The Dooms­day Sce­nario

The Monthly (Australia) - - APRIL 2018 - We are gam­bling with nu­clear arms by Scott Lud­lam

“I re­mem­ber what I thought when I first held the sin­gle sheet with the graph on it. I thought, This piece of pa­per should not ex­ist. It should never have ex­isted. Not in Amer­ica. Not any­where, ever. It de­picted evil be­yond any hu­man project ever. There should be noth­ing on earth, noth­ing real, that it re­ferred to.” The sheet of pa­per in Daniel Ells­berg’s hands pro­vided an an­swer to a ques­tion put by Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy to his Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1961. The pres­i­dent wanted to know: if the Pen­tagon’s plans for a nu­clear first strike on the Soviet Union and China were car­ried out, how many peo­ple would die? The graph es­ti­mates 275 mil­lion dead in the first hours, ris­ing to 325 mil­lion peo­ple within six months. Add Soviet satel­lite states and “col­lat­eral” fall­out deaths in neigh­bour­ing coun­tries, and the num­ber rises to 600 mil­lion peo­ple. “A hun­dred holo­causts,” Ells­berg writes in the som­bre pro­logue to his book The Dooms­day Ma­chine, pub­lished last De­cem­ber. He in­vites you to let that num­ber sink in, in the same way it did for him in the spring of 1961. Dooms­day. Like the de­vices them­selves, the lan­guage has a flavour of 1940s retro about it. A dooms­day ma­chine sounds like some­thing a wartime Bond vil­lain might have come up with in the pre-Con­nery era, bristling with an­ten­nae and flash­ing lights. It doesn’t sound, if we’re hon­est, all that scary. This work isn’t scary in the con­ven­tional sense. It is qui­etly ter­ri­fy­ing. No mat­ter how bad you think the global nu­clear weapons com­plex is, it is worse than you know. Much worse. Ells­berg knows this be­cause he helped de­sign it. As­sum­ing you’re still with me and didn’t just quickly turn the page, it’s worth per­se­ver­ing: Ells­berg is not try­ing to de­press you for the sake of it, and he brings highly rel­e­vant ex­per­tise to the ques­tion of how we’re go­ing to step back from the edge. Just … don’t try to read his book in one sit­ting. The book is sub­ti­tled “Con­fes­sions of a Nu­clear War Plan­ner”. This is not the point of view of a the­o­rist or a by­stander, but the tes­ti­mony of a sharp young pa­triot who was tasked with shap­ing the high­est-level mil­i­tary doc­trines and re­alised along the way what he was ac­tu­ally do­ing. His sense of tim­ing in pub­lish­ing this book is ex­quis­ite. Long-sim­mer­ing nu­clear ten­sions on the Korean Penin­sula again threaten to flare out of con­trol. Ca­sual threats of nu­clear war are ap­par­ently back in fash­ion. And a re­mark­able turn of events in New York has given the world a new set of le­gal and diplo­matic tools to defuse the cri­sis once and for all. But we’re get­ting ahead of our­selves. If the name Daniel Ells­berg feels fa­mil­iar, this is far from the first time he’s thrown him­self into the pub­lic spot­light. In June 1971, The New York Times be­gan run­ning front-page bomb­shells: the Viet­nam War was vastly greater in ex­tent and bru­tal­ity than the Amer­i­can pub­lic had been told; the United States was se­cretly and il­le­gally bomb­ing Cam­bo­dia and Laos; and four suc­ces­sive ad­min­is­tra­tions had been flat-out ly­ing about the con­duct and pur­pose of the war. The source of the so-called Pen­tagon Pa­pers leaks: Daniel Ells­berg, a young an­a­lyst in the em­ploy of the con­sum­mate de­fence con­sul­tancy RAND Cor­po­ra­tion. He and col­league Anthony Russo had spent a year pho­to­copy­ing a clas­si­fied Depart­ment of De­fense study on the war, one page at a time. They were fac­ing a life­time in jail after be­ing in­dicted on charges of theft and es­pi­onage, but the case against them col­lapsed when the Nixon ad­min­is­tra­tion’s mob­ster-style in­tim­i­da­tion of the truth-tellers came to the court’s at­ten­tion. Ells­berg’s name was made as the ar­che­typal pub­licin­ter­est whistle­blower. In the in­ter­ven­ing decades he as­sumed a kind of el­der-states­man-of-whistle­blow­ing sta­tus, and now pro­vides im­por­tant moral and pub­lic sup­port for those whose more re­cent dis­clo­sures have put them in harm’s way: Drake, Kiri­akou, Man­ning, As­sange, Snow­den. Un­known to nearly ev­ery­one, Ells­berg wasn’t just copy­ing the Pen­tagon Pa­pers. He was also qui­etly ex­fil­trat­ing de­tailed ev­i­dence from RAND of how con­tend­ing su­per­pow­ers had quite de­lib­er­ately en­tered into a high-tech­nol­ogy sui­cide pact. It was in­tended to be a one-two punch: to run first with the Viet­nam dis­clo­sures, and then to watch – most likely from the soli­tude of a jail cell – as the Dooms­day dis­clo­sures brought nu­clear pol­icy to the epi­cen­tre of pub­lic at­ten­tion. It didn’t all go to plan: Ells­berg’s brother buried the cache of copied nu­clear pol­icy doc­u­ments in a New York land­fill, pro­tected in a wa­ter­proof bag and marked out with an old stove. A heavy storm re­con­fig­ured the land­scape and the doc­u­ments were lost to his­tory. Ells­berg was un­ex­pect­edly free, but fac­ing the loss of the doc­u­ments that he con­sid­ered, on bal­ance, far more im­por­tant than the Pen­tagon Pa­pers had been. The Dooms­day Ma­chine is the story he first sought to dis­close more than 40 years ago. Pieced to­gether from notes, mem­ory and sub­se­quently de­clas­si­fied ma­te­ri­als, this is a unique in­sider’s guide to the tech­nol­ogy, psy­chol­ogy and doc­trines of those en­gaged in plan­ning for nu­clear war.

