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Abandon fantasies about multilateral nuclear disarmament, embrace what is possible and powerful

Last week we submitted a possible working paper (“Progress in multilateral nuclear disarmament requires a treaty prohibiting the possession, threat, or use of nuclear weapons“) to the 2016 Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) established by the United Nations this past December. The paper isn’t everything it ought to be, and there are some important issues which were not included.

One of these is the potential impact of a nuclear weapons ban on nuclear weapon state policies. By that I mostly mean U.S. policies, since that’s the only country I know well.

As I said to international colleagues in a note yesterday, perhaps something should be said about that right now, as the OEWG approaches.

There is no indication from history, or from logic, that U.S. will EVER allow multilateral disarmament negotiations to create disarmament obligations, under any treaty whatsoever. The U.S. will not participate in good faith in such negotiations. It never has and it never will. Given U.S. internal political formations, this country can’t participate in such negotiations, not for the foreseeable future — which is to say, not until sovereign non-nuclear states stand up and create an anti-nuclear weapons norm. I think this incapacity applies for most if not all nuclear weapon states.

ALL foreseeable future disarmament that might result from multilateral processes will occur indirectly, not directly from some positive disarmament treaty. Nuclear weapon states won’t negotiate or sign any such positive treaty. No “convention,” no “framework,” no “stepping stones,” no “foundation,” no whatever will EVER be signed by the U.S., let alone ratified. (And lest we forget, the ratification process for the CTBT and New START resulted in MORE, not FEWER, financial and nuclear modernization commitments.)

Hypothetical, imaginary disarmament approaches — which might work in some other more ideal universe, just not in ours — are a confusing waste of diplomatic time and attention.

The ONLY way for multilateral processes to have an impact on U.S. (or any) nuclear weapon state policies is INDIRECTLY, through international norms and laws that are set by states that actually DO want disarmament. In other words, a ban.

Trying to compare the hypothetical effectiveness of various multilateral disarmament approaches, some of which are about as possible as flying pigs, is useless. The only disarmament strategies which bear examination are those which do not require the participation of nuclear-armed states and their nuclear umbrella allies.

This is exactly the opposite of what many people think, or used to think. A lot of people may still be looking to negotiate some new positive law, that (eventually?) forces disarmament.

Since that is not going to happen, ALL multilateral “effective measures” (quoting NPT Article VI) for nuclear disarmament will be effective ONLY because of their indirect, normative effects, and need to be evaluated and compared on that basis.

Anyone who believes in civil society believes in the power of strong humanitarian norms, because that is how civil society works. Parliamentary work, for example, would benefit dramatically with a strong, fresh norm against the possession and use of nuclear weapons. We don’t have that, as the inability (or refusal) of the International Court of Justice to rule on nuclear use showed. Conferences don’t create that norm. Treaties do.

So those states which actually want disarmament, and which actually want to follow Article VI of the NPT, had better decide to do it without the “help” of the nuclear weapon states and their nuclear allies.

Occasionally we read that nuclear weapon states and nuclear umbrella states on the one hand, and non-nuclear weapon states on the other hand, are “talking past each other,” or that “gaps” between these categories of states are preventing progress. That is not the problem at all. Unity of purpose or strategy between nuclear and non-nuclear states will not be found and should not be sought.

Part of the genius of ICAN has been to leave behind the hobby-horse of “unity” and focus on what certainly COULD be done by most states in the world — and done powerfully and relatively easily, without new obligations to themselves.

We shouldn’t be looking for unity. There are two competing and opposite ideas about the legitimacy and value of nuclear weapons at work in and around the OEWG, and in diplomacy in general. One of them will win.

If nuclear weapons continue to be valued, they sooner or later will be used (again). In that case, the only “unity” we will find, now or then, with nuclear weapon advocate states is in the mushroom cloud. Then, “we will go together when we go.”

“We must triage the threats we face”

A year ago, during an excellent symposium (“The Dynamics of Possible Nuclear Extinction“) organized by the Helen Caldicott Foundation at the New York Academy of Medicine, Dr. Caldicott remarked that we must now “triage the threats we face,” or words to that effect.

I stumbled across those words recently, and again I thought they were good advice. Everything about us and our lives and work is finite.

The results of any such exercise will be different for each person, who is by definition unique. Each of us moves in unique circumstances. The Study Group for example has a unique role colored by our location, knowledge and experience, personal histories, and other circumstances. There are several billion unique ways to weigh a differing kaleidoscope of responsibilities and freedoms, and I don’t want to minimize that uniqueness and subjectivity one bit.

That said, all our personally-conditioned and subjective roles lie within a climatological and ecological context which is, globally, collapsing.

If that collapse continues and becomes self-sustaining as it threatens to become, there will be — one by one and bit by bit — fewer personal roles to play. Our freedoms will  diminish. They already are.

In such a case our roles will be played in an increasingly-abridged natural world, with more and more species gone, and with less and less civilization, however we may define it.

In such a case all our fine dreams, large and small, individual and collective — of justice let us say, of human rights, urban gardens and permaculture, of democracy, of college educations, jobs — will fade and finally vanish. In such a case we will move down Maslow’s heirarchy of needs. All the way down.

Drought for example will end all our dreams, should it come to stay — as it certainly will here in New Mexico if effective climate mitigation is not achieved.

There is no human “adaptation” to uncapped global warming, no happy ending, no deus ex machina. Neither is there any “adaptation” of individuals in our brother and sister species when all the habitat is gone, or unreachable.

Such finalities can and usually do happen suddenly, in large part because weather is variable. There is water and food enough — until, quite suddenly, through a statistically predictable but still somehow officially-unpredicted chain of events, there isn’t. Climate loads the weather dice, the habitat dice, the extinction dice.

We face in other words, a total crisis, a moral, political, spiritual, economic, social, and religious crisis. It involves us in every way, inside and outside (where most of our soul can be found, said Plotinus).

So stepping back and looking at the problem of triage, aiming for a large and impersonal frame of reference based on science and human values, I see our highest-priority tasks as something like these, in brutal brevity and omitting the means for the most part.

  • Rapidly mitigate global warming and prevent runaway heating
    • Rapidly choke down greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human activity (including CO2, CH4, and persistent GHGs, properly weighted for short-term impact, e.g. over 20 years). This means, for starters, very rapid investment in renewable energy and low-to-no-fossil-fuel transportation, a drastically lower consumption pattern across the board among so-called “developed” countries, and a halt to deforestation. This will mean economic decline at best, if not collapse. Decline is upon us in any case, for fundamental resource-limitation and thermodynamic reasons that are then refracted through our mal-investing financial and economic systems, as explained previously on this blog.
    • Transform net terrestrial CO2 flux to strong absorption and sequestration by reforestation, organic soil building, and other techniques.
    • Very rapidly protect and increase arctic albedo (ice caps, and tundra if possible). This almost certainly means active cooling. We need to gather experimental data, and have the debate.
    • Rapidly slow oceanic and terrestrial release of CH4, which is potentially catastrophic.
  • Effectively protect the diversity of life immediately
    • Establish and protect a robust diversity of habitats and migration routes on land and in fresh water
    • Protect the oceans and littoral zones
    • Protect the vulnerable species being hunted for body parts and for food, with deadly force if necessary.
  • Protect vulnerable humans. Use ancient moral codes to accept and care for the stranger where modern laws fall short. This means a dramatic simplification of wants by the relatively wealthy and the selective abandonment of excess amenities and infrastructure, and it means intensive horticulture.
  • Encourage negative population growth in most places, and overall. Without massive use of fossil fuels, the earth cannot long support its present population. Water is in critically short supply in many places and fossil fuels soon will be.  
  • Understand and accept the tragic fate that human greed, ignorance, and folly have fashioned, quite apart from the important questions of who and what are continuing to weave that fate and what to do about it. Our way of life is ending, no matter what. Embrace our duty to limit the damage and protect the vulnerable, to save what we can, while we can. This is the path of maturity, sanity, and fulfillment — perhaps the only such path at this moment in history.
  • Dismantle militarism, aggressive war, and the nuclear doomsday cult including its instruments, ideologies, and institutions. We need to express our true solidarity with other people and species and we need do so materially, in collective action and policy. To do this we need the resources now devoted to war and aggression, and we need to free ourselves — especially in this country — of the deadly addiction to war.

