Updating Nuclear Disarmament


by Wayne Hall


During the recent visit to Athens of  Bernard Cassen, director of Monde Diplomatique and founding-member of the citizens’ movement ATTAC,  to speak at the French Institute on "Social Europe" and its prospects, I had the opportunity to begin a discussion with him on such questions as the political careers of Jean-Pierre Chevenement and Charles de Gaulle, the French and British nuclear arsenals, the "new social movements" of the eighties and the elements of continuity between those movements and today's anti-war movement and movement against neo-liberal globalism. Given the renewed relevance of "weapons of mass destruction" in the debate preceding the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, I thought it might be appropriate to outline why it is that I believe the anti-nuclear-weapons concerns of the European "New Social Movements" of the 80s have their part to play in the project of a  Social Europe today.

The great slogans of the non-aligned anti-nuclear movements of the eighties were, of course, "A Europe Free of Nuclear Weapons", "A Nuclear-Free Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals". These are slogans which point to an anti-nuclear agenda different from that contained in the United-Nations-supported anti-nuclear initiatives such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Limited Test Ban Treaty, or indeed the bilateral arms control treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union like the SALT treaties and the now defunct ABM Treaty, an agenda for a nuclear-weapons-free Europe unrelated to the future which American governments and American citizens project for their own country's nuclear arsenal.

They are slogans predicated on the arguable view that it is not the task of non-Americans to dictate to the United States government the outlines of that country's nuclear weapons policy. This, de facto, is what United States governments - as indicated by their insistence on nuclear disarmament of countries such as Iraq and North Korea - are in any case already demanding, and it is a demand which probably enhances whatever legitimacy present-day United States "unilateralist" policies continue to enjoy in the eyes of a section of  the American public.

I have been asked to explain why I - a non-American - am not interested in trying to change the mind of Americans who insist on their own country's (but not other countries') "right" to possess weapons of mass destruction, and I would like here to do just that.

Ever since the Second World War the ruling elite of the United States has been playing a many-sided game exploiting the belief of a large American electoral clientele that nuclear weapons, like all other substantial questions of US domestic and foreign policy, are a matter for Americans and only Americans to make decisions about, and that to demand otherwise is to challenge American national sovereignty.

The Soviet Union, with its repeated calls throughout the Cold War for universal nuclear disarmament, challenged this conception of American national sovereignty. It did this while simultaneously developing its own nuclear arsenal, presumably because it thought this was the only way it could protect itself from the fate of the Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Anti-nuclear movements outside the US and the USSR, particularly in Europe, through the fifties and sixties began to be attracted to the view that, whatever justifications were advanced for the "defensive" nature of Soviet nuclear weapons, the Soviet nuclear arsenal was as much a threat to humanity as the American nuclear arsenal. ("There are no good and bad nuclear weapons" was a popular slogan of the time). I became a member of the non-aligned European peace movement from the early eighties onward, and this was the central plank of our politics. We were absolutely intolerant of the Moscow-controlled World Peace Council’s assertions that  there was a qualitative difference between Soviet and American nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons policies.

After 1988 and the signing of the INF agreement on intermediate range nuclear missiles in Europe, the World Peace Council's politics took a big blow. Gorbachev was no longer asserting a principle of "balance". Henceforth two standards were being applied: American nuclear weapons were to be judged by one set of criteria. Soviet nuclear weapons were to be judged by another set of criteria. Internal critics in the Soviet Union who were unabashedly hostile to Soviet (and only Soviet) nuclear weapons, irrespective of questions of "deterrence" of US nuclear weapons, began to be tolerated. Their views were even officially encouraged by the politicians of 'perestroika', with the calculation that they could be used to exert pressure on the Soviet military lobby.

To be consistent with their previous positions, at the time of the August 1991 coup against Gorbachev, the non-aligned peace movements should have demanded the complete abolition of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. There is much evidence that Gorbachev and even moreso Yeltsin would have liked to see such a demand coming from the Western anti-nuclear movements because it would have strengthened their own hand against the Soviet military. But towards the end of the eighties the non-aligned peace movements started going quiet, and/or moving onto other concerns (such as racism and nationalism).

Thus American official policy, which was for denuclearisation of the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus but not Russia, went unchallenged. The right of Ukrainians, Kazakhs and Belarus citizens to live in nuclear-weapons-free states was respected but the right of Russians was not. Yeltsin’s most radical anti-nuclear proposals were ignored.