Ells­berg lists 25 oc­ca­sions since 1945 in which the US govern­ment has ei­ther se­cretly or openly threat­ened to es­ca­late a con­ven­tional con­flict or diplo­matic stand-off with first use of nu­clear weapons.

Years after he held the “sin­gle sheet with the graph on it”, he dis­cov­ered that even the fig­ure of six hun­dred mil­lion deaths was a hope­less un­der­es­ti­mate.

For a work set mainly in the 1950s and ’60s, it is a re­mark­ably con­tem­po­rary take-down of nu­clear myths and de­cep­tions. First to go: the idea that the pres­i­dent of the United States is the only one with the au­thor­ity to launch its nu­clear weapons. For the con­cept of nu­clear de­ter­rence to hold even ba­sic cred­i­bil­ity, a nu­clear-armed state would need to be able to re­tal­i­ate even in the event of a “de­cap­i­ta­tion” strike that wipes out its se­nior lead­er­ship. Ells­berg dis­cov­ered that in 1959 Pres­i­dent Dwight D. Eisen­hower had granted wide ap­provals to mil­i­tary com­man­ders to strike if they thought it nec­es­sary. And so the white-knuckle ride be­gan. Work­ing his way across the western Pa­cific’s ar­chi­pel­ago of US bases with high-level RAND se­cu­rity clear­ances, Ells­berg iden­ti­fied a va­ri­ety of plau­si­ble sce­nar­ios in which widely dis­persed com­man­ders – down to in­di­vid­ual bomber pi­lots – could choose to ini­ti­ate a nu­clear war. Next to go: the whole con­cept of de­ter­rence that has sat­u­rated de­fence poli­cies and pub­lic de­bates from the 1940s all the way to Aus­tralia’s most re­cent De­fence White Pa­per in 2016. Ells­berg writes:

De­ter­ring a sur­prise Soviet nu­clear at­tack – or re­spond­ing to such an at­tack – has never been the only or even the primary pur­pose of our nu­clear plans and prepa­ra­tions. The na­ture, scale, and pos­ture of our strate­gic nu­clear forces has al­ways been shaped by the re­quire­ments of quite dif­fer­ent pur­poses: to at­tempt to limit the dam­age to the United States from Soviet or Rus­sian re­tal­i­a­tion to a US first strike against the USSR or Rus­sia … The required US strate­gic ca­pa­bil­i­ties have al­ways been for a first-strike force.

“First strike”, in this con­text, means some­thing quite dif­fer­ent to “first use”, in the same way that end­ing your ad­ver­sary’s civilisation is dif­fer­ent to just drop­ping a sin­gle bomb. But with the con­cept of de­ter­rence sub­or­di­nated for the mo­ment – we’ll come back to it – Ells­berg in­tro­duces the other rea­son for build­ing and main­tain­ing th­ese weapons, at the same time dis­pos­ing of the myth that nu­clear weapons haven’t been used since the close of the Sec­ond World War. They have been widely tested to ru­inous ef­fect in our skies, our oceans and on lands from Kaza­khstan to Mar­alinga. They have also been used al­most rou­tinely in a high-stakes game of bal­lis­tic bluff. Ells­berg lists 25 oc­ca­sions since 1945 in which the US govern­ment has ei­ther se­cretly or openly threat­ened to es­ca­late a con­ven­tional con­flict or diplo­matic stand­off with first use of nu­clear weapons, from the Soviet Union’s Ber­lin block­ade to the Korean War to Libya’s un­der­ground chem­i­cal weapons fa­cil­ity. Oth­ers have been watch­ing and learn­ing. Ac­cord­ing to Ells­berg:

[Nu­clear weapons] have been used in the pre­cise way that a gun is used when you point it at some­one’s head in a di­rect con­fronta­tion, whether or not the trig­ger is pulled. For a cer­tain type of gun owner, get­ting their way in such sit­u­a­tions with­out hav­ing to pull the trig­ger is the best use of the gun. It is why they have it, why they keep it loaded and ready to hand.