As for lesser priorities, which we could all name, we may or may not have time or resources for them. If they conflict with these goals or similar ones, if they distract us, we may need to let them go. That is triage, something we face in disasters and war. We’re there now. Now we can devise and carry out skillful treatments.

Who is this “we?” I think many of us, more than we see in common hours, have taken a kind of Hippocratic vow, perhaps without knowing of it. Wordsworth wrote once of a morning when “to the brim/My heart was full; I made no vows, but vows/Were then made for me…” However variously we see our priorities, we will not go far wrong if we just take ourselves out of the way, and let the sun rise.

News highlights, Feb. 8

This is the inaugural day of offering a highly-selected list of what I think are the day’s most useful and important articles on nuclear weapons policies, U.S.-Russian relations, and selected environmental issues.

The idea is to present minimal comment but offer for a wider audience some of the issue updates we have provided for years to a small group of interested parties.

Nice review of nuclear weapons modernization issues, with interesting quotes, insights, data, and pictures.

  • U.S. oil production is falling and imports are rising. These trends will continue for a while, because the U.S. is now sliding irrevocably down the far slope of its second oil production peak.

See a comment today by Jeffrey Brown, with link to Department of Energy (DOE) Energy Information Agency (EIA) data.

For more insight from oilman Brown see also “The Great Condensate Con: Is the Oil Glut Just about Oil?” and this fine comment over the weekend.

Matt Mushalik offers an outstanding analysis of the overall U.S. situation, savaging the myth of oil independence. Don’t miss it.

Why is this important? Because the world is running out of cheap oil, the kind that supports our present extravagant civilization. The present downturn in price has already cancelled so much capital investment in oil production that 2015 is now sure to stand as the year of peak production in my opinion. The world’s economies are too morbidly unequal, internally inequitable in too many cases, and in some cases (like ours) obese to pay enough for oil to support the cost of the marginal barrels. Meanwhile depletion never sleeps.

Perspectives on the 2016 disarmament “Open-Ended Working Group, ” now beginning

The following letter was sent on January 29, 2016 to fellow campaigners working toward prohibiting nuclear weapons.

Subject: Perspectives on the 2016 Open-Ended Working Group, now beginning (background)

1. A Ban Treaty is needed for progress in multilateral disarmament diplomacy
2. A Ban Treaty would be very powerful, including in the U.S., without U.S. participation

1. A Ban Treaty is needed for progress in multilateral disarmament diplomacy

As the first session of the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) begins, I wanted to convey our profound gratitude to everyone who has helped advance the humanitarian perspective on nuclear weapons and the prospects for a treaty-based ban on (possessing, developing, manufacturing, transferring, and using) such weapons. Tremendous progress has been made.

We can’t be there but wanted to send a few perspectives about this process as it begins.

There are only 15 working days allocated for the OEWG. We can be sure that the nuclear weapon states and their weasel allies will try to de-focus, dilute, delay, distract, and divide our efforts – now, during the sessions, between the sessions, and afterwards.

Some nuclear weapon states, the U.S. in particular, will promise the moon to prevent negotiations that could lead to any effective disarmament measure, including the very dangerous ban treaty. In the 20 years since the NPT was indefinitely renewed, none of those promises has meant anything.

Empty promises flavored with delicious idealism are a specialty of this U.S. administration. “Mirages,” one author called them. “A world free of nuclear weapons” is one of these empty and dangerous platitudes.

There will be plenty of efforts to broaden the discussion, say to “the risks and challenges ahead,” or to induce irrelevant technical discussions (e.g. of verification), or to otherwise rehash terrain traversed repeatedly over past decades.

Another form of distraction is speculation about a treaty to guide the details of a hypothetical future multilateral disarmament process. Newsflash: the nuclear weapon states will not sign such a treaty — not now, or for the foreseeable future.

There surely also will be efforts, well-intentioned and otherwise, that have the effect of running down the clock.

The nuclear weapon states believe their arsenals are fully legitimate – fully supported not just by international law but also by reason, morality, and their own governments’ responsibilities to prevent war. That is how they see it. Why should there be good faith negotiations to get rid of something as legitimate and important as nuclear weapons (in their view)? So there haven’t been any such negotiations, and won’t be.

Nothing significant will be possible in disarmament diplomacy until this perceived legitimacy is removed.

The voluminous testimony, legal analysis, and activism that has been done so well since the Cold War has not accomplished this.

Facts, no matter how brilliantly they are presented, haven’t availed – and won’t.

The dictates of public conscience, no matter how voluminous, prestigious, and authentic the appeals, haven’t availed – and won’t.

Declarations by “the great and the good” haven’t availed – and won’t.

Legal decisions haven’t availed – and won’t.

Mere gestures by states which cost little and bind nobody – U.N. resolutions, for example – haven’t availed – and won’t.

Why? Because none of these excellent activities are consequential – that is, binding – decisions taken by states for the purpose of making nuclear weapons illegal.

Only states can remove the present de facto legitimacy, which is very real to the nuclear weapon states and therefore to everybody, and this can only be done by making nuclear weapons illegal.

States can only accomplish this through law, conventional law, which is to say by a treaty that prohibits nuclear weapons. By definition, there is no other way.

Nuclear weapons will be legal – de facto legal, and de jure legal as well as morally necessary in the eyes of those who possess them – until they are made illegal.

This work of delegitimation has to be done by non-nuclear weapon states, not by nuclear weapon states. The latter will resist.

Without a treaty on the table, the various well-intentioned and indeed excellent statements by diplomats are really just opinions and postures.

Given the short working time of the OEWG, I hope that all involved will make every effort to help leading states focus on negotiating, or more realistically laying the groundwork for negotiating, a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.

Anything else will play into the hands of the nuclear weapon states and their weasel allies – again, by de-focusing, diluting, delaying, distracting, and dividing our efforts.

If the OEWG fails to achieve a clear path to make nuclear weapons illegal, there are other ways forward.

We think the 30th anniversary of the Reykjavik summit (October 11-12, 1986) would be a good time to unveil a ban treaty for signature.

The nuclear weapon states obviously oppose prohibiting nuclear weapons and can play no constructive part in negotiations. These states have never played any constructive part in multilateral disarmament negotiations over the past 25 years, full stop. Their weasel allies generally also have opposed and will oppose practical disarmament measures, for now.

So calls to make negotiations “universal” are quite premature and misplaced.

Godspeed to everybody. Our thoughts and prayers are with those of you who are there.

2. A Ban Treaty would be very powerful, including in the U.S., without U.S. participation

A ban treaty would be the natural culmination of the decades of brilliant civil society work that have brought us to this point.

Such a treaty would be voluntary and non-coercive, yet ever more normative as more countries joined. It would grow in importance only in the most democratic manner. It would affect nuclear arsenals in an indirect and therefore flexible manner, and only according to the evolving unique security circumstances of each state. It would not conflict with any existing or future disarmament or nonproliferation agreement or treaty, but rather would support them all. It would not add new obligations for NPT non-nuclear weapon states that are not in nuclear security relationships, which is most of the countries in the world. All these states have nothing to lose in a ban — apart from whatever nasty forms of leverage some nuclear weapon states (like the U.S.) and their allies might try to apply.

A ban would stimulate and empower civil society in many countries, with benefits across humanitarian issues.

Here in the U.S., a ban treaty would tremendously empower everything we are doing against nuclear weapons. I would like to explain this further because many people think that a ban would have no effect on U.S. policy, given that the U.S. won’t sign it.

