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Bulletin 224: New directions in nuclear disarmament – Nov. 11 talk and discussion in Santa Fe

November 4, 2016

Dear friends –

The Study Group will host a special talk and discussion on "New Directions in Nuclear Disarmament" on Friday, November 11, at 6:30 pm in Santa Fe at the Center Stage Performance Space, 505 Camino de Los Marquez (map).  

Most people on this list live too far from Santa Fe to come next week, so here’s the shortest version: It’s a brand new day, but few know it.

Tremendous changes are coming to our communities, for good and ill. Heavy boulders that no one could move up to now are being undermined by great historical currents. If we stay awake and get involved we can use these events, rather than just be (roughly) used by them.

“Pure joy:” toward prohibiting nuclear weapons

Partly in response to continuing or rising nuclear risks – take your pick – and the failure of so-called “step-by-step” measures (that the nuclear armed states don’t actually take), a large majority of the world’s states have just voted to negotiate, in 2017, a treaty prohibiting the development, stockpiling, sharing, and use of nuclear weapons.

With this vote, the world began to write a different history. As for a canoeist after a portage over a height of land and into a different watershed, the landscape changes – subtly at first, but definitely. We have put down in a new river, running in a new direction, gathering strength from every tributary.

As Richard Lennane of Wildfire put it, “the game has changed:”

The game has changed, at last. Non-nuclear-weapon states have taken control, and will now proceed to outlaw nuclear weapons, whatever the nuclear-armed states think of it (and, interestingly, China, India and Pakistan chose to abstain rather than vote against the resolution)

"There is a lot of very challenging work ahead, but for now - pure joy.

It is also interesting that North Korea (DPRK) voted for the ban treaty resolution.

As we wrote in Bulletin 223, this new UN mandate is a product and manifestation of a rising multipolar world, a historical process which the US cannot stop. It is, as the Washington Post said last year, an “uprising.” The same theme was ably taken up by Study Group board member Ray Acheson in an editorial early this week.

By insisting on their “right” to inflict massive nuclear violence, the nuclear-armed states and their nuclear-supporting allies have created a division amongst the United Nations membership. They have forced the hand of the majority of states, which have gone along for decades in good faith with the agendas set by the nuclear-armed. This majority is now ready to take actions that align with its commitment to peace, justice, and security for all. For this, they are being attacked and ridiculed and threatened by most of the states that wield nuclear weapons. They are being presented as interfering with matters that they do not understand or have no stake in. They are being told that they are the problem, not nuclear weapons or those that possess them. They are treated as if they are undermining international law and agreed commitments, when in reality the opposite is true.

As the US State Department has stated (in a document circulated to NATO member states prior to last Friday’s vote begging states to vote “no”), the effects of a ban treaty will be “wide-ranging.” “Allies and partners should not underestimate the breadth of potential impacts…or their potential to grow more severe over time.” A ban treaty “could even have an impact prior to its entry into force.”

The US “calls on all allies and partners to vote against negotiations on a nuclear weapons treaty ban, not to merely abstain. In addition, if negotiations do commence, we ask allies and partners to refrain from joining them.” Thus departs our Nobel Peace Prize president from office.

(Wildfire takes up this frank US admission as it relates to the future of extended deterrence in a fine blog post today.)

As we have been saying, this movement and now this vote are huge steps in the right direction – a new direction. Everybody – citizens, journalists, experts, foundation funders -- should seek to understand, communicate, and expand this opening. The potential is enormous. The State Department agrees, as we saw in the NATO communique.  

So be encouraged. Be very encouraged, and look around with fresh eyes. It is really a brand new day.

We’ve gathered some key ban treaty resources and recent news about the ban process on a new web page, still evolving. 

What’s just ahead? There will be nuclear ban negotiating conferences at the UN in New York from March 27th through 31st, and from June 15th through July 7th, next year We’ll be there at least some of this time and hopefully we will be fully present in word and deed before then, and after. There’s plenty of work for everybody.   

The General Assembly gives a vote to each state, and veto power to none. This has been essential for progress, but what is happening is more than this. Non-nuclear-weapon states have realized that they can act and lead, that they have a legal obligation to do so under the NPT, and that they must do so if any progress is to be made. It is unlikely that this triple genie can be stuffed back in any bottle.

If progress at the UN is stymied somehow, a group of interested states could still negotiate a nuclear ban treaty and bring it forward for signature. In fact last year we at the Study Group assumed this would be the process followed. Gradual accession to a ban treaty by one state after another would be political torture for nuclear-dependent states. Thus, there are multiple paths to a ban treaty.

Meanwhile the greater the resistance to a ban and to nuclear disarmament, the greater the impetus for revolt. The greater the revolt, the greater the growing realization that progress is possible and is actually happening. In First Committee last week there was a real sense that history was being made.

You can see the actual voting on UN TV here, at 2:55:20. The detailed voting result can be found here. ICAN's Flickr site with photos of UN process is here. ICAN’s press release following the vote is here. Our pre-vote analysis was here and here.

A sampling of prior statements by states, groups of states, and organizations supporting a ban treaty can be found here. The basic case for a ban treaty can be found here. The European Parliament’s resolution in favor of negotiating a ban treaty, passed earlier on the same day as last week’s UN vote, is described here.

Some of you have asked us about press coverage. There were stories by the Associated PressAgence France-PressBloombergEFE and DPA, in The Guardian and Foreign Policy, the Christian Science Monitor, and in various national media around the world. See our ban web page for more.

You might think that regional newspapers near US nuclear warhead facilities would pick up this evolving story even if national outlets did not, but that awakening is still to come. It will come in stages, a process that has now started among US nonprofits and foundation funders. Nothing succeeds (or communicates) like success.

