A New Opportunity to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

An interview in Toronto in March with Jonathan Schell, long-time activist and author of a new book, A Gift of Time.

By Metta Spencer (interviewer) | 1999-05-01 12:00:00

You have been one busy man since you wrote The Fate of the Earth, doing much the same thing - Abolition and your new book A Gift of Time. Right?

JONATHAN SCHELL: Not the whole time. I've written about presidential elections and have done other things in between, so it's really been a return to the subject in the last two years.

SPENCER: Yesterday I read an article arguing that the current danger of nuclear weapons is greater than during the Cold War.

SCHELL: I don't agree with that. I think that the end of the Cold War represented a gain in nuclear safety, at least in the Moscow-Washington theatre, because obviously there's no reason to expect the weapons to be used in a political fight between the two countries. There's no realistic danger now of a political confrontation between those two powers. That makes accidents less likely too, because we have less tension. I think accidents are most probable during a crisis, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis, when an accident would set off a nuclear war.

True, there can be accidents that are absolutely out of the blue, and in fact there was one in 1995 when a Norwegian weather rocket went up; they hadn't got word of at the top of the Kremlin and they got out the nuclear briefcase. That shows that there remain real dangers of accidents, but I don't think it's as serious as during the Cold War. People in the peace movement should know this. We look like idiots if we don't because it seems that we don't know that the Cold War is over and that we're living in a new age.

On the other hand, a lot of people make that statement - and it may even be true as an overall proposition because of the serious increase of nuclear proliferation. You have a whole theatre of confrontation in India and Pakistan; you have the decaying Russian arsenal, very badly controlled - the so-called "loose nukes" problem - and the increased danger that a terrorist group from some nation or other is going to get a nuclear weapon and use it. The possibility of that is definitely increasing. So it's a mixed picture as far as the danger is concerned.

SPENCER: So we have the increase of third parties.

SCHELL: Third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth parties. You have a considerable nuclear arsenal in Israel, which is just like bait to every other country in the Middle East to get those weapons.

SPENCER: Israel strikes me as the most dangerous arsenal.

SCHELL: It is extremely dangerous, but how can the United States, which has no serious security threat, help Israel get rid of its nuclear arsenal while keeping its own? It all goes back, I'm afraid, to the American and Russian arsenals. As long as Americans declare that they can't live without them, they're in no position to ask Israel, Iraq, India, Pakistan - or any other country - not to have them. So in order to deal with proliferation, I'm afraid that we have to deal with our own arsenals. That is one reason for calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, including the American arsenal. That's the new reason - and probably the one that people pay the most attention to.

But in addition to that, lest we forget, we still, crazily, eight years after the end of the Cold War, are looking down the muzzle of 7500 Russian warheads. I don't know why on earth my government wants our country to live with that. Why don't we just go over there and say: Let's get rid of them all. They would do it. I'm sure they would! They can't afford them, for one thing. Their deputy minister has said that they'll have to go down to 500 nuclear warheads for economic reasons alone.

Gorbachev proposed abolition. Yeltsin did, early in his administration, in response to the United States. If the United States said, "We want to go to zero and we want you to come with us," I have no doubt that the Russians would go along with that, together with appropriate reductions in U.S. missiles. It would have to include China too.

Still, some people continue to worry about losing the capacity for deterrence. If we abolish nuclear weapons, there will be no nuclear weapons on the other side and therefore no need for deterrence. Remember, we're not proposing unilateral disarmament, but rather a multilateral, global process. The real question, then, is whether a world without nuclear weapons is sustainable.

The key question here is something called "breakout," which means the danger that some country, having agreed to abolition, either secretly or openly returns to nuclear armament. We are giving the impression that somebody is just going to whip back a curtain, show ten nuclear weapons, and start running the world because those weapons are so powerful.