Nuclear policy in the U.S. is not made in a smooth, top-down, confident manner. There are many reversals and problems. The nuclear weapons establishment has many adversaries inside government and outside, not least its own bureaucrats and fat-cat contractors, who struggle to hide the scandals and ongoing fiascos. Key mid-career people are quitting early at facilities we know from job frustration, taking their knowledge and experience with them. Retirements left one plant (Y-12) without knowledge of how to make a critical non-commercial material at industrial scale. At the only U.S. nuclear weapons assembly plant, in Texas, snakes and mice infest one or more key buildings, which date from World War II. Rain comes through the roofs and dust through the doors. In Oak Ridge, huge pieces of concrete have fallen from ceilings and deep cracks have appeared in a structural beam in a key building. All this infrastructure may, or may not be, fully replaced. It is contested in many cases, difficult, and expensive.

At Los Alamos, the main plutonium facility has been largely shut down for almost three years because of inadequate safety and staffing. Approximately seven attempts have been made since 1989 to construct a new factory complex for producing plutonium warhead cores — all have failed. It might just be that nuclear weapons production, in the final analysis, is not compatible with today’s safety and environmental expectations and laws. Transmission of nuclear weapons ideology and knowledge under these conditions is a difficult challenge.

A growing ban would reach deep into the human conscience, affecting everything, including career decisions. It would affect corporate investments as well as congressional enthusiasm for the industry. I have spoken with nuclear weapons CEOs who know it is a “sunset” field with only tenuous support in the broader Pentagon, despite all the nuclear cheer-leading we see. Modernization of the whole nuclear arsenal is very likely unaffordable, even assuming current economic conditions hold (they won’t).

A ban would also affect the funding, aims, and structure of the U.S. nonprofit universe and think-tank “ecosystem,” as well as media interest and coverage.

Beyond all this, I believe a ban would also help decrease popular support in the U.S. for war and war expenditures in general. Why? There is a tremendous war-weariness in the U.S., right alongside our (real, but also orchestrated) militarism. A growing ban on nuclear weapons would be a powerful signal to political candidates and organizations that it is politically permissible to turn away from militarism somewhat, that there is something wrong with the levels of destruction this country has amassed and brandished so wildly and with such deadly and chaotic effects. Ordinary people here in the U.S. are seeing greater and greater austerity and precarity. They work extremely hard and have less and less to show for it. Polls (decades of them) show the public has never really supported the scale of nuclear armaments we have. One 1990s poll disclosed that most Americans think we have more than ten times fewer warheads than we actually do, more like the U.K., France, and China! Our economy is in bad shape and our infrastructure is visibly declining, sometimes with fatal results. A ban could help this benighted country recognize its folly, at least to some degree. It would be a wake-up call signalling that widely-held U.S. assumptions about our place in the world might need just a teensy bit of adjustment.

I hope this helps fill in the picture somewhat for those far away who may not see why a ban would be powerful here in the U.S.

The case for such a simple, totally flexible, and powerful treaty, with relatively low diplomatic cost for most states, is to our eyes unassailable.

The New York Times gathers a “critical” mass of former insiders now dissing nuclear modernization plans

1/13/16 update: an alert reader (Steve Starr) has noticed an important factual mistake in yesterday’s post, which I have corrected. In the process I’ve added considerably to the argument. Thank you Steve.

(Note to readers: henceforth I will try to use this blog to assemble and briefly comment upon a few important news stories on a very frequent basis, daily if I can, in addition to posting what have been all-too-occasional essays. I will explain more tomorrow given the lateness of the hour today, and meanwhile jump right in.)

Today [1/12/16], on the morning of President Obama’s last State of the Union Address, the New York Times headlined quite a decent article by Bill Broad and David Sanger on the proposed B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb, the very dangerous proposed Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) cruise missile, and the Administration’s nuclear warhead modernization program generally.

The interesting video that opens the article is part of a longer video shown to guests at the Washington DC “lab day” conference in October, provided later to this organization by Sandia National Laboratories. We distributed it widely on 12/31/15.

Broad and Sanger get the evolving politics right. The Administration’s ambitious warhead modernization plan is in some trouble. That, and the NYT‘s recognition (on the front page no less), is the news. The critical views of the former Administration officials variously cited — Phil Coyle, Andy Weber, William Perry, Steve Fetter, James Cartwright — do carry real political as well as intellectual weight.

It’s better late than never. If not for the Times‘ need to remain within a very small bubble of elite insider opinion, an article making the same arguments could have been produced five years ago, before B61-12 decisions were made. The hour is now late. As one government analyst remarked to me in 2014, “Congressional opposition to the B61-12 died on the streets of Kiev.”

Not so for the LRSO. For that, design is just beginning.

Still, it should be said that despite the B61-12 decisions that have been made, there are still plenty of “off-ramps” available. There are plenty of ways this program could be set aside, and plenty of potential new reasons to do so. The immediate future of the Republic is very clouded. Black swans are filling the sky. Even if the bomb is finally built there will be plenty of excellent reasons to not deploy it outside U.S. territory. If deployed, there will be plenty of reasons to retire it.

There is always, as a Chinese sage once said in a slightly different context, “another way up.”

In the long run, the B61-12 will not last. Will we?

That said, there is an important error in this article, in the title as well as the text. It is just not right to say that the B61-12 is part of any “build-it-smaller approach.”

First, the B61-12 Life Extension Program (LEP) does not lower the maximum yield of its B61-4 “parent,” and it does not lower the selectable yields that would be available from a possible B61-4 LEP. No other planned LEP for any warhead or bomb does so either, all the way out to 2040.

Second, the claim that the B61-12 “replaces” all other deployed U.S. gravity bombs (the B61-3, B61-7, the inactive B61-10, B61-11, and the B83; see Kristensen here) does not hold water. That is what the Administration says. It should not have been repeated in this article without serious critique. This “replacement” meme is all about selling new bombs.

B83 retirement in particular is being used as a “bargaining chip” vis-a-vis Congress and future administrations. The 1.2 megaton B83 has been exiting for some time, as Kristensen notes. There is no LEP planned for it and no funds have been allocated for one. The B83 is on a glide path to retirement.

(As an aside, it would be interesting to investigate whether the more accurate, 50 kt B61-12 could accomplish the destructive missions of the B83, whatever they may be — for example, holding  deep command and control targets at risk. In the matter of creating forces on targets significantly deeper than the accuracy of the B61-12, I doubt that a bomb with only 4% of the yield can do that comparably at the relevant depth, say 100 meters, even with the B61-12’s greater accuracy. Similar questions arise for the B61-11 earth penetrator.)

We need to ask: do either the B83 or B61-11 really have a military mission today — or more rigorously, one that passes the smell test even from the military perspective?

Do any of these bombs, in fact? Upon information and belief, the B61-4 has had, at least until recently if not still also today, no military mission — no target set. We believe NATO nuclear weapons have no pre-planned targets. In the event of a crisis, they’ll think of something to bomb.

Just considering the military perspective, aren’t the missions for all nuclear gravity bombs evaporating? Aren’t all these bombs obsolete, or on the verge of becoming so? (But of course these plans, plus NATO expansion and forward basing, plus the U.S.-planned neocon coup in Ukraine, have triggered a variety of Russian reactions, including some announced this week. So the potential target set of the B61-12, in the same minds that have promoted it, may be expanding quickly.)

From this perspective isn’t the B61-12, with its new capabilities over a simpler B61-4 LEP, just keeping faith in nuclear gravity bombs alive for a new generation of delivery aircraft and a new generation of NATO leaders? Isn’t that the big secret of this bomb — that without the glitz of its new technology and its compatibility with expensive new delivery systems, the NATO nuclear mission would become visibly obsolete?

In any case, it is very far from proven that the B61-12 will “replace” these bombs, with the exception of the B61-4 from which it is to be physically made.

Third, the very idea of a “smaller” nuclear weapon is problematic from all relevant perspectives except one: nuclear war fighting. In terms of international politics, humanitarian and nonproliferation law, supporting infrastructure and program commitments, and the pork-barrel politics that so massively drive procurement decisions — which is to say, in most of the real world where politics is done and history is made — a “smaller” and “more accurate” nuclear weapon describes a distinction without a difference.