Here, then, are two quite sep­a­rate doc­trines laid bare. The first is to threaten an ad­ver­sary with a first strike so dev­as­tat­ing that their abil­ity to re­tal­i­ate is wiped out, and to de­ter said ad­ver­sary from a first strike by guar­an­tee­ing the sur­vival of enough re­tal­ia­tory weapons to lay that coun­try to waste. US and Rus­sian stock­piles and doc­trines em­phat­i­cally re­tain this ob­jec­tive, right up un­til the present day. The sec­ond is to bring cred­i­ble threats of first use of nu­clear weapons into con­ven­tional con­flicts and skir­mishes, over and over again, as a means of get­ting your way. Ells­berg’s re­count­ing of the num­ber of times se­nior US of­fi­cials all the way up to the pres­i­dent have threat­ened or ar­gued for pre-emp­tive “tac­ti­cal” nu­clear strikes will make your hair stand on end. This is not just a story of Cold War near-misses, ei­ther, given the present sit­u­a­tion on the Korean Penin­sula. Pause then, and take a breath. Be­cause wildly ir­re­spon­si­ble threats to es­ca­late con­ven­tional con­flicts into new Hiroshi­mas are not even the cen­tral story here. A hand­ful of nu­clear weapons on each side – say, the num­ber be­lieved de­ployed by North Korean dic­ta­tor Kim Jong-un – would be enough to serve that pur­pose. Some­thing vastly worse is at play.

At some point in his re­search for RAND, Ells­berg no­ticed a weird glitch in the ca­su­alty fig­ures mod­elled by US plan­ners in the event of a nu­clear first strike on the Soviet Union:

I had seen suc­ces­sive es­ti­mates for Soviet ca­su­al­ties in gen­eral war that in the early years of [the 1950s] seemed sur­pris­ingly “low” for the nu­clear era: a few mil­lion deaths, then ten mil­lion, then up to thirteen mil­lion or so by 1955. But then from that year to the next, 1956, there was a sud­den ten­fold jump in the es­ti­mates … to a hun­dred and fifty mil­lion Soviet dead. By 1961 … the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] fore­cast was for more than two hun­dred mil­lion in the Soviet bloc alone.

Both the US and Soviet Union – and pre­sum­ably other nu­clear weapons states – felt com­pelled to de­sign coun­ter­strike mea­sures whereby a nu­clear war once be­gun be­comes im­pos­si­ble to stop.

