scholars and rogues

The Deproliferator: Not missile — but prevent — defense

deproliferatorAt Rethinking Nuclear Weapons, independent nuclear scholar Ward Wilson wrote about the recent Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference. Even though it began the day after President Obama’s Prague speech. . .

What surprised me was the number of speakers who talked about the difficulties of “getting to zero.” This year [almost] everyone seemed to see some serious problem that lay ahead and was anxious to expand on it. … many seemed suddenly to be gripped by fears and doubts about a world without nuclear weapons. There seemed to be a widespread desire to set lots of complex and difficult-to-achieve preconditions. [Two years ago] most of the speakers were anxious to make a world without nuclear weapons at least a stated goal. This year it seemed as if everyone was anxious to distance themselves from that goal.

I don’t know how this makes me feel about the disarmament establishment.

Decidedly queasy is how this writer would describe his reaction to those in attendance who “seemed suddenly to be gripped by fears and doubts about a world without nuclear weapons.” Presumably they’re in the minority. No doubt more common are those who would “set lots of complex and difficult-to-achieve preconditions.”

In an April Arms Control Today interview, Gareth Evans, co-chair of the International Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Commission, described the “cautious step-by-step approach” typical of the U.S. disarmament community. He characterized it as “let’s identify the first few foothills as we work our way up the mountain but we will not be too ambitious about giant strides because it is all a complex universe out there.”

Even though Evans found that approach a “useful combination of. . . idealism and. . . pragmatism,” it would be disappointing if that were prevailing attitude in the worldwide disarmament community, too.

Early ban-the-bomb-ers were characterized by their idealism. For example, in 1958, the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament commissioned a logo later known to us all as the universal peace symbol. Then the remarkable Randall Forsberg spearheaded the Nuclear Freeze movement, during the course of which nearly a million attended a 1982 rally in New York City.

Some disarmament organizations, such as the Nuclear Peace Age Foundation, still wear their emotions on their sleeves to a certain extent. But most frown on unseemly displays of passion lest they give politicians the impression that they’re locked into their positions.

However, one can’t help but wonder if some arms controllers are seduced by the heady Washington company they keep. Seeking to fit in, they begin to adopt the expedient ways of statesmen and women. In the process of moderating their views to make them more palatable to politicians, the passions that propelled them into the field become a distant memory. Also — this might seem like a cheap shot — but we need to remind ourselves that, as with those who work for cancer foundations, if the raison d’etre for an organization’s existence is abolished, its employees would be out of jobs.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s give the movement the benefit of the doubt. For the first time in years, it seems like victory may be within its grasp (even if a quarter-century hence). For the noblest of reasons — fear it will slip away again — arms controllers grow cautious. They may even lose their nerve.

This scenario is all too familiar to fans of pro football (a guilty pleasure to this disarmament type) in the form of the dreaded “prevent” defense. A team has secured a lead in the closing minutes of the game. Whether because of a score, punt, or a turnover, it loses possession of the ball to its foes. To keep the trailing team from stealing victory out from under its nose, the team with the lead proceeds to make incremental concessions to keep from giving up a game-winning play.

Seized with a fear of losing, the winning team forgets that ceding a series of short passes is not only the equivalent of a big play, but an even surer route to loss. Like a football team, the disarmament community must play to win, not to avoid losing.

The Deproliferator (the column’s title, not the author’s nom de plume) covers nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, with an emphasis on treaties, negotiation, and diplomacy. The author is not employed in the arms control field.

A term coined by sociologist and professor of international relations Amitai Etzioni, “Deproliferation,” he writes, “calls for removing the access to nuclear arms and the materials from which they can readily be made — first and foremost in unstable and noncompliant states, and only then in all others.”

Whatever the merits of this approach, it lends itself to reinforcing the distinction between the nuclear haves and have-nots. Fond of his phrase, though, we’re appropriating it to our own ends. For the purposes of this column, deproliferation means, simply, disarmament.

Cross-posted at Newshoggers.