Only in weapons phenomenology, targeting, and strategy is there a difference, and that difference is less than might appear.

For example, is the risk of nuclear escalation from an “accurate” B61-12 detonation significantly and knowably different than that from detonating a B61-4? So then how is the B61-12 more usable, or more credible as a deterrent, than the B61-4 it is to replace? How is the proposed new bomb smaller, in this sense — from the point of view of prospective nuclear war?

To take another example, we say that the combination of high accuracy, stealthy delivery, forward basing, and selectable yields enables the B61-12 to address a larger target set, all of which is certainly true to some extent. But what is the actual increment of that B61-12 target set, beyond the target set of a life-extended B61-4 with the same forward basing, same stealthy delivery, and the same original selectable yields? In other words, how much of this bomb’s purported greater utility is just hype?

What about collateral damage, then? Wouldn’t that be “smaller?” Well, blast overpressure and thermal deposition from nuclear weapons scale with the 1/3 power of the yield, so the B61-12’s highest yield (50 kt) would produce a given overpressure or thermal pulse reaching to 67% the radius of the B61-3’s 170 kt explosion, or to 52% of that from the B61-7’s 360 kt. To my view, this is not an impressively “smaller” bomb in this sense either. In what important sense for civilization, or for the target country, would the detonation of a B61-12 be much “smaller” than that of any other nuclear bomb or warhead? Would a blast of more than three times the size of Hiroshima be more “acceptable?”

So I would say that Broad and Sanger have fallen into the trap of privileging the nuclear war fighting perspective. Unfortunately, most arms control discourse about this bomb does so also.

The great bulk of arguments against this weapon have rested on its novel features. The differences are real but narrow, and overall they do not touch or refute enough of the real political and strategic motives for pursuing this bomb. That is one reason they fail. You could say that we who oppose this bomb have too often confined ourselves to arguments that are so narrow that they are logically and factually flawed.

For example, we say that the B61-12 costs more than a simpler LEP. That is true. But what if spending money, hiring new weapons engineers, and supporting the labs and plants and giving them all something to do are goals, not costs? (And of course they are.) In that case the greater the cost, the better! And in comparison to the goal of keeping NATO nuclear, and Europe in the U.S. geopolitical orbit, the cost of the B61-12 is beyond trivial.

What about the increased risk of nuclear war it appears to represent? Yes, every gain in deterrent credibility is also an increase in the risk of nuclear war. But is the B61-12 really that much worse in this regard than the B61-4 or any of the other bombs it is falsely claimed to replace? Yes, perhaps it is riskier, but will this difference in risk, even if properly perceived, ever be enough to offset the political and management benefits of spending all that money, enthusing the pro-nuclear NATO military partners, and perhaps even keeping the NATO nuclear mission alive? I doubt it.

Aren’t the stronger arguments against the B61-12 the arguments against any tactical nuclear gravity bombs, against foreign basing of nuclear weapons in general, against nuclear (delivery) sharing in general, against nuclear gravity bombs altogether, and against the fiction or idiocy (take your pick) of “nuclear umbrellas” in general?  And this list could be extended.

I am not saying that cost should not be considered. I am saying it is a weak argument, and a benefit in many eyes.

The bigger issues are also the bigger motivations for this program, and they are just too often “off the table” within the bubble that is imperial Washington.

The present article, and some of our own work in the past, as well as the work of the masterful Hans Kristensen on this topic (on whom we rely for so much), just make too much of these small differences. It is an expression of the quantitative obsession that leads the arms control field to so often miss the forest for the trees. Usually this or that “tree” is “better” or “worse” in rather small ways. This distortion and denial is a defining characteristic of arms control.

Does it need to be said again that the President’s vague and aspirational 2009 Prague speech — cited in this article as if it meant something — was without disarmament content?

Phil Coyle’s wise and important remarks about production surge capacity (we don’t need it) and the unlikelihood of actually completing the modernization plan are well worth emphasizing:

But the bigger risk to the modernization plan may be its expense — upward of a trillion dollars if future presidents go the next step and order new bombers, submarines and land-based missiles, and upgrades to eight factories and laboratories.

Insiders don’t believe it will ever happen,” said Mr. Coyle, the former White House official. “It’s hard to imagine that many administrations following through.

Exactly so, and for many more reasons than can be mentioned in the New York Times.

The flip side of the article’s emphasis on former insiders and on the nuclear war-fighting perspective is its omission of any of what might be called any “left of center” — any actual disarmament oriented — critiques.  The B61-12 plan “seemed reasonable, critics said, until attention fell on the bomb’s new tail section and steerable fins.” Really? Well, the B61-12 never seemed reasonable to quite a few analysts, including me.

The Santa Fe New Mexican carried this story. I offered this comment:

This is a decent article, despite its [NYT] provenance.

Readers may wish to see this interesting testing video produced by Sandia National Laboratories, shown to guests at the Washington DC “lab day” conference in October and provided to our organization: It forms the lede in the original article.

The bermed target area appears to be about 30 meters in radius, and if so this corresponds to the previously-advertised accuracy of this new bomb. The clean entry of the bomb in the earth suggests some earth-penetrating capability, which was present in earlier B61 models as well. Both enable lower yields and expand the potential target set, leading to the perceptions of greater risk discussed in the article.

The perennial problem of the arms control community, which historically has felt a need to be very close to the U.S. government for funding and “access” and remains very close today, is one of which world-ending weapons to oppose — where to draw the line — and how to do so effectively given their broad endorsement of nuclear budgets, institutions, and especially of treaties like New START, which could not be ratified without a blanket endorsement of nuclear weapons modernization. Alas, New START had no disarmament component.

All the B61-12 critics mentioned in this articles were in favor of broad-spectrum modernization of the entire triad in 2010 for the sake of New START ratification. Those then in government like Phil Coyle and Andy Weber had to hold their noses (Coyle did I am sure!), or else thought the bomb was a good idea.

These latter-day critics were however outmaneuvered and effectively neutered by the neocon coup in Ukraine and subsequent deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations, passively allowed by a tragic, MIA president who is no longer in charge of his government, if he ever was.

The B61-12 program is driven by the availability of the technology, by pork-barrel politics (Udall rescued it in committee), and by a desire to keep NATO nuclearized, with forward-based bombs to be delivered by non-U.S. pilots in violation of the NPT, as part of the “glue” that keeps NATO states aligned with the U.S. instead of building ties with energy-rich, nearby Russia. It’s all about our on-going, never-ending, Cold War with Russia.

The labs of course need that war to justify their massive budgets, which now dwarf what they got during the Cold War in constant dollars. This one bomb supplied the money that allowed Sandia to hire 600 new staff. This bomb is thus a potent weapon in the never ending fight against spending for schools, sustainability, and infrastructure, and it helps keep clueless or hireling politicians in line. It is, as General Smedley Butler said so long ago, a racket, in this case dressed up in very fancy clothes but a very effective con just for that reason.

One might get the impression that this is a “smaller” yield bomb than the bomb it replaces. It is not. It is a variable-yield bomb.

I don’t want to lightly gloss over the notion of the NNSA weapons labs as rackets. I did not mean that as a figure of speech. They are indeed rackets, and as institutions they cannot be understood at all without examining them from that perspective. The U.S. warhead labs don’t just have the occasional departure from social, environmental, worker safety, or legal norms. They are fundamentally constituted outside those norms. But with that assertion, offered here for your meditation and without further explanation, these comments must close.

If you have comments, send them to me.  Thank you for your attention.

“What is to be done”

This post is a more general meditation on the famous question and continues the “What is to be done” parts of Los Alamos Study Group Bulletin 214.

Generally speaking we might say there are just four things to be done in the public realm right now.

  • we must effectively stop those who are killing the planet and destroying civilization (and they are very close to succeeding on both counts, so our actions must be swift and effective if our children are to survive);
  • we must at the same time effectively and quickly build polities, institutions, infrastructures, and characters that embrace solidarity and sustainability, and
  • we must effectively care for vulnerable people and species.