The num­bers kept ris­ing. Years after he held the “sin­gle sheet with the graph on it”, he dis­cov­ered that even the fig­ure of six hun­dred mil­lion deaths was a hope­less un­der­es­ti­mate: the war plan­ners had ne­glected to model the ef­fects of fire, which will kill hun­dreds of mil­lions more. The ca­su­alty es­ti­mates, ris­ing to more than one third of the earth’s pop­u­la­tion by the early 1960s, were not mount­ing be­cause of some new doc­trine or strate­gic ne­ces­sity, but sim­ply through the wide­spread in­tro­duc­tion of a new kind of nu­clear weapon: the hy­dro­gen bomb. “Our pop­u­lar im­age of nu­clear war – from the fa­mil­iar pic­tures of the dev­as­ta­tion of Na­gasaki and Hiroshima – is grotesquely mislead­ing,” writes Ells­berg. “Those pic­tures show us only what hap­pens to hu­mans and build­ings when they are hit by what is now just the det­o­nat­ing cap for a mod­ern nu­clear weapon.” We need not rely on pic­tures alone. The Ja­panese have a word for the sur­vivors of the atomic strikes: hi­bakusha. One of them, Mr Nobuo Miyake, was rid­ing a street­car to­wards the cen­tre of Hiroshima on Au­gust 6, 1945, when the sky flashed a bril­liant white. Think­ing there had been an elec­tri­cal short on the tram, he had the pres­ence of mind to throw him­self off it just as ev­ery­thing went com­pletely black. Some­how, he sur­vived. He spoke of how he met an army of flayed ghosts, hold­ing their hands out in front of them with sheets of skin fall­ing away, flee­ing the firestorm con­sum­ing the city. He didn’t know it, but 80,000 peo­ple were dead; at least an­other 100,000 would die of in­juries and ra­di­a­tion sick­ness as the con­se­quences un­folded over com­ing years. Three days later, there was an­other white flash, over the south-western city of Na­gasaki. Sev­enty thou­sand peo­ple were killed in­stantly; for tens of thou­sands of oth­ers, the long mis­ery of can­cer and ra­di­a­tion sick­ness had just be­gun. Two bombs: one with a core of ura­nium, one with a core of plu­to­nium. More than a quar­ter of a mil­lion dead, nearly all of them civil­ians. Strate­gi­cally, this did not come out of nowhere. Al­though the tech­nol­ogy is new, the mod­ern prac­tice of airborne civil­ian mas­sacres has a lin­eage dat­ing back to Imperial Ja­pan’s at­tacks on Shanghai in 1932, and the more in­fa­mous bomb­ing of the Span­ish town of Guer­nica in 1937. In some of the most dis­turb­ing pas­sages of the book, Ells­berg traces the step­wise ero­sion of the taboo against tar­get­ing civil­ians in wartime. US pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt’s 1939 dec­la­ra­tion that all bel­liger­ents should strictly avoid tar­get­ing civil­ians was met with im­me­di­ate as­sent by the gov­ern­ments of the UK, France and Nazi Ger­many. This com­pact had slipped by 1940 with the Ger­man Luft­waffe’s night­mar­ish bom­bard­ment of Lon­don; from there, it was only a mat­ter of time un­til all pretence of “pre­ci­sion bomb­ing” against mil­i­tary tar­gets had evap­o­rated. By 1943, Bri­tish and US air forces had be­gun ex­per­i­ment­ing with in­cen­di­ary weapons, with the in­ten­tion of cre­at­ing self­sus­tain­ing “firestorms” to burn en­tire cities alive. Even as the atomic sci­en­tists raced to com­plete their “su­per­weapon”, US gen­eral Cur­tis LeMay had per­fected the art of fire­bomb­ing Ja­panese cities with huge fleets of air­craft car­ry­ing a mix of na­palm, phos­pho­rous, mag­ne­sium and high ex­plo­sives. On one such raid on Tokyo in March 1945, LeMay’s pi­lots in­cin­er­ated more than 100,000 peo­ple. The mis­er­able truth is that from the per­spec­tive of peo­ple con­duct­ing this kind of war the key ben­e­fit of nu­clear weapons was con­ti­nu­ity: now re­quir­ing only a sin­gle air­craft, the task of mur­der­ing im­mense num­bers of civil­ians be­came dra­mat­i­cally more ef­fi­cient. Con­duct such as this un­ques­tion­ably vi­o­lates the laws of war painstak­ingly as­sem­bled over pre­ced­ing cen­turies, but by 1945 the prac­tice had be­come en­tirely nor­malised. Un­known to most – even to in­sid­ers like Ells­berg – by 1945 the nu­clear ge­nie had only just be­gun to un­curl. In 1952, the US govern­ment tested the world’s first hy­dro­gen bomb in the Mar­shall Is­lands in the Pa­cific Ocean. This two-stage weapon used a 1940s-era fis­sion bomb as a “det­o­nat­ing cap” to blast a core of hy­dro­gen iso­topes into a state where they fuse to­gether – a process that oth­er­wise only oc­curs within stars. The de­struc­tive yield of such a weapon is al­most un­fath­omable: hun­dreds and then thou­sands of times more pow­er­ful than the de­vices that lit up over Hiroshima and Na­gasaki. By the late 1960s, the five “per­ma­nent” mem­bers of the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil had all tested and de­ployed such de­vices; soon, thou­sands of them crouched in land-based missile si­los, were slung un­der the wings of long-range bombers, or awaited launch from fleets of nearly un­de­tectable bal­lis­tic missile sub­marines. The Cold War arms race be­tween the US and the Soviet Union pro­vided the high­est mag­ni­tude of lu­natic overkill. Ells­berg quotes col­league John H. Rubel: “I re­call that the plan called for a to­tal of forty mega­tons – mega­tons – on Moscow, about four thou­sand times more than the bomb over Hiroshima.” Re­mem­ber, the over­ar­ch­ing am­bi­tion here is to cre­ate a sur­viv­able first-strike ca­pa­bil­ity – to be able to so com­pletely over­whelm the “en­emy” that noth­ing sur­vives to of­fer re­tal­i­a­tion. And to be able to prove to your

