Thursday, February 5, 2015

Hypermasculinity and World-Ending Weapons

Escalating tensions in the Ukraine raise the concern that the “firebreak” between conventional and the tactical nuclear weapons potentially available to all parties in the conflict could be breached, with unforeseen consequences.

Loren Thompson spelled out in Forbes Magazine ( how the Ukraine crisis could go nuclear: through faulty intelligence; through the opposed parties sending mixed signals to each other; through looming defeat for either side; or through command breakdown on the battlefield.

In its simplest form, the complex Ukraine situation boils down to conflicting interpretations and value systems: for Putin, the NATO-izing of the Ukraine was an affront to the Russian homeland that could not go unacknowledged, especially given the history of repeated invasion of Russia by foreign forces. From the West’s perspective, the Ukraine had the right as a sovereign nation to join NATO and enjoy its protection, though the crisis begs the question of why there is still a NATO at all given our remove from the cold war—the former cold war. Is NATO a bulwark against Putin’s revived Russian imperialism, or was NATO’s overreach right up to Russia’s borders the initial cause of his paranoid response?

While sovereignty and democracy are significant political values, one has only to reverse the scenario in the Ukraine to begin to understand, if not sympathize with, Putin’s macho posturing.  The most relevant reverse example already happened way back in 1962. It is of course the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the United States felt its “sphere of influence” unacceptably penetrated. 53 years later the international community appears to have learned little from coming within a hair’s breadth of annihilation.

The Ukraine crisis is an instructive example of why the blithe delay of the great powers to meet the their obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty could end in a worst-case scenario. Our strategists have not begun to comprehend how much the presence of world-ending weapons reconfigures the role of military force in solving planetary conflicts.

It helps with this reconfiguration to acknowledge the evolutionary biology of male (female too, but mostly male) interaction in conflict—our fight or flight reflexes. Governmental officials and press commentators dignify this position or that by diplomatically phrased rationalizations, but beneath all the rhetoric we are still in a schoolyard space, beating our chests and roaring like gorillas.

It is a vast understatement to say that a new paradigm of masculinity is needed. In the old one, I am manly because I protect my position, my turf. In the new, I protect ongoing life on the planet as a whole. In the old, I am credible because I back up my threats with megatons of destructive (though ultimately self-destructive) power. In the new, I acknowledge that the rigidity of my convictions could end up ending the world. Given that the alternate is mass death, I look for reconciliation.

Is such a radical change possible in the present climate of masculine violence that so dominates world media, sports and video games, and hyper-competitive, often corrupt capitalism? But the looming reality of more Cuban Missile crises, assuming the world survives them, will pressure men to broaden out to the planetary level what it now means to be a winner, to be a protector not only of a family or a nation, but of a planet, home of all we share and value.

It is not as if there is no precedent for this emerging masculine paradigm. Think Gandhi and King. Were they wimpy or weak? Hardly. The capacity to expand identification to include care for the whole earth and all humanity lies within all of us, waiting for opportunities to take creative form.

One underpublicized example of the new paradigm emerging in creative tension with the old is Rotary. Rotary was begun by businessmen. Business by nature is competitive—and often politically conservative because markets require political stability—but the values of Rotary transcend the schoolyard aspects of competition, in favor of fairness, friendship, and high ethical standards that include asking one question implying planetary identification: will a given initiative be beneficial to all concerned? Rotary has more than 1.2 million members in over 32,000 clubs among 200 countries and geographical areas. They took on the extraordinarily large, seemingly impossible task of ending polio on the planet, and they have come very close to success. Perhaps organizations like Rotary will become the gymnasiums in which a new masculine paradigm will wrestle the old one into obsolescence. What might Rotary be able to do if it dared to take on ending war?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Beyond Deterrence, Compassion

In memory of peace activist Cynthia Fisk, 1925—2015

Ronald Reagan’s assertion back in 1984 that “a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought” seems to have become accepted across the political spectrum in the U.S. and abroad. The level of destruction that would result would at best make it impossible for medical systems to respond adequately and at worst lead to climate change on a global scale. Reagan continued: “The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?"