The policies of the non-aligned anti-nuclear movements were thus successfully subverted. The Cold War model of social mobilisation through manipulation of enemy-image stereotypes (the non-aligned peace movement had accused both sides of the Cold War of manipulating enemy-image stereotypes) went unchallenged.

As a result, the model began to be extended. It was applied not just to Communists, but also to politicians deemed too nationalistic (or 'racist'), then to 'terrorists'. Now we also see experiments with the manufacturing of threats in the form of diseases (SARS), with the politicisation of the medical profession [after the promising start made by Doctors without Borders] foreshadowing a Brave New World beyond the wildest dreams of Huxley or Orwell.

The American nuclear weapons/Star Wars lobby would have received a severe setback if the Soviet nuclear arsenal had been successfully abolished after 1991 at the initiative of the non-aligned anti-nuclear movements. Now, with recomposition of political-military collaboration long established in Russia, it is too late for such demands. The best one could hope for would be a bilateral European/Russian nuclear disarmament initiative on Brazilian/Argentinian lines, to serve as a model for similar Russian/Chinese, Indian/Pakistani, and Middle Eastern initiatives including Israel.

The only way there can be any hope for this spiralling politics of threat to be subverted is by tracing it all back to its origins, and to its prototype, which was the Cold War nuclear threat predicated on manipulating American fears that an enemy (whether Communists, the United Nations, the European Union or whatever) is going to try to deprive American citizens of their sovereign right to arm themselves in any way they judge necessary.

Who at the moment is addressing this problem, at its roots? Not people who merely regurgitate United Nations policies on WMD that seem purposely designed to arouse the paranoia of "patriotic" Americans that some hostile outside agency is going to try to take away their nukes.

Not Noam Chomsky, who in a recent interview with an Indian journalist said that following the occupation of Iraq there will be a proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, because the lesson that has now been conveyed is that only states armed with nuclear weapons can be sure of not being attacked by the United States.

Will Chomsky be reminded of this interview if the United States attacks North Korea? No, he will not. No more than supporters of the nuclear disarmament of Iraq will ever ask themselves why, if it was such a good idea for e.g. Iraq to be disarmed, they never demanded that the Soviet Union be disarmed.

At the beginning of his "Green History of the World" Clive Ponting tells the story of the people of Easter Island, which to me has great interest as a parable of the nuclear arms race. This remote Polynesian people had developed a technologically and culturally advanced mini-civilisation on their island, centred on the ceremonial construction and erection of the stone idols that are the surviving emblems of this now vanished race. When the Polynesians came to the island it was apparently covered with dense forest. When Europeans encountered the degraded remnants of the Easter Island civilisation in the seventeenth century it was bare of trees. They had all been cut down so that the logs could be used to roll the huge stone idols into position. The various mini tribes of the island had competed in the performance of the ceremony of constructing and installing the idols. When resources began to run out there was an acceleration in the construction and installation of the idols, as the idol ceremonial was apparently perceived as a potential solution to the ecological and social problems the islanders faced. There was also a permanent state of warfare as each tribe attempted to destroy the idols of other rival tribes. It is because of this acceleration in idol building and warfare towards the end of the Easter Island civilisation that the island is strewn with the ruins of half-completed and destroyed idols.

It is time for the nuclear weapons debate to be reopened, as I attempted in Athens to reopen it with M. Bernard Cassen. And a very good idea for present-day anti-hegemonic citizens' movements would be to take up the discussion where it was abandoned at the end of the eighties by the citizens' movements of that time.


Why do I oppose the international anti-nuclear movement lending its support to the new round of danger-mongering over mini-nukes?

Irrespective of the truth or falsity of any relevant claims, there is one thing to get straight about the operations of the nuclear weapons and related arms lobbies:  their normal preference is for secrecy. When publicity is given to what they do, it invariably serves another agenda. It is the other agenda that makes possible the release of funds to the anti-nuclear movements which then mount the publicity campaign, whereas no funds would be forthcoming if there were no such alternative agenda to justify the financing.

The most recent manifestation of nuclear weapons scaremongering, as we all know, was over the alleged Iraqi arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. It so happens that that particular scaremongering did not make any significant use of ideologically-motivated anti-nuclear activists, but that was merely because of its implausibility. Whenever there can be mobilisation of sincere anti-nuclear activists – people who will work without pay for ideological reasons – such mobilisations are encouraged.