To do these positive things effectively we must negatively “do” (i.e. not do) one more thing, which will come in the right proportion if we allow it:

  • we must simplify.

To the extent we simplify we also will, in the phrase of Chuck McCune, “boycott ecocide.”

What seems complicated and overwhelming from the outside, from an alienated perspective, will not seem so complicated from the inside.

These actions come with abundant built-in rewards. We can’t lose. Everything that the dying empire offers fraudulently, the Great Transition offers authentically, and from the first step.

Our greatest barriers are perhaps twofold.

First, the public realm where we act is nearly nonexistent for all but a very few. It has to be reclaimed. To the extent it exists at all it is largely inaccessible to most people, whose lives are increasingly precarious and exhausting. Debts, for example, shackle many. But there are usually more choices available to us than may appear at first glance, and small freedoms we exercise can grow.

Cynicism is deadly.

Given this general lack of time, the result of real obligations we all have to meet, there has to be leadership and it has to be accountable.

Second (and far more serious, it appears), we who have the most freedom are generally failing to grasp, even theoretically, the gravity of the situation. We are also failing to grasp our own responsibility to set things right, and our unique and largely latent power to do so. The exercise of this responsibility, for all of us who have the freedom and understanding to read these lines, is almost the sole path of maturity in a world so existentially threatened.

Perhaps especially in the educated and politically-active professional classes, denial and hopeful fantasies are the norm. It is toward this group that the distortions and strategic silences of the elite press, and the misdirection and distancing practices that usually dominate academia, are especially aimed. We have to re-educate ourselves, and it has to be done in part bodily, through action, and socially, as well as intellectually.

Denial and distancing are to be expected in any heavily propagandized society organized largely around material possessions and the elaborate system of faith-based beliefs that supports it. Richard Norgaard identifies our dominant religion as “economism,” in a particularly cogent recent essay (“The Church of Economism and Its Discontents”).

In response to this weakening of personal relations and increasing distance from nature, economism glorifies the individual and rationalizes material greed. Economic models focus on the individual, assume utility maximization, treat society as the sum of individuals, and omit society’s influence back on the individual. Care for others and the land may give people utility, but there is no obligation to care. This view runs contrary to all major religious traditions, effectively competing with the teaching they provide. (emphasis added)

Economism, in other words, is anti-religion. This cult pervades our society’s whole mental sphere. In its practical application it is little more than the worship of money. We train our “best and brightest” to be its acolytes, its “excellent sheep.”

I qualified our basic tasks with the adjective “effective.” We all aspire to effectiveness in our political action, but the fact is that effective action is quite rare among liberals and “progressives.” They are losing, and they are taking us down with them.

Too many people want to believe – in almost anything. Technology will save us! Bernie will save us! Hillary will save us! Renewable energy will save us! Just fill in the blank. What this kind of “hopeful” ideation means is that we “hope” we will be able to remain prosperous and secure, keep on shopping, and keep taking climate-destroying vacations halfway around the world. We would be wrong in all of that.

We have a doctor friend in Santa Fe who often says by way of parting benediction, “Avoid optimism!” It is very good advice given his and our environment of pervasive “brightsiding” (see Ehrenreich, Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America). In many circles, and not just those of New Age would-be magicians, “negative” thinking is not allowed. Illusions must be maintained!

We are all awash in fallacious “positive” propaganda, about our economy (which is deteriorating, not improving, and this process will continue), about climate policy (baby steps are too slow to matter, and neither the administration nor Congress has proposed even baby steps – the “Clean Power Plan” won’t help the climate), about oil and gas reserves (depleting, not increasing, with new oil increasingly unaffordable), about the U.S. role in the world (principally responsible for the wars underway today, as David Stockman recently explained), about our democracy (almost nonexistent on a national level), and so on.

It is for us, as Chris Hedges writes, “emotionally difficult” to fully grasp just how far the United States has fallen, let alone how pathetically inadequate are the ordinary liberal approaches to the crisis.

A disenfranchised white working class vents its lust for fascism at Trump campaign rallies. Naive liberals, who think they can mount effective resistance within the embrace of the Democratic Party, rally around the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, who knows that the military-industrial complex is sacrosanct. Both the working class and the liberals will be sold out. Our rights and opinions do not matter. We have surrendered to our own form of [W]ehrwirtschaft [a policy of armaments and war as national economy]. We do not count within the political process.

The longer fantasy is substituted for reality, the faster we sleepwalk toward oblivion. There is no guarantee we will wake up. Magical thinking has gripped societies in the past. Those civilizations believed that fate, history, superior virtues or a divine force guaranteed their eternal triumph. As they collapsed, they constructed repressive dystopias. They imposed censorship and forced the unreal to be accepted as real. Those who did not conform were disappeared linguistically and then literally.

The vast disconnect between the official narrative of reality and reality itself creates an Alice-in-Wonderland experience. Propaganda is so pervasive, and truth is so rarely heard, that people do not trust their own senses. We are currently being assaulted by political campaigning that resembles the constant crusading by fascists and communists in past totalitarian societies. This campaigning, devoid of substance and subservient to the mirage of a free society, is anti-politics.

While Hedges’ fierce generalizations should not be all accepted at face value – there are some exceptions and he is implicitly challenging us to find them, or to create our own beachheads in occupied territory – he is correct in the main. Most of the so-called political activity we see around us in the U.S. will fail or has failed already, because it based on hopeful lies. This creates a political and personal crisis for us because the activity that is apparently required is not at all convenient — or so it may seem.

More of us are waking up now. Have a cup of coffee. We’ve got a job to do. It’s not that bad once you wake up. Dress warmly. Our friends are waiting. Many hands make light work.

The “Manhattan Project National Historical Park”: Moral Failure for America, Danger to This Country and the World

[This is the text of the brochure some of us will hand out in Los Alamos tomorrow, November 11, at the “Grand Opening” of the “Manhattan Project National Historical Park”.  As a rushed paper product, it has no hyperlinks except a couple at the bottom.  See here for some background, and of course the Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF), for much more.  In fact, given AHF, who needs a Park?  Their products are better than a Park, as I have told them.  But they have wanted both.]

The creation of the “Manhattan Project National Historical Park” (MPNHP) represents a triumph of parochial self-interest over the judgment of history, serious national security policy, and basic human morality. The purposeful incineration of cities was then, as it would be now, a heinous war crime. There were, and still are, no extenuating circumstances for that kind of crime, full stop. But will that be the story told at this Park? Of course not.

The Nuremberg Tribunal articulated the principle that even those in the military are required to disobey unlawful orders, in cases where moral choice exists. Of course we know the institutionalized impetus to wanton destruction can be very difficult to resist in war for everyone, military and civilian alike. So we must resist justifying it now, in peacetime.

We cannot avoid judgment just because we won the war, or hide behind a false moral relativity. It was simply a terrible mistake to build and use the bomb, a mistake in which people were swept along in a kind of enforced, but well paid, group trance.[note 1] They handed over moral agency to others above them – others who, at the very top, once Roosevelt died, were thoroughly racist, or who saw the coming victory as a great imperial opportunity. There is nothing “great” about the regimentation of thousands of technicians and divorce of science from morality, resulting in state-sponsored mass murder, with strong racist overtones that can be heard down to the present day.

The communities surrounding the three MPNHP sites have been eager for some sort of recognition and prestige to compensate for the crimes they enabled during the war – and, even more so, to vindicate themselves and their communities for creating the doomsday arsenals that still threaten the human race, from which they have profited enormously, both personally and as communities.

Politicians and businesspersons have their own very personal agendas in this matter as well.

Last week the First Committee of the United Nations passed a resolution, by a vote of 124 to 35 with 15 abstentions, affirming that “given the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, it is inconceivable that any use of nuclear weapons, irrespective of the cause, would be compatible with the requirements of international humanitarian law or international law, or the laws of morality, or the dictates of public conscience.” The resolution further states that “given their indiscriminate nature and potential to annihilate humanity, nuclear weapons are inherently immoral.”[note 2] What is there to celebrate here, until the day when the Manhattan Project finally ends in Los Alamos?

