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IV: Jonathan Schell - Finding a Nuclear-Free World

Jonathan Schell, On Finding Our Way To a Nuclear-Free World


Nuclear weapons are considered items of dubious "prestige." A different and better prestige would accrue to those nations that led the world out of the nuclear age. I am convinced that an American willingness to take this path would break the log jam. Friedrich Nietzsche, of all people, once said that peace would come when the strongest nation broke its sword. The U.S. has the opportunity to be that nation.

-- Jonathan Schell, nuclear disarmament advocate and author of The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger

* * *

Nuclear annihilation? It isn't necessarily at the top of everybody's list of worries these days. Nobody wants to think about it. Worldwide economic instability, fears of terrorism, and global warming seem somehow more immediate.

But that is an illusion, according to nuclear disarmament expert Jonathan Schell, who addressed some 200 Chicago area peace activists recently at the North Suburban Peace Initiative's 29th anniversary meeting. "It's an illusion that the nuclear danger has gone away," he told the gathering. In this, "The Seventh Decade" of the nuclear age (the title of Schell's most recent book), Schell sees an opening, in fact "a fantastic opportunity," for the world to move forward towards abolishing nuclear weapons.

While visiting Chicago, Jonathan Schell agreed to answer some of BuzzFlash's questions about the nuclear threats we face together as one world. He comments on the Bush Administration, President-elect Obama, and Congressional leaders; on Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran; and on the nuclear energy industry's role. He even ponders why we still have nuclear bombs.

* * *

BuzzFlash: You have written on non-proliferation but also about preemptive war and the Bush Administration's shift toward dictatorship. Do you think we might see, in the wake of the recent election, the GOP returning to something like Eisenhower Republicanism – a more moderate and tolerant GOP?

Jonathan Schell: I see little sign of it. A recent poll showed that 66% of Republicans still have a positive view of Sarah Palin. The institutions of the party, including its Christian right infrastructure at the "base," the Congressional delegation, and the right-wing think tanks are "conservatives" -- that is, right-wing radicals. (Never has the word conservative, once descriptive of advocates of slow, organic change, such as Edmund Burke, been more misapplied to a group.) There are a few moderates but they lack either money or foot soldiers.) The interesting exception could be the business community, which the "conservatives" have corruptly served, but so far business has shown little sign of throwing their weight around in the current debate on the direction of the Republican Party, which is kind of a thought-provoking fact.

BuzzFlash: Was Barack Obama the best presidential candidate in 2008 in terms of nuclear safety and non-proliferation?

Jonathan Schell: Certainly, better than McCain. There is a whole array of sensible, moderate disarmament steps he can and may well take without ruffling too many feathers. They include a new arms control agreement with Russia, signing the Comprehensive Test-Ban, even de-alerting the remaining forces, in agreement with Russia. Obama has also committed himself to the goal of abolishing nuclear weapons, as advocated in the famous Wall St. Journal article by George W. Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn and William Perry. But there is no sign yet that he will make this a serious objective of his administration. We'll have to wait and see.

On non-proliferation, Obama has made rather hawkish noises about Iran's possible drive to get the bomb, but has left himself wiggle room by stating mainly that Iran's getting a bomb would be "unacceptable." But the question before the world immediately is not that, but whether Iran can continue with uranium enrichment, which is a step toward the bomb. On this key matter Obama has not been as clear.

BuzzFlash: Is the Congress working on this issue still? Who is taking the lead?

Jonathan Schell: Congress has rejected a number of "modernization" measures proposed by the administration, including proposals to fund miniature nuclear weapons and a new bunker buster. In the House, Ed Markey and Dennis Kucinich have taken leading roles. In the Senate, stalwart Senator Edward Kennedy is always solid on refusing nuclear mischief.

The administration now advocates a euphemistic "Reliable Replacement Warhead" to replace most of the current arsenal, but Congress has dragged its feet. One forthcoming event of great importance will be the legally required statement of nuclear strategy by the new administration. It will force Obama to take a stand on important nuclear issues and will condition Congress' responses to new proposals.

