bad” itself.

After decades of crassly intelligence-insulting sitcoms (perhaps it was P.T. Barnum who said “nobody ever got poor underestimating the intelligence of the American public”), “Breaking Bad” and friends have presented us with something more akin to a serial novel by Dickens, a form of popular entertainment published in 19th century newspapers that enabled people who could not afford to buy a book all at once to pay for it over time. 

In their efforts to surprise and move us, the creators of “Breaking Bad” have learned from such forms, including repeated use of cliffhangers as each season has ended. They have made something that not only surpasses most feature films in quality, but also allows the characters to inhabit our heads and hearts at a new level of intensity, because we have had time to get to know them. “Breaking Bad” has become a potent cultural “meme,” as Richard Dawkins would call it, a meme that does what art ought to do and what “high art” and “high culture” today often fail to do: connect with something deep in us, challenge us, stimulate us to want more complexity not less.

Beyond the superb writing and plotting of the show, the ensemble acting is a huge part of its success. All the major characters are well projected by the various actors, working off each other and the crackling scripts they are given. But for me Skyler White, the Anna Gunn character, anchors the whole ensemble.  Imagine the challenge of having to gradually modulate your character’s responses—literally across years of acting—to the reality that someone you loved, perhaps on some level still love, has turned into an unfathomably manipulative monster.

Skyler especially stands in for us in our reaction to Walt’s descent into evil. She displays about the widest range of human response as I’ve ever seen in a character—toughness, obduracy, courage, ambivalence, rationalization, confusion, helplessness, panic, and on and on. Bryan Cranston is equally wonderful of course as Walter White, but through playing off Gunn’s amazing emotional range he gets handed greater depth and interest on a plate.

Ironically, it is a testament to Anna Gunn’s acting chops that her character has elicited such a Neanderthal (sorry, this insults Neanderthals) reaction from people. That such hateful comments on Facebook have bled across from Skyler White to Gunn herself suggests that what threatens the threatened men out there is not ultimately the power of the character but the power of the actor herself.

It may not be pretty to consider what Gunn’s experience indicates about the American male psyche as it tries to wrestle with the need to grow up and accept the equality of the sexes, but what a great testament to the power of art, the writer’s art and the actor’s art, that this program has gotten as deeply under our skin as it has, even under the skin of the hate-filled.

As the final program of the “Breaking Bad” series nears, very few in the audience will still think highly of Walter White, but we remain fascinated, because we identify, if only a little, with the Shakespearean temptation to evil that Bryan Cranston has embodied so effectively.

It is a psychological commonplace that a discrete culture like ours, insofar as we are still a homogenous culture (and if we are, it is now our entertainment that tells us we are), tends to project evil outward, onto some distant “other,” quickly losing the necessary subtle admissions by which we can keep ourselves grounded and humane—such as that we are all, without exception, capable of good and evil.

These shows remind us in a healthy way that America is not all dewy, self-righteous innocence. “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” have at least one theme in common: the fascination of raw evil rearing up out of the midst of the ordinary suburbs where many of us live. Both Tony Soprano and Walter White touch and often devastate the lives of decent people around them.

When we do project evil outward, distinctions necessary to a sensible grip on reality tend to get blurred, such as:


In the larger picture, might this same capacity for blurred thinking have anything to do with the fact that the United States was attacked on 9-11 by nineteen extremists, fifteen from Saudi Arabia, one from Egypt, two from the United Arab Emirates, and one from Lebanon—and then we declared war on Iraq?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Roger Lipsey's Hammarskjold

Roger Lipsey has produced a magisterially comprehensive portrait of the second Secretary-General of the United Nations. Lipsey’s achievement is all the more remarkable because at first glance Dag Hammarskjold appears to be, in the combination of his monastic bachelor dedication to his role and his veiled diplomatic tact, a uniquely unknowable person.