The Park Will Be Hostage to Parochial Interests

The political pressure to adopt supportive narratives regarding past and current weapons activities at two of these sites, which involve billions of dollars in appropriations annually, is already overwhelming. There is no reason whatsoever to believe the National Park Service (NPS) can or will be an objective interpreter of current national security issues – which is part of what this Park would implicitly do. NPS will need to work with the Department of Energy (DOE) – the partnership being celebrated today – as well as civic groups, local governments, businesses, donors, and volunteers. Under such conditions, objective interpretation of the Manhattan Project, which involves war crimes for which the U.S. has never apologized, is inconceivable.

The proposed Park sites are near or within active nuclear weapons design, testing, and production sites, underscoring the impossibility of any objective interpretation at these locations. Multibillion-dollar contracts and projects are at stake. This is not Manzanar.

The “significance” and continuing legacy of the Manhattan Project is politically contentious and disputed. This “significance” is central to the Park idea. The original bill (S. 507, at sec. 2(2)(A)) and SA 2492 at (a)(2)(A)) quotes a “panel of experts” who state that the “the development and use of the atomic bomb during World War II has been called ‘the single most significant event of the 20th century.’” Really.

Creating such a Park inherently endorses the Manhattan Project and its modern-day successor activities as positive national achievements. Indeed that is the purpose of the Park. Supposedly “objective” background materials supporting the Park proposal are already one-sided, significantly incomplete, and/or historically incorrect.

Bechtel National Park?

The balkanization of ownership and control of these sites between federal and powerful non-federal actors ensures, in practical terms, that NPS will be subordinate to these other actors. For example, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) is operated by a for-profit consortium of contractors (Los Alamos National Security, LLC), which annually receives and spends in the neighborhood of $2.2 billion. LANS and DOE jointly control access, security, safety, and maintenance at LANL. LANS is a highly interest-conflicted party. DOE does not manage these sites.

Quite simply, this proposal aims to use NPS for propaganda purposes, for the state and for its contractors. This will be quite apparent (and jarring) to many domestic and international visitors. The propaganda aspect of the proposed Park is oddly invisible to many well-intentioned supporters.

The Park Adds No Real Value

The proposal does not involve significant natural or national resources and is therefore not harmonious with core National Park missions. The DOE properties at LANL involved in this proposal are basically worthless, ugly sheds and bunkers.

These sites will not provide a comprehensive picture of the Manhattan Project, which occurred at dozens of sites, not three.

Extensive interpretative museums concerning the Manhattan Project already exist, at Los Alamos and elsewhere. Some are taxpayer funded. Extensive resources are available on the internet for those who are interested.

Few if any of these sites will be tourist draws or provide marginal economic value to the surrounding communities. At LANL, that’s a fantasy.

Some sites are already national landmarks. It is not clear there is any added benefit to National Park status.

At Los Alamos, Park status will not add preservation value. These “assets” are already protected.

Some sites will be accessible by the public only rarely and under guard, and public access will interfere with the national security missions underway surrounding those sites. At other sites, public access may interfere with cleanup activities. Public “enjoyment” (referencing here the NPS mission) will be minimal for these locations.

The Park Will Be Costly and Hard to Administer

The cost of the proposed Park, which is not yet fully known, will compete with the massive maintenance backlog in the National Park system. Or, if borne by DOE, these additional costs will compete with other missions. DOE does not have anywhere close to enough funds to clean up its sites, or even tear down its large inventory of abandoned buildings, some of which date from the Manhattan Project.

Given the inherent management problems, it is quite likely that the cost of the proposed Park for the NPS – in dollars and otherwise – will exceed current expectations. It is also quite possible that the chronic problems at some of these sites, combined with the inherent problems in this proposal, will combine to damage the reputation of NPS, not just in this country but to some degree worldwide.

The sites are small, widely separated, have complicated ownership and boundary configurations and significant safety and security issues, will be rarely accessible to the public in some cases, and in some cases (LANL) are operated by for-profit contractors, not the federal government. As of April 2013, DOE had “not assessed the operational difficulties in terms of security and public health and safety, applicable statutory and regulatory requirements, and the potential new cost of national park designation at our sensitive national security and cleanup sites.”

At present, there are no management plans, no budgets, and no appropriations. At present the Park consists only of enabling legislation, the Memorandum of Agreement, and a map of initial DOE locations. As NPS web site says,

Details of the park interpretive themes, park facilities, visitor contact stations, park management structure, and specifics about what eligible properties outside the Department of Energy properties should be included in the park are not included in this agreement and will be identified in future planning efforts.

The Park Glorifies Nuclear Weapons, Undercutting Nonproliferation Norms – and Promoting a Militarized Society

If producing (and using) nuclear weapons was a “great” achievement for one country, why should it not be so for others, and for terrorist groups? We may believe America is “exceptional” in this way but others do not, and it is their views which are important to them, not ours. Why is it in the interest of U.S. national security to establish what amounts to a multi-site “nuclear weapons national park?” There are already other NPS-administered “parks” dating from the Cold War. Because it has the largest economy, the largest military by far, and the largest cultural influence, the U.S. is a norm-setting state. It is one thing to make terrible mistakes, even great ones; many states have done so. It is quite another to celebrate historic and continuing mistakes, as if they happened merely in the past.

The Park Suborns NPS to Serve a Militarized State

This Park is already a “disinformation machine,” obscuring present realities as much or more as past ones, thus continuing the work of the propagandists hired by the Manhattan Project in 1945. As such it harnesses NPS to a militarized and corporatized state that creates ignorance and passivity in an increasingly powerless population.

As Stewart Udall wrote in the Myths of August, the first big change of the Atomic Age was to alter the American system of government, creating new national security institutions to safeguard atomic secrets. The national security state was born.

Today that militarized security state has metastasized to a scale and degree that would be unrecognizable to the America of 1946 or 1947 in terms of cost, deployments, and in its unquestioned prominence in our society. This Park would not have been proposed or approved in a peace-oriented society. Its existence is as much part of the militarization and authoritarian shift in American life as it is an illustration of the growing moral numbness which has accompanied the application of violence by the U.S. in more and more countries around the world.

1. In this regard see Charles Tart, quoted in Brian Davey,
2 For text, background, and votes see links in

Beyond “peace”

Yesterday (September 21) was the “International Day of Peace.”  I hope not to be misinterpreted, but I don’t like it, for all sorts of reasons.

Is it because I am not in some horrible war, and can’t see the value of peace?  Not really.  Would anyone shooting at me stop because it was the “International Day of Peace?”  It’s a feel-good holiday, isn’t it?

Is it because I like war?  No.  I was a conscientious objector in 1971 and have ordered my life accordingly since then, leaving easy and lucrative work to work for — what?  Peace?  No — for nuclear disarmament, justice, environmental wholeness, and economic security.  They go together, especially in New Mexico, where nuclear armaments are such a powerful industry.  Not for peace, then.  For something like “human dignity and solidarity in the living landscape.”

For us in the U.S., peace is not something we have and it is not something we will have.  Our president recently bragged that he has bombed seven countries since taking office.  If anything that is an undercount.  Of course I don’t like it, but it’s a fact.

Americans tend to take aspirations for peace personally.  It’s about my peace.  I want to be peaceful — the heck with you.

The aspiration for peace is just terribly ambiguous and it comes with a bad psychology, which we as community workers have to face.  Psychologist James Hillman, in A Terrible Love of War, (Penguin, 2004, pp. 29-36), explains (quoting at length):

The name of this void of forgetfulness is peace, whose short first definition is: “the absence of war.” More fully, the Oxford English Dictionary describes peace: “Freedom from, or cessation of, war or hostilities; a state of a nation or community in which it is not at war with another.” Further, peace means: “Freedom from disturbance or perturbation, especially as a condition of an individual; quiet, tranquility.”