ad­ver­sary that in the event they ini­ti­ate such a strike you can in­flict un­ac­cept­able dam­age on them even as your own coun­try is be­ing an­ni­hi­lated. The flaw in the logic is al­most ex­cru­ci­at­ingly ev­i­dent to all but the most ded­i­cated nu­clear war plan­ner. To make such threats cred­i­ble, th­ese weapons have to op­er­ate on a hair-trig­ger: at the first sign of an in­com­ing strike, it is strongly in the in­ter­est of the party be­liev­ing it is un­der at­tack to launch a mas­sive coun­ter­strike. Ells­berg de­scribes how th­ese doc­trines evolved dur­ing the Cold War into darkly sur­real near-misses in which civilisation hung by a thread. The Cuban missile cri­sis, fad­ing from pop­u­lar con­scious­ness de­spite oc­ca­sional Hol­ly­wood re­boots, is only one of the bet­ter­known ex­am­ples. It slowly dawned on Ells­berg dur­ing the course of his re­search that the log­i­cal train-smash would arise when two such en­ti­ties lev­elled equiv­a­lent threats against each other. Both the US and Soviet Union – and pre­sum­ably other nu­clear weapons states – felt com­pelled to de­sign coun­ter­strike mea­sures whereby a nu­clear war once be­gun be­comes im­pos­si­ble to stop. The US re­lied on elab­o­rate dis­per­sal of au­thor­ity: on sus­pect­ing that war had be­gun, the­atre forces had wide del­e­ga­tion to launch ev­ery­thing avail­able, even lack­ing an au­tho­ri­sa­tion from the pres­i­dent or his im­me­di­ate sub­or­di­nates. The Sovi­ets built some­thing dif­fer­ent: “Dead Hand” in­fra­struc­ture that, un­der cer­tain at­tack cri­te­ria, would launch au­to­mated “com­mand mis­siles”, which in turn would broad­cast codes to launch ev­ery­thing in their flight paths that was still op­er­a­ble.

In the 1980s, re­searchers made use of con­tem­po­rary su­per­com­put­ers to model what a nu­clear con­fla­gra­tion would do to the cli­mate. As whole na­tions van­ished un­der firestorms ig­nited by hy­dro­gen bombs, bil­lions of tonnes of smoke and ash would be blown into the up­per at­mos­phere, far above the al­ti­tude at which fa­mil­iar weather pat­terns op­er­ate to rain out the pol­lu­tion and clear the air. This vast ra­dioac­tive pall would block the sun for a decade or more, drop­ping the tem­per­a­ture world­wide, de­stroy­ing global food pro­duc­tion and set­ting off a cas­cade of ecosystem col­lapse. A dystopian new phrase briefly en­tered the lex­i­con: nu­clear win­ter. It won’t mat­ter whose side you were on, whether you were pro or anti nu­clear, whether you were in­side the blast ra­dius or liv­ing obliv­i­ously on the other side of the world. This is how it ends, on the day the vi­ciously flawed the­ory of “de­ter­rence” fails for the first and only time. The briefest flash of in­cin­er­a­tion, a decade of gloomy col­lapse, and long cen­turies of ra­dioac­tive si­lence. This, then, is the dooms­day ma­chine. Not sim­ply the ex­is­tence of fis­sion weapons or un­speak­ably de­struc­tive hy­dro­gen bombs, but the whole net­work rigged to­gether: thou­sands of them on hair-trig­ger alert, com­mand and con­trol equip­ment built in the 1970s and ’80s, mil­lions of lines of an­tique code sit­ting on reels of mag­netic tape or shuf­fled around on floppy discs even now. An ar­chi­tec­ture tended by fal­li­ble and deeply in­sti­tu­tion­alised hu­man be­ings, some of them with big­ger but­tons than oth­ers. A weapons arse­nal premised on the fact that it can never be used, threat­ened with use ev­ery day since 1945, and now cost­ing roughly $100 bil­lion a year glob­ally to main­tain and up­grade. Our gov­ern­ments built this. With our taxes. Dic­ta­tor­ships, com­mu­nist re­publics and democ­ra­cies alike. And now they need to be forced to un­build it be­fore, one day, it gets used. The dif­fi­cult jour­ney to tame the nu­clear ge­nie starts with our col­lec­tive com­mit­ment to stop our gov­ern­ments rub­bing the damn lamp. Ells­berg quotes Rubel again, as one of the few in­sid­ers he met who shared his grow­ing re­vul­sion at the na­ture of their en­deav­our:

I thought of the Wannsee Con­fer­ence in Jan­uary 1942, when an as­sem­blage of Ger­man bu­reau­crats swiftly agreed on a pro­gram to ex­ter­mi­nate ev­ery last Jew they could find … I felt as if I were wit­ness­ing a com­pa­ra­ble de­scent into the deep heart of dark­ness, a twi­light un­der­world gov­erned by dis­ci­plined, metic­u­lous and en­er­get­i­cally mind­less group­think aimed at wip­ing out half the peo­ple liv­ing on nearly one third of the earth’s sur­face.