We are fortunate, however, to have Hammarskjold’s well-known spiritual testament, “Markings,” an array of spiritual poems and observations left for a friend to decide to publish—or not—after Hammarskjold’s death.  Fortunately the choice was to publish, and so a record is available of that rare species, a person whose outer journey was consciously informed less by expediency or fate than by chosen, hard-won values.

As Secretary-General, what kept him steadily moving forward against the gale-force winds of chaos, violence, and cynical double-dealing by governments was his systematic subjugation of individual will to a fervent wish to be used by God. Brought up in Swedish Protestant Christianity, a deep reader of the Christian mystics, Hammarskjold not only valued, but actually lived, what he called “stillness,” a creative discipline that enabled him to stay flexibly creative in the welter of such events as the Suez crisis of 1956, when he was one of the first to initiate the exhausting process of shuttle diplomacy.

The working heart of Lipsey’s approach is to subtly tie the entries in “Markings,” a number of which are specifically dated, to the stream of acute international crises in which Hammarskjold was crucially involved, including the battle for Congolese independence, during which he lost his life in a plane crash—a crash that may not have been accidental. Hammarskjold’s refusal to compromise his impartiality, his total loyalty to the principles of U.N. Charter, was seen by his enemies as a kind of partiality in itself, in the spirit of “if you’re not with us you’re against us”—that all-too-familiar accelerant of alienation and war.

Even as he describes Hammerskjold’s difficulties with the prickly egotism of heads of state, Lipsey has managed to absorb some of the spirit of Hammarskjold himself—as found in this quotation from an interview Hammarskjold did with a journalist: “A certain humility . . . helps you to see things through the other person’s eye, to reconstruct his case, without losing yourself, without being a chameleon, if you see what I mean.” Inspired by Hammarskjold, Lipsey takes considerable pains to search out the universal humanity beneath the arrogance of figures like Khrushchev and De Gaulle.

Khrushchev attacked Hammarskjold relentlessly on the basis that there was “no such thing as a neutral man”—the presumption being that Hammarskjold was secretly prejudiced toward the Western powers. But Hammarskjold was not neutral, in the sense of colorless and bureaucratic, so much as he was passionately impartial in speaking for what was best for the whole family of nations.  After he took Khrushchev for an informal row on the Black Sea, he tried his best during later more difficult interactions to keep in mind the human Khrushchev he had encountered in the boat.

As this is being written, a gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians in Syria is putting more and more pressure upon Western leaders to intervene in yet another horrific civil war. The superpower players are hardly different from Hammarskjold’s time, Syria being a client state of Russia. The web of corruption and violence in the Congo has only become more and more tangled during the sixty years between Hammarskjold’s death and the present. Not a lot has changed since he was Secretary-General, except that since the end of the cold war, U.S. military power has taken the place of what might have been, and still could be, a transition toward a U.N. with more effective peacekeeping forces.

But public opinion in the U.S. today concerning international cooperation still yields a division between conservative “realists” and progressive “dreamers”—advocates for a U.N. with more teeth often being stereotyped as the latter. Hammarskjold himself was something quite different from a dreamer. He kept tenaciously to his understanding that if peace was an international necessity in the nuclear age, it had to follow that peace was also in every country’s national interest.

Given that challenges like nuclear disarmament and global climate change cannot be resolved by any nation working alone, national and international interests are inevitably merging. Surely this has a bearing upon how diplomats everywhere ought to be oriented in their training. If foreign service officers are unable to see the equal humanity of their counterparts in other cultures, if a spirit of international mutuality does not penetrate the narrowness of self-interested realpolitik, we will be left with the no-win of “you’re either with us or against us.” Surely there must be room for more of the Hammarskjold spirit, a conviction that it is possible to identify something common in the interests of one’s own country and the interests of all countries.

