I mean you must take living so seriously that,
even when you are seventy, you must plant olive trees,
not because you think they will be left to your children,
because you don’t believe in death although you are afraid of it
because, I mean, life weighs heavier.
– Nazim Hikmet, “On Living”
So much for President Obama’s commitment to a nuclear-weapons-free world.
With its decision on May 22 to block the adoption of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Review Conference’s consensus statement, the Obama administration gave the human species another hefty push toward nuclear catastrophe, shaking the foundations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
Why the sabotage? Well, for one thing, the draft text had the temerity to call for the convening of a conference within six months to prepare the way for a Middle East nuclear-weapons-and-weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone. It called for all parties to the NPT Review – read especially the United States – to fulfill previous Review Conferences’ promises to begin the process of creating the zone.
Though it doesn’t currently garner much media coverage, the danger of nuclear war is anything but an innocuous abstraction. Each of the nuclear powers is currently modernizing its nuclear arsenal and delivery systems. (US plans call for spending $1 trillion over the next 30 years for these nuclear weapons.) With NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders, and Russia’s responses in Ukraine and across Europe, we have entered a new era of confrontation between nuclear superpowers, which between them possess more than 90 percent of the world’s 16,400 nuclear weapons – weapons that have been exercised in posturing during the Ukraine war.
The situation isn’t much better in Asia and the Pacific. China’s second-leading official newspaper, Global Times, said in a May 25 editorial that “war was inevitable” between China and the United States unless Washington stopped demanding that Beijing halt the building of artificial islands in a disputed waterway (the South China/Western Philippine Sea). Those islands may be designed to host naval bases for China’s nuclear-armed submarines, in order to overcome the possibility of the US and Japan blockading China’s mainland ports. Plus, at a time when the US is deepening its military alliances and deploying first-strike-related “missile defenses” along China’s periphery, China has begun installing multiple warheads on its nuclear missiles.
Further afield, recent scientific studies tell us that even a “small” nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan could lead to global famine and the deaths of 2 billion people. We must also take into account the staggering record of nuclear weapons accidents and miscalculations – and what that record portends for our future on this planet.
Given these global tensions, along with the nuclear powers’ resistance to engaging in “good faith” negotiations for the complete elimination of the P5’s (1) nuclear arsenals as required by Article VI of the 45-year-old Nonproliferation Treaty, hopes for this year’s NPT Review Conference were not high. The nuclear powers had boycotted the United Nations’ Open Ended Working Group, failed to fulfill more than 1.5 of the 13 steps agreed at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, and the US had insulted the majority of the world’s nations during the UN High Level Meeting on Disarmament when it warned them to leave fulfillment of the 64 action items to Washington. In addition, Moscow sneeringly boasted that under China’s leadership they were nearing completion of a glossary of terms.
Worse, the near-complete failure of this year’s Review Conference further undermines the credibility of the seminal treaty, leaving the world without even a minimal agreement about how to reduce, let along eliminate, the risk of nuclear annihilation.
In the months leading to the Review Conference, many diplomats and analysts feared that the failure of the United States to co-convene the Middle East Nuclear Weapons and Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone conference in 2012 could lead to the failure of the Review Conference and the dangers that could follow. Efforts to create the zone, which would include Iran, Israel and the Arab states, date to the deal that indefinitely extended the NPT in 1995 – and which was reiterated in the 2000 and 2010 Review Conferences. The US failure to bring Israel to the table led a growing number of the world’s nations to question whether US commitments are worth the paper they are written on, with the UN high representative for disarmament affairs wondering who could have reasonably expected the US to deliver Israel in a presidential election year.
Unfortunately, the critics were right. The US could not be taken at its diplomatic word. And in her speech in the closing session of the Review Conference, Rose Gottemoeller asserted that previous commitments to convene the Middle East zone conference had now expired.
Just as the US has repeatedly run interference for Israel as it disregards the UN Security Council resolutions that ended the 1967 war and persists with its illegal colonization, our government once again “had Israel’s back” in that country’s campaign to remain the Middle East’s sole nuclear power. Rather than accept its military ally Egypt’s demand that the Middle East nuclear weapons and WMD conference be held within 180 days of the Review Conference, the US scuttled that conference.