To­day, at the high­est lev­els, the dooms­day ma­chine is re­new­ing it­self. Nu­clear weapons states have es­sen­tially cast aside the 40-year cha­rade that they in­tend to hon­our their dis­ar­ma­ment obli­ga­tions un­der the Nu­clear Non Pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty (NPT). This le­gal in­stru­ment has come to serve chiefly for en­force­ment of a kind of global nu­clear apartheid where a tiny hand­ful of states main­tain the ca­pac­ity to com­mit un­think­able de­struc­tion while the great ma­jor­ity of the world’s gov­ern­ments for­swear against ever adopt­ing the tech­nol­ogy. As a mech­a­nism for pre­vent­ing the spread of th­ese weapons to dozens of coun­tries, it has been an im­por­tant plat­form and a rea­son­able suc­cess. As for its other ob­jec­tive, bind­ing the nu­clear weapons states to up­hold their com­mit­ment to dis­arm, it has been a to­tal fail­ure. Ells­berg’s prin­ci­pal source ma­te­rial is from the United States, but it is clear that suc­ces­sive US ad­min­is­tra­tions are not the only ones known to threaten apoc­a­lypse. As re­cently as March, Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin threat­ened “global catas­tro­phe” in the event of an at­tack on Rus­sia. Some­times th­ese dec­la­ra­tions are for do­mes­tic ef­fect as much as any per­ceived in­ter­na­tional im­pact: wit­ness the grotesque spectacle of Bri­tish prime min­is­ter Theresa May in mid 2017, cas­ti­gat­ing Labour leader Jeremy Cor­byn for his un­will­ing­ness to un­leash the weapons aboard Tri­dent bal­lis­tic missile sub­marines. The mask came right off with the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump as pres­i­dent of the United States of Amer­ica in late 2016. Ells­berg doc­u­ments how nearly ev­ery pres­i­dent since Harry S. Tru­man has threat­ened some­one with a nu­clear first strike, and for each of th­ese threats to be cred­i­ble they had to be be­liev­able. But surely no one has taken to the task of ra­dioac­tive brinkman­ship

Cit­i­zen-led move­ments can out­flank gov­ern­ments, seize the agenda and pro­vide gen­uine lead­er­ship in de-es­ca­lat­ing con­flicts that gov­ern­ments on all sides have worked hard to cu­rate.