The tragedy is that statesmen like Dr. Kissinger or General Colin Powell spend their careers in the obedient service of ostensibly American interests, but then, in the backward-glancing wisdom of retirement, they advocate eloquently—not that we shouldn’t be grateful, better late than never—for planet-oriented goals like the total abolition of nuclear weapons. Hammarskjold, speaking to a group of American governors, understood this process with laser clarity:

“It is one of the surprising experiences of one in the position of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to find in talks with leaders of many nations, both political leaders and leaders in spiritual life, that the view expressed, the hopes nourished, and the trust reflected, in the direction of reconciliation, go far beyond what is usually heard in public. What is it that makes it so difficult to bring this basic attitude more effectively to bear upon the determination of policies? The reasons are well known to us all. It might not be understood by the constituency, or it might be abused by competing groups, or it might be misinterpreted as a sign of weakness by the other part. And so the game goes on—toward an unforeseeable conclusion.”

At some indefinable point in time, which many believe is already behind us, the need for separate nations either to maintain their grotesque stockpiles of nuclear weapons or to refuse to adjust their economic goals for the sake of climate stability, is going to be trumped by the reality that the status quo carries more risks than the risks of cooperation toward common survival goals.  Over this fateful paradigm shift hovers the benign, tenacious, far-seeing spirit of Dag Hammarskjold.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Beyond Secrecy

As lowly citizens trying to understand the enormous resources poured into the national security state, it may help to examine the “meta-thinking” behind the mass mining of “meta-data” from our telephones and e-mails.

Aside from debate about whether our government may be massively violating the 4th Amendment, we need to begin with compassion. It is not hard to see how fear and political necessity are among the engines driving the growth of the secrecy bureaucracy. There are bad actors out there, and a certain alertness is required to prevent them from doing their worst. Political leaders do not get elected by advocating love for enemies.

Thus President Obama cannot say aloud that the lives of children in Pakistan or Yemen are worth as much as the lives of his own daughters. That such evasions are politically necessary is one indication that our “meta-thinking” may be inadequate.

Our conception of national and international interest has not caught up with the advent of nuclear weapons and planetary ecological stresses. Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago has defined the term “offensive realism” as the only sensible stance a nation can take in the face of multiple existential threats. Because it cannot know the motivations of, say, the Chinese leadership, the United States must stay on the offensive militarily. And in fact the U.S. does project its forces—and listening devices—all around the world.

The Chinese leadership, or the Russian, or the Iranian, or the Israeli, are equally in thrall to “offensive realism”—what will be called “paranoid realism” once the planet passes through this dangerous but also opportune moment of history.

When the mutual fears of nations and even non-state actors motivate not only the acquisition of world-destructive weapons but the need for vast systems of data-analysis in order to watch and anticipate all the moves of the players, the general paranoia becomes as much the problem as the solution.

But there are forces at work in the world far larger that the supposed malign motivations of powerful nations. These forces can push all of us, in spite of our mutual fears, toward a renewed sense of compassion for ourselves as a species and a mutuality based in common survival goals—similar to the mutual superpower desire to end the cold war after the Cuban crisis of 1962.

In this new understanding of common interest, the “meta-thinking” that insists upon nations as exceptional, defensible systems has become obsolete. Our present international paranoia is a current taking us downriver toward a waterfall. We can see this deadly drift in Syria today. For too long not only the U.S. but many nations have made a policy of selling arms to the enemies of their enemies. It will not work in Syria any better than it did in Afghanistan.

In order to dissolve the tensions of paranoia, experts and citizens alike need to understand our international predicament as a total system and build personal relationships across boundaries on the basis of this reality.

Though it has not yet sunk into the planetary group mind, our overall environmental challenge is the most obvious one that dissolves the illusion of nations possessing separate self-interests requiring an “offensive realist” response, including exceptionalist pretensions that the lives of “our” children are worth more than “theirs.”

