Monday, June 26, 2017

"A Decent respect for the Opinions of Mankind"

The distractions of the Trump presidency, even including Russian attempts to hack our democracy, have swamped events that may in the long run be of far greater historical significance. A primary example is the historic ongoing U.N. conference concerning the prohibition and eventual abolition of nuclear weapons— and our own nation’s unwise boycott of same.

From the New York Times: “’There is nothing I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons, Ambassador Nikki Haley told reporters outside the General Assembly as the talks began. ‘But we have to be realistic. Is there anyone who thinks that North Korea would ban nuclear weapons?’”

For the 130 nations who voted to support just such a ban and put nuclear weapons in the same category as chemical weapons, land mines, and cluster munitions, realism clearly means something very different from what it means to Ambassador Haley.

 Thomas Jefferson wrote in private correspondence back in 1823 that the Declaration of Independence was intended to "place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take."

For the vast majority of the global community who are “taking an independent stand,” “the common sense of the subject” is that nuclear weapons have become an unworkable response to the great challenge of world security.

Even if one grants reluctantly that for decades in the past nuclear weapons have played an important role in preventing a third World War, the historical lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 does not bode at all well for a future in which deterrence continues to work perfectly. 

The stakes are simply too high. The technological complexity not only of the weapons possessed by the nine existing nuclear powers, but of the electronics of command and control and communication connected to the weapons, are so complex as to dwarf utterly the complexity of the safety systems that failed in such disasters as the reactor failures at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Controlling these fallible, perhaps hackable, systems are hundreds of thousands of humans with a tendency to misinterpret incoming data according to their own prejudices and fears.

Ambassador Haley’s tragic realism is presumably based in the necessity of maintaining deterrent credibility. In other words, if the United States participated in the talks, it would allow adversaries like North Korea’s leaders to question the credibility of our willingness to destroy them utterly either if they make unwise aggressive moves, or even if they merely continue to pursue the goal of deterrent parity out of concern that we are an existential threat to them—a mutually paranoid echo chamber that leaves out the desire of both sides to survive.

130 nations have moved beyond the obsolete logic of nuclear deterrence, and this must be counted a moment of enormous import for the history of the nuclear age—an age that has only two possible endings: planetary annihilation, or the complete, reciprocal, verifiable abolition of all nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia and other nations who boycotted the conference or voted against its laudable aims will have to answer to the billions of citizens in the supportive nations who will exert an ever greater moral force upon the nuclear holdouts.

A further performative contradiction of nuclear deterrence as a foundation of international security is the possibility of nuclear winter. Scientists have devised sophisticated computer models that show how small a number of nuclear detonations it would take to upload enough soot and ash into the upper atmosphere to transform global agriculture for a decade—effecting inherent defeat upon the nation that initiated the attack, upon all the other nuclear powers, and upon the 130 nations who have already realized that nuclear deterrence is a labyrinth with no exit.

The last dimension of these weapons that cries out for more discussion is their cost. The United States is planning to spend over a trillion dollars over the next three decades to modernize our weapons systems. 130 nations already understand full well that resources on that level redirected to meeting genuine human and environmental challenges could provide a far more stable security foundation than the deterrence system. Speaking only of meeting needs in the United States, with that kind of money we could easily supply free health care from cradle to grave
for every American.

Our founders felt the need to explain clearly in the Declaration, out of a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind,” exactly why we broke away from Great Britain more than two centuries ago. The vote against nuclear weapons by 130 nations represents a new declaration of interdependence, equally an affirmation of common sense. If our country still respects the opinions of such a majority, it should be a good deal more forthright than Ambassador Haley has been so far as to why we are not ourselves joining efforts to end the abomination of nuclear weapons.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Evil and the Paris Accords

Much ink was spilled in the year leading up to the election of the president on the subject of incipient fascism. We turned to prophets to discern the shape of our future as it loomed out of the unknowable. People went back to Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, and even more to Orwell’s 1984. We examined the conditions surrounding the rise of figures like Hitler and Mussolini, searching for parallels. Though we found mostly differences, there remained the unavoidable lesson of how much absolute evil a sociopathic and insecure strongman could cause.

But historians such as Daniel Goldhagen, the author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, also underlined the complicity of ordinary Germans in the Jewish catastrophe. Uncomfortable as it may be to acknowledge, this suggests an all-too-valid parallel with our own moment.

As we, the second-biggest polluter in the world, blithely began the process of withdrawing from an accord that had taken countless hours of dialogue on the part of thousands of officials trying to build a delicate global consensus, frustration and cringing embarrassment has naturally focused upon the Decider, a man who demonstrates few convictions and who thereby seems submissive to ignorant and greedy forces that are making use of him as a pawn for short-term gain.

Too many Americans, stuck in an obsolete conception of economic self-interest, far from thinking of Trump’s move as evil, applauded his abandonment of a hard-won global agreement. We seem to be masters at working against our authentic self-interest, which is the possibility of both new jobs and clean air if we could lead the world in the production of solar panels, storage batteries, wind generators, and other innovations yet to emerge from robustly supported research programs.

When it comes to climate, we cannot avoid the reality that we as individuals play just as determinative a role in shaping our future as the supposed leader of the free world. And this can become what Emerson called “the good of evil born.”

There is something bracing and activating about having to accept the reality, preached through millennia by spiritual leaders, that we are all in this together. As the new president of France said, let’s make the planet great again.

Two core values, one often associated with conservative political philosophy and another with progressive, will help us rise to this challenge of change, through which we can bypass Mr. Trump’s abdication of moral and economic leadership.

The conservative value is self-reliance. We are free to examine the minutiae of our individual lives and make creative initiatives, the small, and sometimes not so small, incremental changes that will ensure a climatically stable world for those who come after us. Mindfully switching off lights that don’t need to be on. Consolidating errands to cut trips into town. Choosing to purchase a car that gets high mileage, even if gas prices are, for now, falling. Looking into solar, either panels on our own roofs or enrolling with a power company that supplies electricity from renewable sources—not only because it is good for the planet but because it is rapidly becoming less expensive than forms of energy that raise aggregate global temperature. It is rich with irony that the fossil fuel interests that have many of our representatives in their pockets could be left in the dust by the same free market self-reliance to which they pay lip service.

The progressive value is compassion, a “feeling with” that applies on all levels. My choices affect sea level in Bangladesh, just as the number of coal plants in any nation anywhere affects the capacity of my own lungs. Cynicism and fatal resignation is not an option. We are all so interconnected that there is no way not to make a difference. Inevitably we take up space and use up limited resources while we’re here. Can we do this more mindfully, “feeling with” all the billions with whom we share a common fate?

Does Trump’s gesture of withdrawal rise to the level of genuine evil? I’m not sure. I’m more certain that the extent to which the fates of everyone in the world have become intertwined is going to change the way we define evil, and equally change how we resist evil. As always there will be many ways to resist, but maybe the best way going forward will be to build new models that are more alluring—to be the change, as Gandhi said, we want to see in the world.