with quite the same freak­ish en­thu­si­asm as Trump. It is an edgy way to bring the re­al­ity of nu­clear weapons back into pub­lic con­scious­ness, but at least it’s no longer pos­si­ble to pre­tend that th­ese weapons were dis­man­tled along with the Ber­lin Wall. There is a real and present dan­ger here, em­bod­ied in the stream-of-con­scious­ness patholo­gies of a com­man­der-in-chief hope­lessly out of his depth, sur­rounded by a seedy cast of hus­tlers and mil­i­tary hard­lin­ers. And so, as the nu­clear weapons states drift ever fur­ther from any pretence of dis­ar­ma­ment, a cruel new dy­namic has taken hold. Sur­rounded by US mil­i­tary bases and seek­ing to avoid the fate of Sad­dam Hus­sein and Muam­mar Gaddafi, North Korean dic­ta­tor Kim Jong-un has ac­cel­er­ated the pace of his fa­ther’s nu­clear weapons pro­gram to the ef­fect that his regime is now ca­pa­ble – in the­ory – of mount­ing a home­made hy­dro­gen bomb on the tip of a bal­lis­tic missile. He does so us­ing the same jus­ti­fi­ca­tions pur­sued by ev­ery prior nu­clear weapons state: this is how we keep our home­land se­cure and de­ter our en­e­mies. The only pos­i­tive con­se­quence of his reck­less forced en­try into the nu­clear weapons club is that it spot­lights the seething hypocrisy of those al­ready there. “The un­leashed power of the atom has changed ev­ery­thing save our modes of think­ing,” Al­bert Ein­stein wrote in 1946, “and we thus drift to­ward un­par­al­leled catas­tro­phe.” Well away from the in­sti­tu­tional “ba­nal­ity of evil” within the nu­clear weapons com­plex, dif­fer­ent modes of think­ing have sus­tained a global dis­ar­ma­ment move­ment over seven long decades. Through dogged and of­ten thank­less work within elec­toral pol­i­tics and United Na­tions frame­works, as well as in­de­pen­dent re­search, com­mu­nity or­gan­is­ing and di­rect ac­tion, a move­ment led prin­ci­pally by pow­er­ful women has sur­vived, evolved, grown and adapted. Even through the lonely post–Cold War years when it seemed no­body was lis­ten­ing, the foun­da­tional com­mit­ment of bomb sur­vivors, from Ja­pan and nu­clear test sites around the world, was that th­ese de­vices must be dis­man­tled be­fore they are used again. This has given spirit and struc­ture to a move­ment that is now com­ing into its fourth gen­er­a­tion. In mid 2017, seem­ingly out of nowhere, and with the back­ing of the global med­i­cal com­mu­nity, it at­tacked the prob­lem hard, from a new and highly prospec­tive di­rec­tion. Here, then, is a new mode of think­ing. In Con­fer­ence Room One, deep within UN head­quar­ters in New York on July 7, 2017, nearly two thirds of the world’s gov­ern­ments came to­gether to vote the Treaty on the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Nu­clear Weapons into ex­is­tence. The text is now agreed, and fol­low­ing rat­i­fi­ca­tion by 50 gov­ern­ments it will pass into in­ter­na­tional law, at­tain­ing the same stand­ing as ex­ist­ing bans on chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal weapons, land­mines and clus­ter bombs. All the nu­clear weapons states boy­cotted ne­go­ti­a­tions, and the treaty came into be­ing de­spite elab­o­rate at­tempts by Aus­tralian diplo­mats to sab­o­tage the ini­tial meet­ings. With no one left in the room try­ing to wreck it, this will be the en­dur­ing strength of the law: free of at­tempts to wa­ter down and com­pro­mise the text, the doc­u­ment ac­tu­ally pro­vides a bind­ing frame­work to do ex­actly what it sets out to do. The process gave civil so­ci­ety groups such as the Red Cross and the In­ter­na­tional Cam­paign to Abol­ish Nu­clear Weapons (ICAN) un­prece­dented ac­cess to the ne­go­ti­a­tions – the same groups that had set the com­pass nee­dle in the di­rec­tion of just such a bind­ing in­stru­ment five years ear­lier. The ban is not the same thing as abo­li­tion: the treaty is a 10-page doc­u­ment, some­thing you could read on your af­ter­noon cof­fee break. It doesn’t elim­i­nate a sin­gle bomb, a fact pointed out by the US am­bas­sador to the UN, Nikki Ha­ley, in a snarly press state­ment co-signed by the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of France and the UK. “Ac­ces­sion to the ban treaty is in­com­pat­i­ble with the pol­icy of nu­clear de­ter­rence,” they quite cor­rectly said. Ev­ery word be­trays the hideous logic of the nu­clear weapons states, amount­ing, in essence, to a threat to re­turn to the dead­en­ing paral­y­sis of the NPT … or else. One line within their state­ment leaps off the page: “This treaty of­fers no so­lu­tion to the grave threat posed by North Korea’s nu­clear pro­gram.” The state­ment is so re­mark­able in its wrong­ness that it de­serves a proper re­but­tal, or, rather, a pro­posal. Mr Akira Kawasaki serves on the ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee of the Tokyo-based non-govern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion Peace Boat, which for 35 years has char­tered a pas­sen­ger ship to serve as a glob­ally trav­el­ling peace univer­sity. The or­gan­i­sa­tion has also pro­vided cru­cial neu­tral space for di­a­logue be­tween civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions, par­tic­u­larly women’s or­gan­i­sa­tions, on both sides of the Korean De­mil­i­ta­rized Zone. Kawasaki is also a mem­ber of ICAN’s in­ter­na­tional steer­ing group, and thus brings a unique per­spec­tive to bear on the ques­tion of how the ban treaty could work to defuse a real-world nu­clear flash­point. Cur­rently, “ac­cept­able” Western opin­ion on the Korean cri­sis hews to two broad camps. First, se­nior voices within the US mil­i­tary es­tab­lish­ment who be­lieve that a “de­cap­i­ta­tion” strike against

ICAN has man­aged to sign up around two thirds of the La­bor cau­cus, a sub­stan­tial num­ber of cross­benchers and all Aus­tralian Greens MPs to a pledge to sign the ban treaty.