The challenge of nuclear weapons, as Jonathan Schell has asserted, takes its place within the context of the environmental crisis. Computer models confirm that the detonation of only a small percentage of the world’s nuclear arsenals would throw enough soot into the upper atmosphere to shut down agriculture for a decade—in effect, a death-sentence for the planet. This alone renders all present nuclear strategy obsolete, as even that pitiless realist Dr. Kissinger has admitted.

Given the role of human error, or insufficiently safe design, in disasters such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, or near-disasters like the Cuban Missile Crisis, in combination with the variety of form that nuclear weapons have taken—nuclear missiles, mines, and artillery shells supervised by thousands of fallible humans—it defies all notions of common sense that the species can avoid forever the inadvertent or deliberate use of these weapons.

Disarmament then becomes a gradual, reciprocal process that depends upon a change of emphasis appropriate to the new paradigm: diplomatic and non-governmental initiatives based upon mutual assured survival, with continuing sensible alertness toward the ever-present possibility of the lethal combination of medieval mind-sets and weapons of mass destruction—making the sequestration of all nuclear materials an urgent priority.

Sunni and Shia, Russians and Saudis, and, yes, Republicans and Democrats will look up someday from their narrow preoccupation with each other’s shortcomings to see bearing down upon them a planetary oneness of disaster, oceans that rise even as they become empty of fish, air that our children cannot breathe, diseases that travel from tropical to temperate zones on the wings of climate change. We’re all in this together, our survival utterly dependent upon what our “enemies” do and vice versa.

The secrets that governments hold close and that the disaffected strive to reveal contain a hollow heart, because they signify the obsolete paradigm of security by separation. Imagine the U.S. being known more for achieving security by constructive projects than by military dominance.

Taking their cue from the new paradigm of interdependence, the major religions can function at their best to strengthen connection (re-ligare, to tie back together), not to separate—on the basis of the deep common truth of our planetary oneness. Inverting the lines from Auden’s famous poem—“those to whom evil is done, do evil in return”—reconciliation, non-violence, forgiveness, active initiatives to build trust and resilience on the basis of common goals, will cause those to whom good is done to respond in kind. Before it is too late, may it be so.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Silver Lining

If the brutal and tragic agony of Syria today has one small glimmer of hope, it is that the great powers are completely stymied, blocked, paralyzed in their ability to resolve anything by military action. Were this 1914 and had we possessed nuclear weapons, the Syrian situation might have led to a war that ended the world.

But now we can see the old realpolitik tactics, supplying arms to the son-of-a-bitch that we thought of as at least our son-of-a-bitch, which never really worked anyway, completely revealed in all their emptiness. So why is this a silver lining? Let us not oversell. The complete inability of tribes and religious rivals to resolve their conflicts in Syria hardly bodes a future without war. History has not ended.  Potentially there are terrible conflicts ahead, especially over scarce resources like water and arable land.

But there is a possibility that the great powers, first of all the United States, can begin to play a different, more constructive role, a role of war prevention.  To do that, we must begin from where we are, where we are as a planet, and reconceive our national interest. Along with everyone else's, it is utterly connected to and dependent upon such non-military realities as that fish stocks in the ocean are close to exhaustion, or that the carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere has now surpassed 400 parts per million, or that global population is expected to continue to rise to between 11 and 17 billion people before it levels off. These are not problems with military solutions.

In this context, the cost of the American-led wars of the past ten years, based in a gross overreaction to terrorism combined with the misconception that terrorism could be eliminated solely by military means, has been a colossal lost opportunity for the U.S. Instead we could have invested much more in making the challenging transition beyond fossil fuels, or strengthening the food infrastructure worldwide—and we still could do that. Imagine having taken the cost of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and spending it instead simply giving outright decentralized solar and wind energy, medical help, and education to people in the developing world. It is at least an even bet that this would have been a more robust preventative of terrorism.

