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.