How important would that be if it did happen? In theory it looks as if a nuclear monopoly confers tremendous, decisive power on the state, so that if Iraq whipped back the curtain and revealed that it had nuclear weapons, it could rule the region. That's the idea. In actual fact, however, tremendous nuclear superpowers - United States, China, the Soviet Union - with monopolies of nuclear weapons actually lost conventional wars with little countries and weren't able to bully them around. So whereas on paper it looks like a huge advantage to have a nuclear monopoly, in actual historical fact it is not so. Now they are telling us that a small country whipping back the curtain and revealing 100 nuclear weapons is going to be able to push around the world! That's ridiculous. The superpowers, though disarmed, would be perfectly capable of getting back into weaponry and any country contemplating cheating would know that in advance.

We have entered a new age but don't seem to know it. One thing that has changed is that it has become possible, politically speaking, to aim for and achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons. I couldn't have said that before. I remember when the Soviet Union dissolved, I was sitting and talking with the editor of the New Yorker, saying "All right, so now we can get rid of nuclear weapons!" I held that view, and I think many of you Canadians share that view, but it is not shared by the U.S. government and not by the public. If you take a poll, people say they would like to see that happen, but few people are thinking about it much.

If you go back to the beginning of the nuclear age, you'll find that in the 1940s there actually was a strong political will to get rid of nuclear weapons at the governmental and public level. The Baruch Plan was proposed by the United States at the United Nations. That was abolitionism in 1946! It was turned down by the Soviet Union.

What went wrong? The Cold War went wrong. The problems that arose had to do with the nature of the Soviet system, which was a closed system that did make it difficult to reach disarmament. In order to champion full nuclear disarmament in that period you were pushed out to a radical position (which I and a few others were happy to occupy) that wanted to go ahead anyway because the danger to humanity was so great. But it was a tough political sell. So when the Cold War ended and the obstacle was removed, I felt like someone who had been living in a cave with a big stone rolled over the mouth of it. The stone was rolled away and we could get out. Why don't more people have that feeling?

SPENCER: The Canadians and Germans have recently called for a nuclear review of NATO. What are the problems we have to anticipate in that?

SCHELL: The problem you have to anticipate is the U.S. government. You can see it right now. The state department came down on those two countries like a ton of bricks.

SPENCER: How do you explain the revival of interest in the issue?

SCHELL: Opportunity. It's not the danger. The danger is there and it's growing, and in fact I think we're running out of time. My new book is called The Gift of Time. What that means is that the end of the Cold War has given us an opportunity that we never had before to abolish nuclear weapons. If we press ahead, if we can win over the United States government, we can win. It's irresponsible not to do so.

SPENCER: Are there individuals or agencies within the U.S. administration who support your position?

SCHELL: The policy is otherwise. The military can't say it, for obvious reasons, nor can the civilians, but there are people within the government who are friendly to this cause. If the public support develops, they may be able to step forward. So far the movement is not large enough to give sufficient public backing to permit people in government to speak out. But the fact that such a large number of retired military men favor abolition tells you that others exist. They come from the very same community.

SPENCER: Are there changes in public opinion polls?

SCHELL: Public opinion is extremely favorable. There has been no change and I don't overestimate the importance of those polls because they represent weakly-held opinions. When the issue really comes up and when there's a debate on a national level-which there is not-it wouldn't be 87 percent in favor of abolition, it would be less. Still, it's nice to know that we're that far uphill as we start.

I believe we can abolish nuclear weapons and that it can turn the world around. It would not be the end of war but it would be the beginning of the end of war. We should count our blessings for the opportunity and emphasize the positive.

First, there is no ideological divide in the world on the scale of the Cold War. That's the first time since perhaps 1815 we could say that. No religious wars. No communism versus capitalism. There's fundamentalism versus liberalism, to be sure, but no systemic divide that cleaves the world with the makings of another world war.

Second, we have no defeated power that is seeking revenge, as Germany did in 1918, which brought about the Second World War.

Third, where in the world today do you find a war between two fully sovereign states? Only between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and that is the aftermath of a civil war. I know that there are internal wars and even genocide within states, but today no wars are taking place that are relevant to the nuclear question.