Thirty years later, the paradox of deterrence—nine nuclear powers with weapons kept absolutely ready for use so that they will never have to be used—is far from resolved. Meanwhile 9-11 bent our imaginations toward suicidal nuclear terrorism. The possession of even our large and varied arsenal of nuclear weapons would not deter a determined extremist. Fear became so powerful that it motivated not only the grotesque proliferation of information-gathering agencies but also assassination and torture. Anything became justified, including trillion dollar stalemated wars, to preempt the wrong adversary from getting their hands on a nuke.

Are there flashpoints where systems designed for reliable and eternal deterrence blur into a new landscape of deterrence breakdown? The example du jour is Pakistan, where a weak government maintains a stable—we hope—deterrent balance of nuclear forces against India. At the same time Pakistan percolates with extremists with possible sympathetic connections to the Pakistani military and intelligence services. This focus upon Pakistan is conjectural. It may be unfair. A nuclear weapon could just as easily fall out of state control in regions like the Caucasus or—who knows?—even at some U.S. base where security was lax. The point is that fear of such scenarios distorts our thinking as we struggle to respond creatively to the reality that nuclear deterrence doesn’t deter.

To see the fruits of this fear comprehensively invites seeing the process across time, including future time. The familiar argument that nuclear deterrence has kept us safe for many decades starts to break down if we simply imagine two possible worlds: a world toward which we are heading hell-bent if we don’t change course, in which self-escalating fear motivates more and more nations to possess nuclear weapons, or a world where nobody has them. Which world do we want our children to inherit?

Cold war deterrence was aptly called the balance of terror. The present division of irresponsible extremists and responsible, self-interested nation states encourages an Orwellian mental contortion: we conveniently deny that our own nuclear weapons are themselves a potent form of terror—they are meant to terrify opponents into caution. We legitimize them as tools for our survival. At the same time we project this denied terror upon our enemies, expanding them into perverted giants of evil. The terrorist threat of a suitcase nuke overlaps with the revived threat of the cold war turning hot as the West plays nuclear chicken with Putin.

Peace through strength must be redefined—to become peace as strength. This principle, obvious to the many smaller, non-nuclear powers, is reluctantly perceived and quickly denied by the powers that be. Of course the powers that be are not unhappy to have enemies because enemies are politically convenient to the robust health of the arms manufacturing system, a system that includes a prohibitively expensive refurbishment of the U.S. nuclear arsenal that wastes resources needed for the looming challenge of conversion to sustainable energy.

The antidote to the Ebola-like virus of fear is to begin from the premise of interrelationship and interdependence—even with enemies. The cold war ended because Soviets and Americans realized they had in common a desire to see their grandchildren grow up. However death-obsessed, cruel and brutal extremists seem to us, we can choose not to dehumanize them. We can keep our perspective by recalling the brutalities in our own history, including the fact that we were the first to use nuclear weapons to kill people. We can admit our own part in the creation of the rat’s nest of murderousness in the Mideast. We can dig into the root causes of extremist thinking, especially among the young. We can support vulnerable but worthy initiatives like the introduction of a compassion initiative in Iraq ( We can emphasize how many challenges we can only solve together.

In the early stages of the U.S. presidential campaign, candidates are unusually accessible—an opportunity for citizens to ask probing questions that penetrate beneath scripted answers and safe political bromides.  What would a Middle East policy look like if it were based not in playing multiple sides against each other but rather in a spirit of compassion and reconciliation? Why can’t we use some of the pile of money we plan to spend to renew our obsolete weapons on securing loose nuclear materials around the world? Why is the U.S. among the top arms sellers instead of the top provider of humanitarian aid? As president, what will you do to help our nation live up to its disarmament obligations as a signer of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?