I first perceived this logic at work in the celebrations of the INF Treaty in 1987 between Reagan and Gorbachev, where anti-nuclear activists rejoiced at the destruction of "an entire category of nuclear weapons", namely intermediate-range theatre nuclear missiles in Europe. The INF Treaty was billed as the first step in a process to culminate in universal nuclear disarmament, but what anti-nuclear activists were really celebrating was the demise of the World Peace Council, the old-style-Communist peace movement which insisted on having a single rule for both Soviet and American nuclear weapons. The INF agreement would not have been possible on the basis of these World Peace Council principles.

In 1991, immediately following the failure of the Communist coup against Gorbachev, with Boris Yeltsin emerging as the main power broker in Russia, there was another outbreak of nuclear weapons danger-mongering which at the time I was at first at a loss to understand. Suddenly huge amounts of publicity were being given to NATO plans to introduce a new air-to-surface nuclear missile called TASM. As with the recent anti-Iraqi nuclear weapons scaremongering, this particular campaign received little peace movement support, relying almost completely on media professionals. The anti-nuclear
movements were in any case demobilised and disoriented by developments in the Soviet Union. But the TASM campaign against new NATO nuclear weapons effectively served its purpose of distracting attention from what the anti-nuclear movements should have been concentrating on at that time:
Russian nuclear weapons. Yeltsin had come to power, with the support, let us not forget, of the most radical sections of the Western extra-parliamentary Left, with hopes of pursuing radical nuclear disarmament, not just of the other Soviet republics: Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine, where nuclear weapons were stationed and which ‘the West’ aimed to denuclearise, but also of Russia. Yeltsin’s radical anti-nuclear intentions became clear at a conference in Moscow with Western political leaders not long after the defeat of the Communist coup. This was the time when the Western non-aligned anti-nuclear movements which had celebrated their defeat of the World Peace Council in 1987 should been putting all their support behind Yeltsin to achieve as radical a reduction of the Russian nuclear arsenal as possible, even its complete dismantlement, which Yeltsin indicated in a speech to the Duma on 3rd September 1991, that he would like to see. But the nuclear weapons theme that was dominating the international media in those weeks was NATO’s TASM.

Most of Yeltsin's anti-nuclear weapons proposals of that time were successfully ignored, and indeed after 1991 it was only in reaction to extreme provocation  that Yeltsin was ever again to try to mount the anti-nuclear bandwagon. For example in the mid-1990s of the German Christian Democrats attempted to win a federal election by scaremongering over alleged
smuggling of nuclear weapons materials from Russia (the German secret police had been carrying out a number of "sting operations" to lure impoverished Russian scientists into selling nuclear materials on the black market). Yeltsin responded to this by launching a short-lived revival in the United
Nations of some of Gorbachev's anti-nuclear-weapons rhetoric, which once again died through lack of Western response.

What is the hidden agenda behind the new scaremongering over mini-nukes? Firstly, to give the United Nations a new anti-nuclear role to help people forget the UN's humiliation over Iraq, where what was formerly characterized by half the Security Council as an illegal invasion based on an illegal doctrine of pre-emptive war, has now been retrospectively legitimated, with the UN confined more or less to lobbying for its share of
the humanitarian relief work in occupied Iraq. Secondly to reinforce the warnings issued by anti-nuclear spokespersons that "US unilateralism" encourages nuclear proliferation by leading non-nuclear weapons states to believe that nuclear weapons possession is the only way of protecting a
state from a US attack. These warnings are based on assumptions that fly in the face of all experience, from the experience of the nuclear-weapons possessing former Soviet Union (vast areas of which are now occupied by United States military forces) to the experience of Iraq (the attack on which was justified by its allegedly attempting to do what is now billed as a way to avoid being attacked).

Let us leave the issue of mini-nukes for American anti-nuclear activists to deal with. They at least, as Americans, should not be accused of that lack of respect for American national sovereignty that is inevitably attributed (in electioneering rhetoric to the America's "patriotic" political constituency) to anyone else who in any way disparages the American national
totem: its nuclear arsenal. Which is not, of course, to say that they will not be so accused.

Nevertheless, the international anti-nuclear movement does not need to lend its weight to disingenuous danger-mongering whose real intention is to try to restore the tattered credibility of the United Nations. By all means support Greenpeace, Antiwar.com and others in their campaign against mini-nukes, but remind them again and again that danger-mongering should be left to those who think they have have something to gain from reducing the population to a state of terror. That does not include anti-nuclear activists.

Athens, May 2003

Wayne Hall is an activist who lives in Greece. Read more at http://www.smartgroups.com/groups/weaponsofmassdistraction