The contradictions are, of course, rife. The US warns that “all options are on the table” in relation to Iran’s nuclear “threat” – a position recently reiterated by President Obama in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic – while protecting Israel’s nuclear arsenal. A Middle East nuclear-weapons-and-WMD-free zone would remove any threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon, yet there is growing talk in the Arab world about a need to “match” Iran’s civilian nuclear program. We must also recognize that if Israel lives in a “dangerous neighborhood,” as its leaders have frequently claimed, so do Iran and the Arab states.
One doesn’t have to endorse Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s dictatorship to agree with the Egyptian ambassador’s statement in the closing session of the Review Conference that, “By blocking consensus, we are depriving the world, but especially the Middle East, of even one chance of a better future, away from the horrors and the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.”
Functionally, in blocking the final document, the US also may have been doing heavy diplomatic lifting for Russia, China, France and Britain, each of which opposed many of the specifics in the draft consensus statement. If the US hadn’t blocked the statement to protect Israel, might others P5 nations or their allies have prevented consensus? That’s unknown, but there is no doubt that as the head of Russia’s delegation put it, it was a “shame that such an opportunity for dialogue had turned out to be missed, perhaps for a long time to come.” I put those words in italics to emphasize just how significant the failure of the Review Conference is. Much – including nuclear war – can happen in a “long time.”
As the saying goes, it is darkest before the dawn. Of necessity, we look for silver linings that illuminate life-affirming paths.
The first of these sources of hope is the growing divide between the vast majority of non-nuclear weapons states and the nuclear powers. By the time the Review Conference ended, more than 100 governments had signed the Humanitarian Pledge initiated by Austria and growing from three international conferences on the human consequences of nuclear war, the last of which engaged 158 states. The pledge, which is a long way from a treaty, commits its signers “to cooperate with all relevant stakeholders, states, international organizations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, parliamentarians and civil society, in efforts to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks.”
The challenge, of course, is to build from this nonbinding statement to the diplomatic and popular pressure necessary to force the nuclear powers to finally fulfill their Article VI NPT commitments and the related International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion on the use and threatened use of nuclear weapons.
A second source of hope grows from the international mobilization that brought thousands of activists to New York on the eve of the NPT Review, along with its Global Peace Wave of events in more than 50 countries. In addition to its street protest and the 8 million petition signatures calling for nuclear weapons abolition that were delivered to the president of the Review Conference and the UN high commissioner for disarmament affairs, the Peace and Planet network took important steps toward shattering movement silos.
Recognizing the limitations of single-issue movements and taking power analyses seriously, it has begun building alliances with peace, justice and environmental organizations to build more issue-integrated, and thus broader and more powerful, movements. These types of coalitional movements are capable of actually challenging the deeply entrenched systems that serve as the foundations of policies – including but not limited to nuclear weapons – that reinforce the power, profits and influence of the privileged few.
Here again, we have to navigate contradictions. Ridding the world of nuclear weapons is an urgent imperative, but building the integrated movements needed to achieve it will require patience, wisdom and time. In the United States, this means building trust and making common cause with climate change activists, with the Black Lives Matter movement, with Move the Money campaigns, and certainly with those working for a just Israel-Palestine peace and an end to Washington’s endless Middle East wars. The anti-nuclear movement’s next steps will be seen at the US Social Forum in Philadelphia this June, with commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings in August and global wave actions in the run up to September’s International Peace Day and the International Day for the Complete Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.
It’s no accident that the vast majority of the US threats to initiate nuclear war have been made during wars and crises in the global South. As this century moves forward, the majority of the world’s nations will no longer accept a discriminatory hierarchy of nuclear terror.
Joseph Gerson is director of the American Friends Service Committee’s peace and economic justice program and co-convener of Peace and Planet.
1. The P5 are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, each of which is a nuclear weapons state: the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China.