However, this gift of time is a limited opportunity and we can already see things moving in the wrong direction. We have the gratuitous rise in defence spending by a supposedly (but not actually) liberal administration in Washington, pushing the world in the wrong direction, toward war and militarism. We have the revival of the SDI. We have the tests in Pakistan and India - a whole new nuclear arms race in a place where they have hot wars. And we have the relations between China and India, which are at the back of that, and the Chinese help to Pakistan. And the drive by Iraq to get weapons of mass destruction. Now they have thrown out the U.N. weapons inspectors. The bombing by the U.S. doesn't even address the problem. Now Saddam is free to get those weapons. You have North Korea backing out of the agreement it made. You have Israel with a very large arsenal, which is a standing invitation to every Arab country to get the weapons too. They are trying hard. Iran would like to get them.

So this fantastic opportunity which we didn't deserve, which descended out of the sky like a miracle - we're just sleeping through it.

But two things are going on now in the United States, the first thing being the Abolition 2000 movement. It originated with the NPT Review Conference of 1995 and has generated a lot of enthusiasm. You may also know of General Lee Butler, the former commander of the Strategic Air Command, and who has come out in favor of the abolition of nuclear weapons. He knows more about nuclear weapons than anyone I've ever met. He has managed them, handled them, taught about them; he has been in arms control. He has thought deeply and has arrived at a conviction, based on morality as well as the practicality of the case, that these things should be gotten rid of. And he has devoted his life to that. In Omaha he has founded something called the Second Chance Foundation, which has every prospect of gaining serious financial support, including from Warren Buffett, the second richest man in the United States, who was on Night Line recently. Ted Koppel asked him what is the most important issue in the world and he said the nuclear question. Then he mentioned that he has given financial support to Lee Butler.

A second thing that has happened is that there has been a lot of organizing among grass roots groups over the past six months, to put together a new campaign to get the United States to change its policy. Former California Senator Alan Cranston and David Cortwright are working together, creating a national organization for the abolition of nuclear weapons. So far it does not exist, but there are many groups coming together and it will be announced in a few weeks. I'm working with them.

One of Cranston's moves is to try to get cities to sign onto the abolition resolution. Jonathan Granoff's "Philadelphia Project" is trying to get the leadership of Philadelphia on board. Hartford has done so already.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation put out something recently called the New Abolition Covenant. They are circulating it in religious communities, which can be the backbone of this entire effort. The Catholic Church is taking an ever stronger position; the Pax Christi group of the Catholic Church includes about one-third of the U.S. bishops and on moral grounds they categorically denounce nuclear weapons under all circumstances. They go beyond the already strong statement that the U.S. bishops made back in the 1980s freeze days which had a little footnote that one couldn't like. They will try to get the bishops to come out with another statement.

SPENCER: What strategy are you promoting personally?

SCHELL: There's an approach that I call the Civil Society Strategy. It will be adopted by the Cranston and Cortwright group, which will include Physicians for Social Responsibility and other such groups. If we went out on the streets with our signs now, I don't think we would have a lot of support yet. Down the road I think we will do great. If you go to the politicans today they will say, "Who's behind you? Where are your poll results?" Well, people aren't thinking about the poll results very much.

How do we develop political support? My thought is that we frame a simple resolution. For the U.S. it would be something like, "Resolved that we negotiate a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons." And then we take it to every group in civil society- the Parent-Teachers Association, women, labor, architects, veterinarians, unions - absolutely wherever people get together. And we say, this is your issue too. If you're a veterinarian it's your issue because dogs are going to die if there's a nuclear war. If you're an architect your beautiful new glass building is going to be shattered. If you're a teacher, it's your children. Anybody can do it. Everybody belongs to several groups. Take it to all of them and get them to adopt it. Ask them to appoint someone who is their person on this issue - the person to contact.

Later you have an abolition conference of all those people, and you take it into hard politics. That's where you have to go in the end and you should plan for that from the start. This organization will not just meet once and dissolve. It will keep going until the job is done, until the last nuclear weapon is gone. And then we'll have a great big party!

Mr. Schell is an American writer.

Peace Magazine May-June 1999

Peace Magazine May-June 1999, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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