Looming behind our thinking about conventional military force is the issue of nuclear war. Here again the amount of money spent for zero increase in real security is appalling, and the emptiness in the rhetoric of national leaders thunderously hollow. With the advent of the computer modeling of nuclear winter back in the 1980s—that only a small percentage of nuclear weapons detonated could cause worldwide climate change, massively shutting down agricultural systems—the whole theory of nuclear deterrence collapsed into dust. A remaining issue is the possibility of a terrorist entity acquiring a nuclear weapon. The only solution to both issues is to budget not for building or renewing weapons, but to forge treaties to reciprocally bring down the numbers of weapons possessed by the nuclear powers—and to secure existing nuclear materials. This includes pushing for the entire Middle East region as a nuclear-free zone. The alternative is mass extinction, which will include the United States.

The recent disciplining of a group of U.S. military personnel in charge of nuclear ICBMs who had become unacceptably careless with the strict protocols around these weapons underscores the reality that the danger lies as much in the weapons themselves in combination with human frailty as it does with who possesses them. The U.S. and Israel threaten Iran if it crosses a red line, but our double standard, along with the universal bad combination of fallible people and a world-destructive energy, is there for all to see. It is a kind of miracle that disaster has not happened—so far.

On the nuclear level, the obsolescence of war has long been crystal-clear, though world leaders continue to pretend otherwise. The situation in Syria provides an instructive example of that same obsolescence on the conventional level.  It allows any policy-maker who possesses some genuine compassion for the children there, for everyone there, to say: we cannot help by selling arms to any one party, because we don’t know in whose hands they will end up. We cannot help by invading.  All war is civil war. All war is obsolete for meeting our real challenges as a human family. Therefore the first step, the best step, even if it is only a humble beginning, is to ponder: what else could we do that might be creative and helpful?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Erik Erikson's "Golden Rule in the Light of New Insight" Revisited

Sixty years ago the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson gave a talk in India on the Golden Rule, a formulation that occurs, with some variation, in all the major religions. Judaism: “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to you fellow man.” Islam: “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother what he desires for himself.” Christianity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Erikson’s theme was the creative potential of mutuality—between spouses, parents and children, doctors and patients, teachers and pupils, even between nations. Mutuality, Erikson asserted, is a relationship in which partners depend upon each other for the enhancement of their respective strengths.  The curiosity of a student elicits from the teacher the skills for transmitting the excitement of learning in a way that benefits both teacher and student. 

In the case of nations, fear of Hobbesian chaos if leaders relax their futile race toward military superiority makes it difficult to encourage mutuality. Ruthless power relations turn the lifegiving spirit of mutuality on its head: do not even think of trying to destroy me because if you do I will destroy you. This paranoia rationalizes the unabated manufacture of ever more destructive weaponry, irrespective of sensible policy goals, by ever more powerful corporations. As the vulgarism derived from the Golden Rule puts it, those with the gold make the rules. The ersatz American idea of mutuality (adore us, obey us, give us your oil) has often resulted in tragedy—or tragic farce, viz. Mr. Cheney asserting recently that given the chance to do it all over, he wouldn’t change a thing.

Is there anything that we have learned about the context of international relations in the years since Erikson gave his talk that might make his paradigm of mutuality not only more relevant but also more realistic?  Can the Golden Rule become more persuasive than gold?

First, establishment strategists schooled in pitiless power politics like Henry Kissinger have come to the reluctant conclusion that nuclear weapons cannot serve as a useful tool for furthering anyone’s national interest.  Kissinger’s boss Richard Nixon wanted to use them against North Vietnam, but was dissuaded lest other nuclear powers be drawn in.  Fortunately we were mature enough to accept defeat rather than suicidal escalation, and that restraint has continued. It may be a sign that we are gradually maturing beyond the folly of war altogether that most American wars since Vietnam, since Korea in fact, have been inconclusive stalemates.