BuzzFlash: Are you afraid that terrorists will get nuclear weapons? If so, which terrorists and which weapons?

Jonathan Schell: It's very hard to judge the imminence of this danger. It is probably most acute in regard to the possibility that elements in Pakistan, the founder of whose bomb, Mr. A.Q. Kahn, pedaled nuclear plans and technology around the world, would pass off materials to a nuclear terrorist group. But the overall direction is clear: Nuclear technology and materials are proliferating, and as they do, the day comes closer when a sub-state group will be able to make or acquire a bomb. This development was predicted as far back as 1945, by the nuclear scientist Leo Szilard, and no one has any right to be surprised to see it approaching now.

BuzzFlash: If Pakistan becomes a failed state, with nuclear weapons, what should the U.S. response be?

Jonathan Schell: The response cannot be a U.S. one alone. It must be fully international to have any chance of success. Military action will not be useful. Only a concerted negotiation with those still in charge of Pakistan's weapons with a view to securing them under some responsible Pakistani control, perhaps with international inspection and assistance, has a hope of providing the assurances that the world would require.

BuzzFlash: What is the nuclear energy industry's role? Would it worry you to see more nuclear power plants built in the drive to reduce our dependence on carbon-based fuels?

Jonathan Schell: Nuclear power programs have historically provided both the training ground and the cover for nuclear weapon programs. An expansion of nuclear power would be a non-proliferation disaster. Of particular concern would be the expansion of uranium enrichment and plutonium processing capacities, as these fuels, with certain modifications, double as the guts of nuclear weapons. Nuclear power plants are also producers of plutonium, which can be used for bombs.

The bare fact of training tens of thousands of new nuclear technicians all over the world would feed a proliferation nightmare.

BuzzFlash: If the U.S. had the courage to eliminate our nuclear arsenal, how do you believe other nations would respond?

Jonathan Schell: From 1945 onward, the United States has led the parade up the nuclear mountain at every step of the way. We invented the bomb, were its sole user, pioneered nuclear strategy and most further technical developments. There is strong reason to believe that the U.S. could lead the march down the other side.

Nuclear arsenals feed on one another. Instead of seeing the national arsenals as independent, we should see them as one interconnected machine. The lynchpin is the American arsenal. The best policy, though, would not be only to announce American willingness to go to zero, but rather in addition to negotiate a joint declaration with Russia and other nuclear powers.

Nuclear weapons are considered items of dubious "prestige." A different and better prestige would accrue to those nations that led the world out of the nuclear age. I am convinced that an American willingness to take this path would break the log jam. Friedrich Nietzsche, of all people, once said that peace would come when the strongest nation broke its sword. The U.S. has the opportunity to be that nation.

BuzzFlash: After the Soviet Union collapsed, why did the US keep its nuclear weapons?

Jonathan Schell: This is one of the deepest and most baffling questions of the nuclear age. It raises the question: What are our (and the Russian) arsenals for now? During the Cold War, of course, each side justified its arsenal by citing the other. But when that justification melted away with Soviet collapse, no new one appeared.

Some people rather hastily said that stopping proliferation was a new role for our nuclear arsenal, but no one really ever proposed actually using a nuclear weapon for that end in any specific circumstance. (Instead, conventional attack was proposed, and even used (Iraq). The question arose whether any special justification at all was required for keeping these world-smashing arsenals. At this point, they seemed to enter into a kind of policy-free zone, and to be sustained by sheer thoughtless momentum.

BuzzFlash: When the Bush Administration pushed for war against Iraq, the possibility of WMDs under Saddam Hussein's control was their most persuasive argument. How does our country's invasion of Iraq relate to the problem of nuclear weapons?

