This is the transcript of a talk given by Noam Chomsky at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s symposium “The Fierce Urgency of Nuclear Zero: Changing the Discourse” on October 24, 2016. The audio of this talk is available here. For more information about the symposium, click here.
I have a few reflections on the alarming lack of progress since David ended with one of his eloquent poems. Maybe I’ll begin with one of my favorites. Unfortunately, I don’t have the exact words, so it won’t have the proper eloquence. But it’s brief and succinct enough so I can make the point in simple prose. The poem is called something like “A Lesson in History”, and it mentions three dates: August 6th, 1945, Hiroshima; August 8th, 1945, the announcement of the Nuremberg Tribunals; August 9th, 1945, Nagasaki. Nothing else to be said. That does tell us something about the alarming lack of progress, in this case in understanding our own actions and their consequences. And it should remind us that we’re very lucky, very fortunate, in that we are in the most powerful country in world history, its actions will shape significantly what happens in the future, and also a country which is one of the most free in world history, which means we have enormous opportunities to address the crucial issues that confront the human species, and they are beyond anything that has arisen in the past.
Well, turning to lack of progress, lack of progress may not be a strong enough phrase. David’s word “regress” is more to the point. It’s hard to disagree with William Perry, who pointed out in his recent book that by 2011, in his words, “The US and Russia began a long backward slide.” As he points out at that time, the new START Treaty, which was indeed finally implemented, was so politically contentious that Obama decided not to offer the comprehensive test-ban treaty for ratification. That’s a big step backwards. Russia has since been engaged in a massive nuclear armaments program, general armaments program. It includes ICBMs with MIRVs, very dangerous nuclear submarines with ballistic missiles, and many other extremely dangerous weapons. The US is undertaking modernization, as you know, the trillion dollar, 30-year modernization program. Along with new missiles that are understood to be particularly dangerous because they’re small and can be scaled down for battlefield use, tactical nuclear weapons, which is an incitement to escalation of a very enormous threat.
And events on the ground are particularly threatening, primarily at the Russian border, where it’s becoming really ominous. Accidents could lead to sudden escalation. Syria is another flash point, and there are others. India/Pakistan is one of the most severe. The Kashmir crisis has been escalating, and no serious proposals for resolving it. Open The New York Times this morning, and you’ll see Prime Minister Modi’s warnings about a sharp, Indian reaction to any Pakistani-based terrorist attack, which is likely. And at the border, up in the high Himalayas, there’s one of the most ridiculous wars that has ever happened. It’s captured very nicely in a comment by Arundhati Roy, which I should have looked up so I could quote it exactly, but what she describes as 12,000 feet up in the mountain, the glaciers are melting, threatening the water supply for India and Pakistan, and as the glaciers melt, you see the detritus of the battles that they’re fighting there, over nothing. The helmets, arms, skeletons, and so on.
It’s reminiscent of Borges’s comment on wars, which are like two bald men fighting over a comb, except this one is a lot more serious. This is an indication of significant wars that could be just on the horizon. Water wars. India/Pakistan’s a striking case. Or simply imagine what the consequences will be when tens of millions of people are fleeing out of the coastal plains of Bangladesh. Where are they going go? What’s going to happen to them? Take a look this morning at the dismemberment of the Calais Jungle. What’s going to happen when it’s not thousands, but tens of millions? And that’s coming very soon, unless we do something about it. The circumstances that lead to potential conflict are growing and are frightening and, in many ways, I think that’s the most alarming lack of progress, the lack of attention to try and do something about these things, which is shocking. There are disappointments, like the recent ICJ, rejection of the Marshall Islands claim, but as David pointed out, it’s not all grim. It was a virtually split decision and on narrow technical grounds, not getting to the substance, and there are many avenues to pursue at the UN as well, as we just heard, that’s a very important initiative and it’s kind of shocking that it… I don’t think it’s even made the press, as far as I know.
One of the most important initiatives underway should be known by everyone, should have massive public support, which could possibly lead to a modification of the US position, or at least mitigation of the US position of extreme hostility to what could be a historic decision of the UN. Now, there’s a crucial lack of progress, and in, maybe, ways regress in other significant areas. Steps towards abolition can’t, as we all know, can’t be just click of your fingers. There have to be many avenues pursued. And one of the most significant of them, I think, which doesn’t receive the attention it deserves, is the development of weapons, nuclear weapons, WMD-free zones in various parts of the world which restricts the possibility of conflict. They’re not air-tight, of course, but they are steps forward. There is one in the Western hemisphere which, of course, excludes the United States and Canada.
There’s one in the Pacific, which for a long time was impeded by France, which insisted on carrying out nuclear weapons tests in the French possessions. But more recently, it’s blocked by the United States, which insists on nuclear weapons positioning and nuclear submarines passing through the US Pacific Islands. So the Pacific WMD-free zone can’t really be implemented. There’s one for Africa, but it’s also, for the moment, impeded by the United States because the US insists on a major military base in Diego Garcia. A nuclear base, one which is in fact used… It’s been used extensively in the bombings in Central Asia. And it’s been built up very sharply under the Obama administration, again with very little attention. So that blocks the Africa zone.
