On apathy and the nuclear threat.
Nuclear arms hold an exceptional place in the gamut of weapons technology. Their entrance onto the world stage has consolidated global hierarchies, intensified state rivalries, stymied foreign interventions, and, on occasion, brought the world perilously close to an as yet unprecedented level of destruction. In light of this last in particular, it comes as little surprise that the debut of the atomic bomb also precipitated the birth of the Doomsday Clock and introduced the phrase “five minutes to midnight” into our cultural lexicon—all this even though, in the entirety of their nearly 60-year lifespan they’ve only been detonated in an act of war twice.
Recently, California governor, Jerry Brown, joined Stanford professors Martin Hellman, David Holloway, and Jean-Pierre Dupuy in a panel moderated by Jon Christensen to discuss the nature of the nuclear threat and what current world conditions could portend for the future use or non-use of such weapons.
"The first step is to break open denial and bring awareness that the threat of nuclear menace is real."
“The first step is to break open denial and bring awareness that the threat of nuclear menace is real,” said Governor Brown—whose comments set much of the tone for the hour-long panel. While panelists devoted attention to both well- and lesser-known close-calls with the nuclear brink in recent decades, much of the conversation zeroed in on the tenuous insurance of nuclear deterrence and the prospects of moving toward disarmament at a moment of political and popular apathy on the subject of nuclear arms.
Inspired in part by Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s meditations on the nuclear threat in his book, The Mark of the Sacred, panelists reflected on this sentiment of overarching public denial. Dupuy attributed this “blindness in the face of apocalypse” both during the panel, and in his book, to what German Jewish philosopher, Günther Anders, described as the “Promethean discrepancy.” The discrepancy, as Anders characterized it, was a gap between the human capacities for invention and imagination—a schema in which he asserts that the human capacity for innovation and creation outpaces human foresight, thus trampling moral caution underfoot.
Dupuy elaborated on this concept, asserting that the failure of the human imagination to fully apprehend future repercussions is essentially a problem of converting knowledge into belief. Though the facts are known—the devastating magnitude of a nuclear warhead, the ever-present prospect of nuclear proliferation, and the precarious logic of mutually assured destruction—transforming that constellation of the atomic precedent, the nuclear present, and rational prescience into visceral belief has proven challenging. Without that link, the catalyst that solidifies information into fear of a tangible future outcome, taking action to avert that outcome stagnates.
On this note risk analyst, Martin Hellman, stepped into the conversation to elucidate the myriad paths that could conceivably propel states toward nuclear action, but he also emphatically underscored that steps could be taken in the opposite direction, toward nuclear reductions. Though the latter paths are less often considered with serious intent, it is no less plausible, Hellman emphasized, to imagine a diligent and gradual path toward disarmament and a diplomatic landscape divorced from MAD logic.
This vision was nearly realized in the 80s when leaders of the world’s nuclear superpowers, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, cooperatively sought an end to nuclear proliferation—which constituted, perhaps, the most productive campaign in nuclear reductions to date. In 2007 Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and George Shultz penned an open letter in the Wall Street Journal in hopes of reinvigorating this sort of activism for disarmament, in which they beseeched readers:
What will it take to rekindle the vision shared by Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev? Can a world-wide consensus be forged that defines a series of practical steps leading to major reductions in the nuclear danger? There is an urgent need to address the challenge posed by these two questions.
Panelist David Holloway, who was one of over a dozen signatories of this letter, discusses one of the major hurdles to forging this “world-wide consensus” toward disarmament in a 1999 PBS film. In it, he describes how this consensus has existed nearly as long as nuclear technology itself, saying, “I think there was, by late 1955, an understanding by Khrushchev, Eisenhower, and by Anthony Eden, that a nuclear war would really be a catastrophe for everyone… And yet, the arms race continued. And I think this comes back to the symbolic importance of the weapons.”
Currently, eight countries possess nuclear warheads, including all of the permanent members of the UN Security Council—a 5-country bloc that holds tremendous sway over the course of international disputes—as well as North Korea, whose touted arsenal has made the radically insular state diplomatically and militarily unapproachable. That bearing nuclear arms confers both practical and symbolic clout is fairly self-evident. During the panel, Dupuy even suggested that Iran’s purported interest in weapons-grade uranium may be just as much, if not more, a play for status than it is a direct threat to the state’s particular geopolitical adversaries.
International norms that conflate nuclear capability with entitlement to global arbitration must necessarily be addressed before any meaningful attempt to reduce arms can be made. The attendant stigma for the development of new arseanls, or the expansion of existing ones must become such that it outweights, or at least substantially complicates, the benefits of their acquisition. That stigma can be engineered through public awareness and political pressure, but only if the popular will abandons ambivalence in favor of a more activist stance. And so, as the Governor said, “The first step is to break open denial and bring awareness that the threat of nuclear menace is real.”