When Neville Chamberlain and his umbrella returned from Munich in 1938 after utterly failing to grasp the nature of Hitler, he told the British people he had achieved peace in our time and that now everyone should “go home and get a nice quiet sleep.”

The worst of war is that it ends in peace, that is, it absents itself from remembrance, a syndrome Chris Hedges calls “collective or blanket amnesia,” beyond understanding, beyond imagining. “Peace is visible already,” writes Marguerite Duras. “It’s like a great darkness falling, it’s the beginning of forgetting.”

I will not march for peace, nor will I pray for it, because it falsifies all it touches. It is a cover-up, a curse. Peace is simply a bad word. “Peace,” said Plato, “is really only a name.” Even if states should “cease from fighting,” wrote Hobbes, “it is not to be called peace; but rather a breathing time.” True, yes; cease-fire, yes; surrender, victory, mediation, brinkmanship, standoff–these words have content, but peace is darkness falling.

The dictionary’s definition, an exemplary of denial, fails the word, peace. Written by scholars in tranquillity, the definition fixates and perpetuates the denial. If peace is merely an absence of, a freedom from, it is both an emptiness and a repression. A psychologist must ask how is the emptiness filled, since nature abhors a vacuum; and how does the repressed return, since it must?
The emptiness left by repressing war from the definition of peace bloats it with idealizations–another classic defense mechanism. Fantasies of rest, of calm security, life as “normal,” eternal peace, heavenly peace, the peace of love that transcends understanding; peace as easy (shalvah in the Hebrew Bible) and completeness (shalom). The peace of naivete, of ignorance disguised as innocence. Longings for peace become both simplistic and utopian with programs for universal love, disarmament, and an Aquarian federation of nations, or retrograde to the status quo ante of Norman Rockwell’s apple pie. These are the options of psychic numbing that “peace” offers and which must have so offended Jesus that he declared for a sword.

To dispel such quieting illusions, writers along with those hounded by Mars roil the calm. The pages are thick with death because writers do not hold their peace, keep silent, play dumb. Books of war give voice to the tongue of the dead anesthetized by that major syndrome of the public psyche: “peace.”

The one virtue of the dictionary’s definition of peace is its implied normalization of war. War is the larger idea, the normative term giving peace its meaning. Definitions using negation or privation are psychologically unsophisticated. The excluded notion immediately comes to mind and, in fact, the word “peace” can be understood only after you have grasped the “war.”

War is also implied in another common meaning of peace: peace as victory. The fusion of peace with military victory shows plainly enough in the prayers for peace which tacitly ask for winning the war. Do people ever pray for surrender? Unconditional surrender would bring immediate peace. Do they ever light candles and march in supplication of defeat?

The Romans understood this inner connection between peace and victory. Pax, the goddess of peace, was usually configured with a cornucopia of riches and plenty, an idealization that recurred in recent fantasies of a “peace dividend” to fill our coffers now that the Cold War was won. Also accompanying Pax were a caduceus (twin serpents winding around a staff indicating the healing arts) and an olive branch. Soon enough (around the turn of the era, 40 BC), she became Pax-Victoria an the olive branch merged with laurel leaves, the crown of victors.

Not only does “peace” too quickly translate into “security,” and a security purchased at the price of liberty. Something more sinister also is justified by peace which de Tocqueville superbly describes as a “new kind of servitude” where a “supreme power covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered but softened, bent and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes and stupefies a people, till a nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrial animals, of which government is the shepherd.”

We are engaged in a struggle for life.  It will not be peaceful, nor should it be.  It should be nonviolent, but in the hands of “peace” advocates, “nonviolence” has almost lost the name of action.  In the contexts in which we work, the dangerous ambiguity of “peace” works against the clarity and commitment that are the sine qua non of harmonious, productive, nonviolent action of all kinds.  “Peace” even begins to mean something like “civility.”  A lot of blocking, destructive, and unethical conduct is justified in the name of “peace.”  Even “nonviolence” can be a kind of bludgeon.  For the “peaceful,” “violence” can be defined as anything which makes us uncomfortable and threatens our “peace.”  “Peace out.”  What good is this word, and this idea?  There are usually better ones.

Comment to colleagues regarding a comprehensive nuclear disarmament treaty as a viable diplomatic option

(Sent to a number of colleagues this morning)

Dear colleagues —

With great respect to all who are working on this issue, I think it is important to face the fact that the US and Russia (just to pick the two states with most of the nuclear weapons) will not, for the foreseeable future, negotiate any kind of nuclear weapons convention or enter into any other comprehensive disarmament treaty under any circumstances.  Neither will they enter into a ban treaty — again for the “foreseeable future,” a long time, long enough to make any such strategy irrelevant for us, the living.

Those who imagine that there could be a nuclear weapons convention negotiated need to supply some convincing data and arguments.  There are none I know of.  It is all wishful thinking.  The historical data all go the other way.  What the General Assembly says, or what Ban Ki Moon says, is meaningless in this regard, because no significant political process that commits voting states lies behind these pronouncements and votes, and because the US and Russia will not surrender their nuclear weapons because of *ANY* UN votes or pronouncements.  They simply have no influence.  To say otherwise would be to assume an unthinkable surrender of sovereignty and national identity for these two states (as well as other nuclear weapon states).

The chemical weapons convention and biological weapons convention are not good models for eliminating nuclear weapons because these other weapons were not so deeply interwoven with the identity of these two states and because in the US at least their military utility was correctly perceived as low to nil to negative, and at the time nuclear weapons were (and still are) available as the winning weapons in any conflict whatsoever, should a “Dunkirk-style” defeat loom for US expeditionary (i.e. imperial) forces anywhere in the world for example (I am quoting from some or another old official justification).

The above describes the political reality prior to the US-fomented coup in Ukraine and the advent of open efforts to destabilize Russia economically and politically, an effort which in the US is perceived by dominant factions as necessary for the long-term health of the US economy, however mistaken and stupid that is.  Both the US and Russia understand what is going on not just in Ukraine but in many other modalities and across many other fronts as a kind of hybrid but real conflict — or in a single syllable, a war.  This is a very serious situation with deep US roots and it will not be resolved into the kind of relative amity many thought existed during the “START II era” for the foreseeable future.  NATO expansion, Yugoslavia, US withdrawal from the ABM treaty, and now Ukraine, have permanently ended that, among many other insults.

Politics in the US (and in Russia) have moved to the right in the last decade or two.  In the US I would say this process has gone on since the late 1970s.  In the US this process is continuing with no end in sight.  In the US, it takes 67 Senate votes to ratify a treaty, and those 67 votes wouldn’t be there even if a president wanted such a treaty, which no foreseeable future US president will.

I say “foreseeable,” because these conditions will eventually change in the US — but only, I believe, when the existence of the US state is visibly threatened from non-military threats, internal and external, or else when a thorough political change occurs as a result of unmistakeable, magisterial forces that galvanize ruling elites and citizens alike.  (Don’t think of the US as a democracy, please).

Meanwhile, while nuclear weapons are expensive they are expected, assuming a trillion-dollar outlay over the next 30 years (a low estimate for the program of record) to not rise to more than 6% of all military spending.  While DoD and military leaders already say, repeatedly, that the program of record is not affordable under current budgets, and Republicans look to further cuts to social programs including from “mandatory” spending in pension accounts filled by paycheck deductions over many years, nuclear weapons aren’t so expensive as to drive the US to seek a nuclear weapons convention or ban.

One interesting question is the limit of “foreseeable” — how far in the future lies the prediction limit of even the most broad-brush judgments (such as the above).  For example, will the US be able to put a single new Ohio-class replacement submarine into service in 2031, as planned?  The US Navy is a very impressive organization, the contractors are very capable, and the individuals in charge of this program are very impressive people.  Even so I for one can’t say for sure they will succeed, because there are too many environmental and resource issues that will come to bear, which will be expressed economically, socially, industrially, and politically.  These are “black swans,” or really “grey” swans because some of the coming crises are already visible to some extent.  The nature of these and other growing problems and of our social and political response to them is unknowable of course.  But the default political tendency in the US is to move to the political hard right in response to scary problems.  US participation in a nuclear weapons convention is probably even less likely in the event of serious internal crises.