When American, Israeli and Iranian diplomats, or their proxies, sit down to talk, do they simply threaten each other? Or do they hypothesize together what will inevitably occur down the time-stream if they fail to establish the basic trust upon which mutuality can be built? Is it possible for them to help each other see the possibility of shared survival goals despite the chasm of divergent motives and stories? Can they acknowledge how other nations have already gone through the futile process of arming themselves to the point of being able to pound each other’s rubble, only to arrive, a few months before Erikson’s long-ago talk, at the Cuban Missile Crisis? Do they share with each other the reality that the detonation of only a few nuclear weapons has the potential to cause nuclear winter, endangering not just specific parties to conflict but the planet as a whole?

The second basis for mutuality even between enemies, following upon the realization that anything else leads to nuclear extinction, is the model of mutuality found in nature, pressed upon us by all the ecological revelations and challenges that have arisen since Erikson spoke. Humans exist only through their mutual relationship with the air they breathe and the food they consume, with the sun that fuels photosynthesis, ocean currents, wind and rain. Mutuality, whether or not we decide to make it our conscious goal, is our essential condition.

Adversaries have the option to build mutuality upon these two principles: first, war in the nuclear age solves nothing and has become obsolete, and second, at every level from the personal to the international, we know now how deeply interdependent and interrelated all humans are with each other and their life-support system. These two realities have come down upon us a thousand fold since Erikson posited mutuality as an ethical touchstone, renewing and deepening the implications of the universal Golden Rule. These realities can help guide contemporary diplomats from all nations through the dilemmas that raw military power cannot address. Threats become less effective than initiating people-to-people exchanges or giving the “enemy” fully-equipped hospitals, gestures of good will that lessen fear and build relationship.  Such initiatives are exponentially lower in price than war itself. As Erikson put it:

Nations today are by definition units of different stages of political, technological and economic transformation . . . insofar as a nation thinks of itself as a collective individual, then, it may well learn to visualize its task as that of maintaining mutuality in international relations. For the only alternative to armed competition seems to be the effort to activate in the historical partner what will strengthen him in his historical development even as it strengthen the actor in his own development—toward a common future identity.

Finally, Erikson’s “common future identity”—after we understand that we are first of all a single species before we are Persian or Jew, Muslim or Christian—requires the acknowledgement of a further mutuality, the mutuality of earth-human relations. Our very survival, let alone our flourishing, depends upon cooperation to strengthen the living systems out of which we came—in order to strengthen ourselves. The Golden Rule, priceless beyond gold, calls us to swear on the lives of our grandchildren not only to treat our enemies as we would wish to be treated, but also the earth itself. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Nuclear Emptiness, Nuclear Hope

Schultz, Kissinger, Perry and Nunn, those quintessentially establishment figures, have just posted in the quintessentially establishment Wall Street Journal their fifth editorial since 2007 advocating urgent changes enabling the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons on planet Earth.

Computer modeling tells us that if even a small fraction of the world’s nuclear arsenals are detonated in a war, doesn’t matter where—could be Pakistan-India, Israel-Iran, U.S.-Russia or China or Iran—the amount of soot thrown skyward could curtail agriculture on the planet for a decade—effectively a death sentence for all.

So why do we hesitate? Are these weapons worth the money they are sucking away from our schools and firefighting equipment and bridge repairs? Why are Russian and American nuclear missiles still pointed at each other on high alert?

Working backward from the ultimate bad outcome of a nuclear war, no matter how it started, by a terrorist action or a misinterpretation or an accident or even a deliberate attack by one state on another, as we contemplated nuclear winter and no food, would we still divide the world cleanly into “goods” and “bads,” or would we realize that the fears and tensions engendered by the weapons themselves led to a system over which we did not exercise the preventive controls for which Kissinger/Nunn/Perry/Schultz advocate?