But the most important of all, by far, is the Middle East. Now, that’s where there certainly should be significant efforts to impose a nuclear weapons free zone and it’s… There’s no reason… Among the major states, the most importance, with one exception, the obvious exception, the states in the region are strongly in favor of it. Iran is in the lead, in fact, in pressing to try to establish a WMD-free zone in the region. That’s in its position as head of the non-aligned movement, which has taken a very strong stand on that. The Arab states are all in favor of it. In fact, they initiated it back in 1995. It was Egypt and other Arab states that initiated the call for a WMD-free zone. It comes up every five years in the NPT review sessions, every time the US blocks it, most recently in 2015, under Obama, just simply blocked the steps towards moving, towards establishing this.
Now that’s extremely significant. For one thing it threatens the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The commitment of the Arab states to the NPT is conditioned, explicitly, on moves to establish a WMD-free zone in the region. And it’s kind of striking that the US… And of course the reason the US blocks it is totally obvious, it’s to protect Israel’s nuclear weapons system from inspection, and that’s such a high priority here that the government is willing to threaten the NPT, the most important arms control treaty that exists. That’s very serious, nothing talked about it and which is again the, what David called the “terrible silence” that is the worst form of lack of progress.
Incidentally, for anyone who took seriously the hysteria about Iranian nuclear weapons, the easiest, simplest way to eliminate whatever threat one believes might exist would be simply to accept the Iranian proposal to move towards a verifiable nuclear weapons-free zone. Not discussed for reasons we know; incidentally, the Iranian deal was, I think, a step forward, but we should bear in mind that the concept of an Iranian threat was hardly credible, and the idea that we should put… If you read US intelligence reports, they say… The reports to Congress, they do point out that there’s a potential danger of Iranian nuclear weapons if they ever develop them. Namely, they could be a deterrent. They could be a deterrent. And the US and Israel cannot tolerate a deterrent. If you want to use force freely, you can’t have deterrents. That’s the Iranian nuclear threat, such as it is. These are all things that we should… Everyone should know.
Another step backwards is continuing, Israel’s a case in point, but continuing support for the three nuclear weapon states that have refused to join the NPT, Israel, Pakistan, and India, all of which developed their nuclear weapons with considerable US support. In the case of India, since Bush, not before. Case of Pakistan, primarily under Reagan. The administration pretended that they didn’t know that Pakistan was developing nuclear weapons, though everyone outside of the Beltway could see it quite clearly. Bush number two changed the policy towards India, and it continues. Just last June, Obama authorized six new nuclear reactors in India. These are called peaceful, but we all know that the transition from nuclear power to nuclear weapons under contemporary technology is not very great. And furthermore, subsidizing Indian nuclear power simply allows them to divert resources to their nuclear weapons program, which is extremely dangerous, primarily because of the India/Pakistan conflict. But also because of what is likely to happen when tens of millions of people from Bangladesh start to flee because they’re drowning. What happens then?
These are serious issues. All of this ends by… It all combines on the matter of lack of awareness, lack of public awareness. It’s striking that there’s nothing today like the huge anti-nuclear movement of the early ’80s, enormous movement, some of the biggest mobilizations in history. And they had an effect. They had a significant effect on modifying US policy, leading ultimately to the Reagan/Gorbachev agreements, which were a significant step forward and were followed by many years of pretty sharp reduction in nuclear weapons, other positive steps; some steps backward, but general progress, up until the turning point in 2011, when we started going backwards again. There’s no such popular mobilization today. The election’s going on, nothing being said about it. And worse, no popular mobilization to try to force something to be said about it.
There are some encouraging signs. So you all read, I’m sure, the leaked discussion between Hillary Clinton and several of the prominent donors, and others, in which… She’s a politician, she’s telling the audience what they want to hear, but it doesn’t matter. What she said was not insignificant. She did question… Said we have to raise questions about the modernization program, not just authorize it. And she, specifically, opposed the worst part of it, the development of these smaller nuclear weapons which can be scaled down to battlefield use. Well, there’s two possible reactions to that disclosure. One of them is silence. The other would be popular mobilization to keep her feet to the fire, make press to get the government, assuming she wins the election, to move forward on the programs that she claims, at least, that she’s committed to.
Now that can have an effect. It has had in the past. It often can again. Well, as you know the reaction was silence. It appeared, no comment, disappeared, just like the UN proposal will be voted on, probably no comment, maybe not even a report, and it’ll disappear, unless there is popular mobilization. That’s the major element of alarming lack of progress, in many ways, regression, and an indication of the basic work that we all have to be dedicating ourselves to.