Michael KreponAbolition and Addiction

Quotes of the week:

“It is clear that the use of such a weapon cannot be justified on any ethical ground which gives a human being a certain individuality and dignity even if he happens to be a resident of an enemy country.” –Enrico Fermi and Isador Rabi, Addendum to the Report of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Committee, 1949

“This is our purpose: to make as meaningful as possible this life that has been bestowed upon us . . . to live in such a way that we may be proud of ourselves, to act in such a way that some part of us lives on.” — Oswald Spengler

It’s that time of year again, when some of us think about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For me, the atomic bombing of these two cities conveys different meanings. Hiroshima represents the prompt ending of a war that claimed over fifty million lives, a terrible sacrifice to end further sacrifice. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was “the least abhorrent choice,” as a chastened Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, described it, one that prompted him to seek abolition.

Stimson and his boss, Harry S Truman couldn’t explain to their countrymen and women why further lives would be lost in an invasion of the home islands of Japan when they had a “war winning” weapon at hand, a weapon that would finally prompt the Emperor to override the militarists around him.

The sacrifice of Hiroshima can only be justified if it has future as well as historical meaning. The historical meaning was “enough already.” The future meaning is “never again.”

The atomic bombing of Nagasaki conveys a different meaning for me, but it is no less significant. Nagasaki was destroyed because plans were set in motion that were not immediately stopped. The plans were executed until Truman, seeing pictures of the devastation of Hiroshima and internalizing what he had authorized, intervened. The third bomb would not be sent to Tinian. Truman could interfere with the plans he had set in motion because Japan was prostrate, having no means to strike back.

In warfare, plans are executed. In nuclear warfare, human plans will fail, whether these plans seek to control escalation or seek success through escalation. Humans affected by hubris will fail catastrophically. Humans who seek to manage or prevail in nuclear warfare will lose control of the events they have unleashed. This is the terrible lesson of Nagasaki. Its sacrifice will not be in vain if we learn this lesson.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are here to teach us, if we are willing to learn from their sacrifice. They teach me that the goal of abolition cannot be extinguished, except at our peril. We humans need visionary end states. We need something to strive for. But how do we get there? And how do we keep up hope in times of trial?

Some believe deeply that abolition is a fool’s errand. What, then, shall we call a belief system called nuclear deterrence? The kindest thing I can say about everlasting nuclear deterrence is that it is not a sustainable vision. Nuclear deterrence is a coping mechanism. It’s tolerable as long as we work hard at other mechanisms to prevent use and as long as we move in the right direction.

As long as the Bomb exists, nuclear deterrence will be our constant companion. But deterrence is a very dangerous double-edged sword. Deterrence without reassurance is a recipe for battlefield use. Reassurance takes the form of arms control, in all its aspects. We cast arms control aside at our collective peril. The serial treaty killers among us – Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, et. al. – offer endless and perhaps catastrophic sorrow. Deterrence without reassurance leaves us trapped in a brutish world with the open-ended prospect for more Hiroshimas and Nagasakis.

Nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence are a form of addiction. Arms control isn’t an addiction. It’s a necessary companion to deterrence.

Some are more addicted to nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence than others. This is an expensive habit to break. We can’t break this habit individually as if we are trying to stop smoking. We have to break this habit collectively and incrementally.

Those of us who believe in the vision of abolition have differences of view about how best to reach this destination. Some believe that a Ban Treaty is a necessary answer. I salute every supporter of the Ban Treaty, but I hold a different view. I don’t believe a Ban Treaty will gain the adherents it needs to take effect. It’s a vehicle for believers in abolition but not for believers in deterrence. The Ban Treaty has no powers of conversion.

Some of us place faith in a progression of agreements that could result eventually in abolition. This progression would initially have to involve the two states with the largest inventories of nuclear weapons. Washington and Moscow would reduce nuclear excess in stages and then other possessors would become involved. Some of us wrote that this wasn’t a mechanical process; it was instead a political and geopolitical process. Staged reductions would progress only as far as conditions allowed.

This process of staged reductions through treaties has lost momentum. Some believe we have bottomed out and that further reductions are unwise and dangerous. Trump has signed off on a digression from further reductions. It’s useful, of course, to count every warhead, but to what end? And how long are we supposed to wait for what comes next?