Jonathan Schell: The deeper mischief done by the Iraq invasion in the nuclear context is that even though there were no WMD in Iraq, the broader idea of trying to stop proliferation by force was quietly accepted. This was new. No previous president had proposed to stop proliferation by any means but diplomacy (witness the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) and other pressures.

Now even moderate arms controllers are ready to embrace the use of force for this purpose -- witness the Iran debate. The tragedy is not only that such attacks are illegal but also that they have no prospect of success. At most, they can retard, not eliminate, a nuclear program. Indeed, the best way to guarantee that Iran acquires the bomb is to attack its nuclear facilities. Whether or not they seek the bomb now, after an attack they would by hellbent on obtaining it.

BuzzFlash: Which American leaders are for nuclear disarmament and which oppose it?

Jonathan Schell: Since the publication of the Wall St. Journal article by Shultz, Kissinger, et al., that I mentioned, a remarkable array of retired cabinet members, including a majority of living former secretaries of state and secretaries of defense have signed up for this goal. This is a radical change.

Until now, nuclear abolition has been not only rejected but mocked by most people of this type. A curiously inverted situation has arisen. The establishment now has at least verbally embraced the goal while the public is quiet on the issue. If the public could be got interested again in championing abolition, it might actually be pursued and attained. As I mentioned, Obama is on board.

BuzzFlash: What's the next step towards disarmament, if the US decides to move in that direction?

Jonathan Schell: There are all kinds of excellent, sensible, moderate steps to take, from further reductions to de-alerting American and Russian arsenals, to ratifying the Comprehensive Test-ban Treaty. But the step I'd like to see before any of these is a solemn declaration by the United States, following interagency study, Congressional hearings, and public debate, that our country is resolved to achieve full global nuclear disarmament. The declaration would give the moderate steps a context and an irresistible momentum.

This declaration would be the single most important thing that could be done to stop proliferation even in the short term. A congress of the great nuclear powers ready to surrender their own nuclear weapons would have a powerful, united resolve to stop others from getting into the nuclear business. These powers would be ardently supported in both their disarmament and their non-proliferation efforts by the 183 nations that already have foregone nuclear weapons under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

BuzzFlash: Is there a better way to talk about the danger posed by nuclear arms and nuclear waste, to motivate people to tackle the problem?

Jonathan Schell: I think there is. Since 1945, the nuclear question has stood in a kind of horrible isolation from the other business of the world. Even as it transcended every other danger, it seemed somehow -- perhaps for that very reason -- to be unrelated to those dangers. Not surprisingly, then, public opinion veered from bouts of obsession with the nuclear danger to long periods of forgetfulness. It was all or nothing, boom or bust.

The issue never achieved achieved the status psychologically of part of the normal business of the world. That has changed, because of a new context that has arisen. I am speaking of our awareness that through global warming and other forms of environmental degradation, the underpinnings of the natural world have been put in jeopardy in new ways. In 1945, the nuclear weapon was the only way we had of wrecking the Earth. Now we can do it in many ways.

Environmentalists and nuclear disarmers should join one another. Their cause is one and the same. I've commented that it would be a shame to save the earth from gradual overheating only to burn it up in an afternoon.

BuzzFlash: Thank you for all you are doing, and for bringing the issue into focus for us at BuzzFlash.

Jonathan Schell: Thank you.

BuzzFlash interview by Christine Bowman.

Jonathan Schell, Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization (Biography)
No nukes: Once a quixotic slogan, the idea of actually dismantling every nuclear weapon is attracting mainstream policy thinkers (11/23/08, Boston Globe)
A World Free of Nuclear Weapons, by George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn (Hoover Institution)
Jonathan Schell, Peace Fellow and contributor, The Nation
The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger by Jonathan Schell.
The Superpower Syndrome by Robert J. Liftony.
Arsenals of Folly by Richard Rhodes.

Campaign for a Nuclear-Weapons Free World
National Resources Defense Council
The Nuclear Threat Initiative
Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Disarmament



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