Banning nuclear weapons is, like the blackbird’s eye in Wallace Steven’s poem, “the only moving thing” among the “twenty snowy mountains” of the new Cold War.

Nuclear hawks the world over succeeded in paralyzing disarmament all too well. Now they can thank themselves for the ban process that has arisen as a corrective.

That was the good news.

Meanwhile, in the background of nuclear disarmament issues some profound crises loom, which greatly affect arms control and nuclear disarmament. These crises will either spur fresh thinking and commitment – such as we see in the ban movement – or else they will annihilate us. There is very little middle ground and very little time to choose, facts which professional arms controllers around the world seem constitutionally unable to appreciate.

Focusing somewhat on the US, the following elements of crisis loom, in no particular order and in cursory form (with more detail on Friday, especially if there are questions):

  • A post-election US government legitimacy crisis is virtually certain regardless of who wins the presidency. This crisis builds on prior legitimacy losses, which have become pronounced. The election of either major candidate for president will usher in an acute form of this crisis.
  • We are going to see rising US domestic unrest; forceful crackdowns; surveillance; imprisonment; struggles for identity, narrative, and power.
  • Terrible wars are underway and the risk of bigger, wider wars including nuclear war is rising. Meanwhile, state failures, chaos, mass migration and its sequellae.
  • A rising multipolar world, including defections of US allies; US defeats (diplomatic, military or proxy-military); the end of Empire, which is arriving with great danger as it is not yet accepted.
  • Global recession without any prospect of recovery for fundamental reasons arising outside economics, accompanied by wealth destruction (whose wealth, in what form?), with faux recoveries amid general decline.
  • Bankruptcies of some banks, corporations, funds including pension funds, state and local governments, school districts and private schools, health care institutions, colleges, households.
  • Regional energy shortages, especially of electricity and oil-based transport fuels, especially in the third world; oil reserves write-downs, declining capital expenditures, corporate mergers and failures; non-market allocation of fuels (rationing, hoarding, theft, war).
  • Environmental disasters (weather-related and not) and their sequellae; some irreversible, some large-scale.
  • Human suffering on a vast and growing scale; local and regional starvation; mass migrations and sequellae.
  • Major political changes in some countries, mostly toward authoritarian governance as liberal democracies fail for various reasons, primarily corruption, to address these and related problems.

This is not the place for details. Ask me on the 11th. You will have a different list but it doesn’t matter.

Regardless of details, the point is: it would be a terrible mistake to think of nuclear disarmament in purely nuclear terms. Yet this is what nearly always seems to be done.

At the moment, rising tensions with Russia – essentially all the fault of the US in our view and in the view of many others following events from outside as well as inside the US propaganda sphere – are dramatically lowering the prospects for arms control. Ending it, essentially.

Nothing much can be done in the context of Russian “aggression,” many people say – or in the more sophisticated version, in the context of congressional and news media belief in Russian aggression. It is a self-reinforcing system.

Leaving aside the question of just whose aggression it is, look at the wider picture.

We have to face what is going on the world and in our own country, not just cower in our comfortable career niches, retirement nests (or delayed adulthoods as it may be), as so many of us are wont to do.

Do you imagine that trimming nuclear weapons by 10% or 20% or 30%, while keeping US military spending more or less the same and keeping our hundreds of overseas bases, etc. is compatible with successfully mitigating climate change, and therefore with the survival of civilization, the US included (though perhaps we should assume that last). Clearly not. Not in any but a fantasy world where chemistry, geology, and thermodynamics do not have the final say.

Yet such are the best arms control prescriptions we see. Nothing fundamental is proposed, and nothing changes, not even superficially. For eight years, every argument to trim this or that part of the US deterrent has lost, despite peace and security grant-making expenditures in the range of $1.5 billion over this period. One result is the new nuclear arms race we enjoy today.

(We should however not be shy to point out that, according to repeated congressional briefings given by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), Los Alamos Study Group litigation did manage to stop the huge Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF), once NNSA’s highest stated infrastructure priority. Now it is the sole modernization project canceled during the Obama period, something officialdom wants to forget. Now, after the usual 4-5 year delay, we have a new infrastructure plan to increase warhead core (“pit”) production capacity that we must fight.)

Instead of an approach which aims low and accomplishes less – less than nothing, in recent history –fidelity to truth requires us to engage with the realities of our time. We need to “befriend the trends,” the real trends beyond our corrupt politics du jour, elevating justice, compassion, and stewardship of our climate, ecosystems, and the diversity of species in them.

Where do we suppose the political power for real change can come? Certainly not from nuclear weapons issues, which will remain largely abstract, apart, secret, and theoretical until the instant – and it may be no more than an instant – in which they become terribly real.

The political power to change our values and institutions will come from crises which affect peoples’ lives. Make no mistake, our politics will change and change fast in the face of the above crises, for better or is as more likely the case, for worse.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” Churchill said. Since we can’t avoid this multifaceted crisis (however we may describe its parts), we might as well face up to it as best we can, in freedom and dignity whether we “win” or not, without regard to whether such-and-such pooh-bah in the field or our bureaucracy approves.

That kind of decision is powerful and transformative – not least, for us. In the end we will find it essential if we want to retain our humanity. Tom Paine articulated that freedom: “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace.”

With this background we can take up on Friday the specifics of the “new directions in disarmament” now possible in the United States.

We will find that there are tremendous commonalities between what we can do for nuclear disarmament now and what we need to do to address other aspects of our converging crises.

I am out of time and need to close this Bulletin, which is already too long. Thank you for your attention.

Greg Mello, for the Study Group

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