We need to acknowledge how our minds function—both the minds of the “goods” and the minds of the “bads,” because we all possess a limbic brain, a fight or flight response that goes back to our saurian ancestors. 9/11 paranoia led us “goods” to cross the red line beyond which lies the immorality of torture. But all of us also have a part of our brain that evolved later, a part that can make rational decisions based in common survival goals. That’s the part of the brain Gorbachev and Reagan and George Bush Sr. used to end the madness of the cold war between the U.S. and the dissolving Soviet Union.

A few weeks ago at a Maine conference on the Middle East, Lawrence Pope, an American career diplomat, dared to assert some hard truths. “I would argue,” he said, “that it does matter that there are virtually no Foreign Service officers in policy positions in the State Department anymore, and that at the White House, it is the military intelligence complex that reigns supreme. The Arab Awakening cries out for an active American diplomatic role. I wish I were more optimistic about the ability of our militarized institutions to adapt to this new world. As a government, we are better at flying drones, recruiting agents, and indulging in patronizing fantasies about nation-building than we are at dealing with free men and women.”

What is missing is not only diplomatic initiative, but something in our own hearts that can recognize free men and women when we see them, without wishing to control them—or their oil. In the context of nuclear paranoia, it is difficult to focus creatively upon war preparation and upon peacebuilding at the same time. They represent two disparate kinds of creativity. Establishment leaders assert we need both, in the form of diplomacy backed up by overwhelming force.  But as Einstein said, you cannot solve a problem on the same level of thinking that created the problem.  On the paranoid level, to a hammer everything looks like a nail.

The work of dismantling not only the nuclear weapons themselves, but also the enemy thinking that tempts the primitive parts of our brains, is endless. Maybe we are the good guys and Iran’s leaders are bad guys. But even as we become more alienated from each other and move closer to war, we both know that war will not resolve our differences and will only result in tragedy. The 80 million people of Iran have little to say about it. Because we’re supposedly more democratic than Iran (though hundreds died in the streets of Iran in 2009 demonstrating a yearning for democracy), we ought to be able to think more outside the nuclear fears that seem to box in our policy options.

Instead what we have is secret violent initiatives on both sides—tit for tat. We insert a virus into their uranium-refining centrifuges that causes the centrifuges to spin out of control. Someone, maybe us, maybe Israeli intelligence, is assassinating their nuclear scientists. Iran in turn arms surrogates like Hezbollah, or attacks computers in Saudi Arabia. Fears and stereotyping intensify, in a kind of proxy of the potential nuclear war no one can win. Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would slow the impetus of proliferation but will not stop it. Terrible resentments would be exacerbated in the Persian/Arab/Muslim world, with unforeseen consequences down the time-stream.

Dialogue with adversaries should be based less on living up to U.N. agreements (Iran is hardly the first to break those when it chooses) than on shared realities. Nuclear winter helps us to see nuclear weapons as a subset of planetary environmental challenges like climate change and the shared systems of pollution in the ocean, soil and air. These make it impossible not to acknowledge common survival and security goals that have no military solution. The people we disagree with are as real as we are. Our own security and theirs are interdependent, however much we despise their prejudices or clandestine activities. We share the big transnational challenges, and we share limbic brains that, when threatened, revert quickly to default settings of “us-and-them.” 

Our nation was founded by Europeans who came here to transcend colonialism. Even as the Old World was giving up its colonies, we became a country that unconsciously revived colonial domination, rationalized by the assumption that our job is to bring democracy to the unwashed masses, or, failing that, at least colonize their oil. We could start by penitently acknowledging colonialist misdeeds like the oil-motivated interference of the United States and Britain in Iran’s democratic process in the 1950s, which we can bet Iranians have not forgotten. Doing the inner work of recognizing our own shadow-side would allow us to access the creative peacebuilding skills available to “free men and women” everywhere. Beyond “us-and-them,” we face the nuclear cul-de-sac together as one human species. It is hopeful that someone as pitilessly realistic as Henry Kissinger realizes that there is no way out but abolition.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Hard Power, Soft Power, and the Power of Good

Mark Helprin’s 2012 novel, 'In Sunlight and in Shadow', tries to articulate as noble as possible a justification for the tragic violence of war. The novel is set just after World War II, so it is not surprising that the rationale is based in the Churchillian mind-set of the campaign to defeat Hitler. In the novel, an older veteran argues: “How many millions have to die, Harry, before we stop worrying about unintended consequences?”