To be sure, the US nuclear modernization program of record is already failing to some extent and is understood to be failing to some extent by sophisticated internal actors.  We can be confident it will fail further and more and more deeply over time.  We can’t tell how or how much.  But none of this adds up to endorsement of complete nuclear disarmament or negotiation of a nuclear weapons convention.

The only disarmament diplomacy which can succeed for the foreseeable future is one that does not require participation by the nuclear weapons states, including the US and Russia.  This is one of the many reasons why efforts to produce a ban are so important, even though the US, Russia, and other nuclear weapons states will *never* sign such a treaty.  The mechanisms by which a ban will help produce disarmament in non-signatory nuclear weapons states are in general not going to be those which are discussed by diplomats, let alone NGOs, in open international settings.

To pick just one example, a ban will immediately lower the legitimacy of nuclear threats in the world’s eyes, and therefore the likelihood of nuclear use.  This is very important because the risks of nuclear war are, I believe, growing.

All nuclear weapon states are implacably hostile to effective disarmament diplomacy — by definition really.  I take it as obvious that there is no disarmament process anywhere underway now.  Anybody who wants nuclear weapon states involved in disarmament diplomacy is in effect helping that diplomacy fail.

I really hope that values such as “openness” in diplomatic processes, and any other values that are quite secondary or tertiary to nuclear disarmament, don’t get in the way of producing a ban treaty.  The US at least can be expected to use all of its resources to undercut efforts to produce any threatening disarmament measure, including a ban, up to and including putting financial pressure on states and actors within states, blackmail, getting disarmament diplomats fired or transferred away, and so on.

Greg Mello

Pouring Gas on the Ukrainian Fire

This is a guest post by Steven Starr.  Steve is first-class activist, parent, medical scientist, and director of Clinical Laboratory Science at the University of Missouri.   He teaches on nuclear weapons issues and maintains the highly-recommended  web site.  

We have been following the developing situation in Ukraine — a disaster that was made in the West, led by the U.S. — with great alarm.  Steve’s letter is timely and completely accurate as far as I can tell. 

There appears to be almost no serious objections being raised against the loud voices now calling for the US to send large quantities of weapons to Ukraine.  It is not just John McCain demanding that Obama OK massive arms shipments to Kiev. Consider the new report, “Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do”, released by three prominent think tanks this last week (the Brookings Institution, the Atlantic Council, and the  Chicago Council on Global Affairs)

The report was signed by:

  • Ambassador Steven Pifer, Senior Fellow, the Brookings Institution, and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine
  • Strobe Talbott, President, the Brookings Institution, and former Deputy Secretary of State
  • Ambassador Ivo Daalder, President, the Chicago Global Affairs Council, and former U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO
  • Michele Flournoy, Chair, Center for a New American Security, and former Under Secretary of Defense
  • Ambassador John Herbst, Director, Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, the Atlantic Council, and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine
  • Jan Lodal, Distinguished Fellow and former President, the Atlantic Council, and former Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense
  • Admiral James Stavridis, Member of the Board, the Atlantic Council, Dean, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and former Supreme Allied Commander Europe
  • General Charles Wald, Member of the Board, the Atlantic Council, and former Deputy Commander, U.S. European Command

The report (see ) recommends that:

  • The White House and Congress should commit serious funds to upgrade Ukraine’s defense capabilities, specifically providing $1 billion in military assistance this year, followed by an additional $1 billion each in the next two fiscal years;
  • The U.S. government should alter its policy and begin providing lethal assistance to Ukraine’s military and;
  • The U.S. government should approach other NATO countries about also providing military assistance to Ukraine.

Strobe Talbot of the Brookings Institution states (at 21 minutes into this interview) that:

In the context of what is happening in Ukraine today, the right way to characterize it is an act of war on the part of the Russian FederationThis means that there is going on in Ukraine today a literal invasion — it is not a proxy war —it is a literal invasion by the Russian Armed Forces, it is a literal occupation of large parts, well beyond Crimea, of Eastern Ukraine, and it is a virtual annexation of a lot of territory other than just the Crimea.  And in that respect, this is a major threat to the peace of Europe, to the peace of Eurasia, and therefore a threat to the interests of the United States, and I would say a threat to the chances of a peaceful 21st century.

However, I would note that the Chief of Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, General Viktor Muzhenko, stated on January 29th, 2015, stated that there was “no evidence of the presence in the conflict zone in the southeast of Ukraine any regular units of the Russian army.” Muzhenko said that, “There is absolutely no way you can possibly hide huge military formations on a relatively small territory wide open to reporters and OSCE representatives”.

It is certainly true the war in Ukraine has become a proxy war between the US and Russia, and no doubt the Russians are supplying arms and material, along with troops not in Russian uniforms. But if the US chooses to take the course recommended by Brookings, et al, this will surely cause a major reaction from Russia, and it will encourage the ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis in Kiev to continue the war.  This is a deadly combination of events that will propel the US and Russia ever closer to armed conflict.

At present, the Ukrainian military forces are about to suffer another major defeat in Donbass, having something like 8,000 of its troops surrounded and cut off in a “cauldron”.  If they do not surrender, they are likely to be butchered.  Meanwhile, the Ukrainian currency has lost half its value, the economy is in ruins, and armed groups are forming in many of the largest cities, apparently in anticipation of a coup against Poroshenko.  It is precisely these armed groups who are made up of the neo-Nazi factions who have absolutely no intention of seeking a diplomatic solution with the separatists in Donbass. The country is in utter turmoil, with some of the most violent extreme right-wing groups having the most control in the Kiev government.

Is this who we wish to arm?  It is not clear that Poroshenko can even remain in power much longer.  Hence the hasty trip by Merkel and Hollande to Moscow, to meet with Putin  Note that no American representative went with them, and that the meetings with Putin were held without any staff members attending.  It seems fairly clear that Merkel and Hollande do not want a US-Russian war to break out in Ukraine, which seems to put them at odds with the majority of politicians in the US.  But it is a little late for them to change course at this point, given how far down the road they have come in support of US policy.

But there is already a war, which our news does not cover; Western news organizations have no reporters there, they rely upon reports from the Ukrainian government, which they tend to repeat verbatim.  It is as if we pretend that the relentless shelling of the cities of Eastern Ukraine — which has produced more than 1 million refugees, destroyed much of the infrastructure and killed many thousands of people — is somehow not important enough to notice.  Yet this “anti-terrorist operation” has been carried out — largely against the civilians of Donbass — because the US fully supported it and financed it.

Whether or not we Americans are aware of what has been and is happening to the 5.5 million people of Donbass, the Russian people certainly are, as this story dominates Russian news.  Russia has accepted the great majority of the Ukrainian refugees (who are mostly ethnic Russian, hence the charge that the war is really about ethnic cleansing).  Russia is the only nation that has supplied food, medicine, and other aid to the people of Donbass (Donetsk, city of one million, Lughansk, city of about half a million).  The people who remain there are living on starvation rations, similar to what Russians lived on during the siege of Stalingrad by the Nazis.  It is not lost on the Russians that some of the Ukrainian National Guard units fly the same flags that were flown by Hitler.  Russian news covered the story when the Ukrainian Prime Minister recently went on German TV and said that it was important “to prevent another Russian invasion of Germany”.  Russia, which lost 27 million people to the Nazis, notices when Obama declines an invitation to attend the Moscow ceremony of the 70th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis in World War II.

I am personally ashamed of what the US is doing in Ukraine, and I am astounded that we have what appears to be a bi-partisan push to send unlimited weapons and military aid there, especially since this action is aimed primarily at Russia.  Do all these important Americans honestly believe that Russia is going to back down in a fight on its borders? Isn’t it past time to start talking in detail about the likely consequences of a war with Russia, that is, a nuclear war?