North Korea can be car­ried out with bear­able con­se­quences for US as­sets in the re­gion. And sec­ond, those who be­lieve that “we” should ac­cept the re­al­ity that North Korea is now a full mem­ber of the nu­clear club, and just deal with it. Both op­tions are ut­terly ob­jec­tion­able, al­beit for quite dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Kawasaki out­lines a third op­tion, work­ing with the strengths of the ban treaty. The NPT is silent on the ques­tion of how to trust or ver­ify the phys­i­cal dis­ar­ma­ment of an ex­ist­ing nu­clear weapons state; the ban treaty is de­signed to do ex­actly that. How does this work in prac­tice? A com­bi­na­tion of le­gal, po­lit­i­cal and diplo­matic foot­work: a grand bar­gain. Speak­ing from his of­fice in Tokyo, Kawasaki spells it out: “Of course the red line for us is that North Korea will com­mit com­pletely to nu­clear zero. And then the coun­tries should ask it to join the ban treaty, and put them un­der the strict ver­i­fi­ca­tion and safe­guard mea­sures for dis­man­tle­ment of its nu­clear arse­nal. “And then, what sort of bar­gain­ing should we make to be sure that they will hap­pily join the ban treaty? “So my pro­posal is that if [North Korea] joins the treaty then South Korea and Ja­pan also [agree] to join the same treaty. In that way, South Korea and Ja­pan can reaf­firm very clearly, un­am­bigu­ously, in le­gal terms, that we will not ob­tain nu­clear weapons, or that we will not as­sist the US to use nu­clear weapons on our be­half. That will elim­i­nate the per­ceived nu­clear threats by the US onto North Korea – be­cause North Korea is very much afraid of that.” Damn right it is. Op­er­at­ing out of its bases in South Korea and the south­ern Ja­panese ar­chi­pel­ago of Ok­i­nawa, the US rou­tinely threat­ens North Korea with ex­actly the kind of atomic de­cap­i­ta­tion that the regime’s nascent nu­clear weapons pro­gram is de­signed to de­ter. A com­pli­ant US press corps has beamed con­sec­u­tive threats of nu­clear de­struc­tion from suc­ces­sive White House pul­pits into Kim Jong-un’s stack of morn­ing press clip­pings, just as they did to his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther. The ban treaty is de­signed to un­hook this hor­rific knot. The US would need to cease threat­en­ing to wipe North Korea off the map, South Korea and Ja­pan would for­mally cede any role for US nu­clear weapons in their de­fence poli­cies and on their soil, and the three coun­tries would sign the treaty on the same day. The North Korean pro­gram is small and its dis­man­tle­ment would be sim­ple to ver­ify, com­pared with that of the sprawl­ing weapons in­fra­struc­ture of coun­tries that have been at it for decades. North Korea would be a per­fect can­di­date for the first nu­clear weapons state through the door. The other end of the bar­gain is just as sig­nif­i­cant. If South Korea and Ja­pan were to re­move nu­clear weapons from their “se­cu­rity” al­liance with the US, as New Zealand did in the 1980s, it would for­ever change the na­ture of dis­ar­ma­ment diplo­macy. It would re­move the last shred of cover for Aus­tralian gov­ern­ments to re­main un­der the so-called “nu­clear um­brella” of the US. And it would clear the path for other nu­clear-armed states to fol­low this lead, hav­ing been pro­vided with a vivid ex­am­ple of how the ab­sence of nu­clear weapons can cre­ate gen­uine se­cu­rity. No­tice that even such an am­bi­tion – to con­vert a nu­clear flash­point into a nu­clear weapons–free zone – does not dis­man­tle the dooms­day ma­chine. In­deed, the ban treaty only rates one en­cour­ag­ing line in Ells­berg’s book, pre­sum­ably ow­ing to the date of pub­li­ca­tion. None­the­less, it shows how cit­i­zen-led move­ments can out­flank gov­ern­ments, seize the agenda and pro­vide gen­uine lead­er­ship in de-es­ca­lat­ing con­flicts that gov­ern­ments on all sides have worked hard to cu­rate, or at best lack the ca­pac­ity and vi­sion to re­lieve.

Ells­berg out­lines a num­ber of other con­fi­dence­build­ing mea­sures be­tween the nu­clear su­per­pow­ers that could help restart the long-dor­mant dis­ar­ma­ment agenda and at least see the with­drawal of thou­sands of hy­dro­gen bombs from high alert. He clearly sees his primary obli­ga­tion, how­ever, as pro­vid­ing the truth: to open a win­dow into the dystopian world of the nu­clear war plan­ners as a first step to let­ting in fresh air and fresh ideas. Aus­tralia marked its cards early, seek­ing to wreck the ban treaty process be­fore it could get started. There is very lit­tle re­al­is­tic hope that the Turn­bull govern­ment will do any­thing to ad­vance the agenda. The sim­ple re­al­ity is that we can­not wait for con­strained, com­pro­mised and some­times col­lu­sive po­lit­i­cal ac­tors to take the ini­tia­tive. ICAN has man­aged to sign up around two thirds of the La­bor cau­cus, a sub­stan­tial num­ber of cross­benchers and all Aus­tralian Greens MPs to a pledge to sign the ban treaty. The only thing that will con­vert this im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of names into a prime min­is­te­rial sig­na­ture on the ban treaty will be a con­certed, col­lec­tive cam­paign. So let’s get to work.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.