It’s possible for a new administration to retrieve New Start, and perhaps Putin and deterrence strengtheners in the United States will consent to modest further reductions. Even this is a heavy lift. A progression of treaties that point us toward zero is inconceivable under current circumstances. Domestic political and geopolitical realities do not support deep reductions leading to abolition.

What other options are available to us?

If you are addicted to smoking tobacco, you can break your habit by going cold turkey. If you are a country addicted to nuclear weapons, if other countries as well as your own citizens rely on this addiction for safety and security, and if competitors have the Bomb, you can’t go cold turkey. Others must go cold turkey with you. Otherwise, you and others that depend on you will not feel safer and more secure. When addiction is a collective problem, moving toward the end state of abolition can only occur conditionally and incrementally.

One of the many problems of having visionary beliefs is remaining attached to them when your elected officials and the world are behaving badly. In hard times, a visionary end state seems so far away as to be hopeless. Nor does it help to set a date certain for visionary end states. Visions don’t pay any heed to dates or deadlines.

My vision of a world without nuclear weapons remains intact. I have a sense of being nearer to it every day, which is essential for vision maintenance.

My vision is that no nuclear weapons are used on battlefields up to and beyond the 100th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And that moratoria on nuclear testing remain in place between now and the 100th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My friend and colleague Lew Dunn passed this vision on to me. Now I’m passing it on to you.

Is this vision practical and realizable or is it wildly impractical and unrealizable?

The the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, anyone envisioning the absence of mushroom clouds in warfare for 100 years would have been told to get his or her head examined. There have been hair-raising crises and close calls, border clashes and two limited wars between nuclear-armed states, long wars between nuclear armed states and abstainers, and wars that have ended in stalemates. But here we are 75 years later, without battlefield use.

Likewise, anyone who would have predicted that the United States, Russia, China, India and Pakistan would have honored moratoria on nuclear testing for over twenty years with the Comprehensive Test Ban in Treaty in limbo deserves some kind of prize.

Yes, North Korea hasn’t reached the 20-year mark and could test again. But North Korea is an outlier. No responsible states that possesses nuclear weapons wants to act like North Korea. Another nuclear test by North Korea would confirm its outlier status.

And yes, Russia and China have conducted nuclear experiments. All states that possess nuclear weapons carry out experiments. Nuclear experiments don’t help with the certification of new warhead designs. They aren’t material breaches of the CTBT’s object and purpose.

I’m not sure what to make of the Trump administration’s last noncompliance report that asserts possible Russian experimentation above the Treaty’s zero yield standard and an even hazier characterization of Chinese experimentation. The U.S. Intelligence Community has demonstrated a confirmation bias problem on nuclear testing in the past. On the other hand, Vladimir Putin is a serial treaty violator. I’m withholding judgment until a new administration calls in outside experts to review the evidence.

All this is a digression, and it’s meant to be a digression by those who would like to resume testing. Experiments are happening in Nevada, at the U.S. Labs and elsewhere. They do not constitute a material breach of the CTBT. The U.S. Labs help us extend the moratorium on testing. Nuclear testing is not happening. Moratoria are holding.

My vision is to keep moratoria in place until 2045. And then beyond.
Extending the No Use and No Testing norms up to and beyond the 100th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be remarkable feats.

These moratoria are the best way to honor those who died and those who fought for freedom during World War II. These moratoria are also the most practical way to make progress toward the vision of abolishing nuclear weapons. Not by treaties, but one day at a time and one crisis at a time.

Thanks to the hard work of those in positions of responsibility, in the trenches, in the streets and walking the corridors of power, the norms of No Use in warfare and No Testing have already been sustained for 75 years and  over twenty years – and counting.

These are the two hardest nuclear norms to break. The adjective “infamous” will apply to the national leader who breaks these norms. They can be sustained in the future the same way that they were nurtured in the past: by raising ruckuses, by paying attention, by playing for time, and by clarifying penalties.

Now imagine, as I do, how useful nuclear weapons would be in 2045 if they haven’t been used in warfare for 100 years and haven’t been tested for 47 years. By staunchly defending the two most important norms we’ve got – the two norms that are hardest to break – we pay proper homage to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We also keep our eyes on the prize of abolition.