Harry, a younger vet, responds: “What if all nations decided to kill off what in their eyes was mortally dangerous leadership? It would become a Hobbesian world.”

“The world just lost 50 million dead. Is that Hobbesian enough? Politeness can be a form of collaboration, or suicide . . .You have to play it by ear, as you know, as you must know, having fought your way through Sicily, France, Holland and Germany, your responsibility is not to be morally pristine, but to preserve the maximum number of innocent lives. How many men have you killed?

“Too many.”

“Yes, and probably most of them were as innocent as you. . . . You know that, and yet you had to kill them, and you did, because all in all, in the gross and scope of it, scores of millions are alive now who would not have been, or who would have been enslaved, had Germany not been defeated. Children by the millions, Harry, they are the reason you killed men. Now you are forever morally impure, but Harry, if only by the weight of the flesh and blood in the balance, you’re purer than those who refused.”

This interchange strikes home because it is just how we might imagine our nobly impure presidents and generals think, conveying a sense of what allows them to sleep at night as our drones sleeplessly patrol—allows them to shed tears for children in Newtown but not for those in the dusty, half-starving villages of Afghanistan or Yemen. Prevention rationalizes preemption, and its inevitable collateral damage.

Even the difference between the civilian-encompassing firestorms of Dresden and the surgical precision of modern destruction fails to quiet our unease. Nor, surely, does the technological line of progress that says we can deploy a drone to assassinate, so why not, even if we fray the tenuous bonds of law and moral decency.

Nobly impure intentions enforced by drones are no longer enough. If they were, Afghanistan would not be the war-weary, corrupt, drug-saturated place it has become today, and we would not be seeing so many suicides among our vets. Our campaigns to bring democracy to Vietnam, or to preempt a potential Hitler in Iraq, did not turn out so nobly.

The doubts troubling Helprin’s young veteran have gradually magnified between 1945 and the present to the point where we can no longer avoid seeing our complicity in the Hobbesian totality. Our own carbon footprint helps the sea rise over low-lying Pacific atolls, or floods impoverished Bangladeshis. It is our own country that possesses the most nuclear weapons and sells the most conventional weapons and has the biggest military budget and occupies the most bases overseas.

The unintended consequences that the older veteran in Helprin’s novel might wish to disregard for the sake of his vision of the greater good can no longer be set aside as worth the price of war. Instead, we have become disagreeably familiar with blowback, where the “solution” makes the problem worse—as seen over decades of Western interference in Iran and Iraq, or Soviet and American meddling in Afghanistan. The blowback from targeted assassinations is already occurring as innocents are killed, resentments mount, and fresh recruits offer themselves for further mayhem.

And as more and more nations possess nuclear weapons, any modern conflict, even one provoked by stateless entities, could lead, as it almost did lead in 1962, to global apocalypse. Above the endless cycle of violence loom ultimate unintended consequences, like nuclear winter—the mother of all blowbacks.

The answer is not merely “soft power,” which still involves, by gentler means than war, co-opting others to do what we want. One possible model, one that could bring some balance into our overwhelmingly militaristic foreign policy, might be called “good power.” Rotary International provides a model of what this power for good might look like. Rotary has 32,000 clubs in 200 countries. It’s based in people-to-people relationships. It sets high goals and plods stubbornly toward them, like their worldwide and almost achieved anti-polio initiative. It makes friends and elicits the sincere gratitude of those to whom it provides crucial aid. Why is it not “realistic” to deemphasize our ironclad military fist in favor of a helping hand, with the understanding that an increase in the security of any nation increases our own?