Few people have looked as deeply into the nuclear abyss, seen the monster of our own making and grappled with it as has the writer Jonathan Schell. But Schell is more than a writer. He is also a philosopher of the Nuclear Age and an ardent advocate of caging the beast and rendering it harmless. Schell’s first book on the subject, The Fate of the Earth, awakened many people to the breadth and depth of the nuclear danger and is now a classic. He has returned to the issue of nuclear dangers (nuclear insanity?) in several of his other books, always providing penetrating insights into the confrontation between humanity and its most deadly invention.
His latest book, The Seventh Decade, The New Shape of Nuclear Danger, may be Schell’s most important book yet. In this book, he examines the roots of the Nuclear Age and its current manifestations. He unearths the truth, which once brought to light seems obvious, that the bomb began as a construct in the mind. “Well before any physical bomb had been built,” he says, “science had created the bomb in the mind, an intangible thing. Thereafter, the bomb would be as much a mental as a physical object.”
One of the key concepts of the Nuclear Age is deterrence, the belief that the threat of nuclear retaliation can prevent nuclear attack. Schell takes a hard-headed look at deterrence, and finds the concept “half-sane and half-crazy.” While it seems sane to seek to forestall a nuclear attack, the half-crazy part (perhaps more than half), “consists of actually waging the war you must threaten, for in that event the result is suicide all around.” That suicide writ large becomes what philosopher John Somerville termed “omnicide,” the death of all. “In short,” Schell deduced, “to threaten seems wise, but to act is deranged.”
In the post-Cold War period, deterrence has become even more complex and less certain, tilting toward the “deranged.” It is no longer the mental task of threat and counter threat aimed at keeping a fixed and powerful opponent at bay, as it was during the Cold War standoff between the US and USSR. Now, states must consider the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorist groups, not locatable and not subject to being deterred. In such circumstances, the rationality of deterrence is shattered and even great and powerful states are placed at risk of nuclear devastation by far weaker opponents. In such circumstances, overwhelming nuclear superiority is of no avail.
The “bomb in the mind” can only do so much. It cannot deter those who cannot be located or are suicidal. Despite their devastating power, nuclear weapons in the hands of powerful states are actually a tepid threat. Yet, they stand as a major impediment to the post-Cold War imperial project of the United States, a project failing on many fronts, but poised to fail far more spectacularly if nuclear weapons find their way into the hands of terrorist groups.
In today’s world, when deterrence has for nearly all sane thinkers lost its magical power in the mind (although in truth it was always a highly risky venture), it has become far harder to justify nuclear arsenals, and the United States has resorted to the vague possibility of a reemergent threat. In considering this, Schell finds, “In the last analysis, the target of the U.S. nuclear arsenal became history and whatever it might produce – not a foe but a tense, the future itself.”
Schell correctly concluded that the George W. Bush administration had far more ambitious and sinister plans for the US nuclear arsenal. Although there was no clearly definable enemy, there was a strongly held vision and normative goal of US global dominance, set forth in the 2001 US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). Nuclear weapons were required, in Schell’s careful study of the NPR “to dissuade, deter, defeat or annihilate – preventively, preemptively, or in retaliation – any nation or other grouping of people on the face of the earth, large or small, that militarily opposed, or dreamed of opposing, the United States.”
Schell examines the US imperial project under George W. Bush and its role in shaping US nuclear policy. He points out that the Bush administration ordered its nuclear threats in this way: Iraq, with whom it went to war; Iran, with whom it threatened war; North Korea, which withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and developed nuclear weapons; and Pakistan, which already had nuclear weapons and a chaotic political environment. Of course, Bush chose exactly the wrong order in terms of the actual security threats posed by these nations. Schell found, “In responding to the universal danger posed by nuclear proliferation, the United States therefore had two suitably universalist traditions that it could draw on, one based on consent and law, the other based on force. Bush chose force. It was the wrong choice. It increased the nuclear danger it was meant to prevent.”
In the final section of his book, Schell, who is himself an ardent nuclear abolitionist, reviews earlier attempts to achieve abolition of these weapons. He goes into heartbreaking detail of the efforts of Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev to achieve the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. The two leaders, acting on their own initiative, without the advice or support of their aides (George Shultz is an exception), were incredibly close to agreement to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, but as we know faltered on the issue of missile defenses, which Reagan saw as key and which Gorbachev couldn’t accept. After coming so close to agreement on a plan for abolition, the world settled back to nuclear business as usual. As Schell pointed out, after the Reagan-Gorbachev Summit at Reykjavík, “Nuclear arsenals may remain not so much because anyone wants them as because a world without them is outside the imagination of the leadership class.”
The possibilities of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism led Schell to the conclusion that “with each year that passes, nuclear weapons provide their possessors with less safety while provoking more danger. The walls dividing the nations of the two-tiered [nuclear] world are crumbling.” The Reagan-Gorbachev vision has new advocates in former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn. Their basic premise is that deterrence can no longer be the foundation for 21st century security.
Schell suggests that should the will for nuclear abolition materialize – something already favored by the majority of Americans – the following principles could guide the effort:
- At the outset, adopt the abolition of nuclear arms as the organizing principle and goal of all activity in the nuclear field;
- Join all negotiations on nuclear weapons – on nuclear disarmament, on nonproliferation, and on nuclear terrorism – in a single forum;
- Think of abolition less as the endpoint of a long and weary path of disarmament and more as the starting point for addressing a new agenda of global action;
- Design a world free of nuclear weapons that is not just a destination to reach but a place to remain.
Schell concludes that the “bomb in the mind,” with us from the outset of the Nuclear Age, will remain with us, but that this is not necessarily a detriment. He points out, “even in a world without nuclear weapons, deterrence would, precisely because the bomb in the mind would still be present, remain in effect. In that respect, the persisting know-how would be as much a source of reassurance as it would be a danger in a world without nuclear weapons.”
Jonathan Schell has provided an essential book for our time. He peels back the layers of veils and myths surrounding nuclear dangers and strategies, and offers a sound set of guidelines for moving to a nuclear weapons-free world. This book can help to create the necessary political will to achieve this end. It is required reading for every person on the planet who cares about assuring the future.
David Krieger is the President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). He is a leader in the global effort to abolish nuclear weapons.