Nuclear War: Do we have wiggle room?

clockDonna Kennedy-Glans here, reporting from the world.  “It’s an America vs. North Korea face off. The Doomsday Clock ticks, loudly”.

The Clock predicts the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe. Hypothetical apocalypse is midnight, and as of January 26, 2017, it’s at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. In 1953 we had our closest call–just 2 minutes to midnight– after the U.S. and the Soviet Union first tested hydrogen bombs.

Unfortunately, the threat of nuclear apocalypse isn’t new, remember the Cold War? And more recently, the threat from so-called rogue states; Iran, Iraq. Nuclear war isn’t our only conceivable catastrophe. We’re also anxious about international terrorism, climate change, overpopulation and mass migrations, the growing divide between haves and have-nots; I’m sure you can add a few of your own.

utopiaRoman fresco from Casa dei Casti Amanti, Pompeii (Wikipedia)

With the Clock’s loud ticking, it’s unlikely we’ll be like the people in Pompeii who didn’t see the eruption of Vesuvius coming. This anxiety has a biological purpose. It awakens our senses and makes us alive to imminent threats. In anxious times, people seem to fall victim to either utopias or catastrophe. Jurgen Moltmann, a German religious thinker and author of Ethics of Hope explains: “In the exuberance of hope, the temptation is utopianism; in fear, the temptation is alarmism.”

It’s easy to hear the alarmists, they are loud. In the last few years, climate change advocates have been pleading with the world to pay attention to global warming using apocalyptic language. And more recently journalists everywhere are underscoring a growing risk of nuclear show-down between North Korea and America.

It’s a little more difficult to hear the muttering or whispering of the utopians. Some are watching and waiting; believing our corrupt world will be replaced by a completely new and wondrous creation. In her book, Strangers in Their Own Land, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild shares the story of Harold Areno, a Cajun pipefitter born in the forested wetlands of southern Louisiana, wetlands now devastated by chemical pollution:

Harold walks me to my car. I get in, open my window, and fasten my seat belt. “We’re on this earth for a limited amount of time,” he says, leaning on the edge of the window. “But if we get our souls saved, we go to Heaven and Heaven is for eternity. We’ll never have to worry about the environment from then on. That’s the most important thing, I’m thinking long-term.”

utopia 2The Golden Age by Lucas Cranach the Elder (Wikipedia)

Moltmann is critical of this way of thinking. The Bible says blessed are the peacemakers, not blessed are the peaceful! He does however suggest that there is room for constructive fear and constructive hope. “An ethics of fear sees the crises; an ethics of hope perceives the chances in the crises.” This is true. In the immobilizing climate change stalemate between alarmists and deniers, there are some who continue to act. They recognize the risks yet also see the opportunity for change, in technology, in behaviours, in choices, in the midst of the crises.

Right now, the nuclear end-game feels quite menacing.  Humanity lost its nuclear innocence in 1945 and we’ll never get it back. Moltmann suggests we have to figure out how to recognize and advance peace even while conflict exists. He defines reconciliation as “the peace which makes it possible for us, in the midst of strife, to bring the conflict to a just end.” I’ve been thinking about reconciliation a lot lately, in the context of First Nations in Canada and communities in Yemen. Reconciliation is challenging to define, and even harder to achieve. I’m intrigued by Moltmann’s description.

With this aspiration of reconciliation in mind, let me ask: What peacebuilding actions are taking place now? Is it possible for us to bring this escalating nuclear war threat to a just end?

We’re all looking for signs.  I find it frustrating to listen to the bluster. The coyness is worse.  Increasingly, President Trump and his military advisors speak of pre-emptive strikes and preventive war. A preventive first strike could disarm much of North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities. Yet this is, arguably, neither legal nor moral. And implications for non-proliferation elsewhere aren’t mentioned. George W. Bush warned us in 2002 that he intended “to confront the worst threats before they emerge.” In the wake of September 11th, Iraq was preemptively attacked. We know how that story ended.

lewisWithin a week of Trump’s election, Sinclair Lewis’s classic novel, It Can’t Happen Here, was reportedly sold out on  In 1935, there was widespread concern in the U.S. that the country would be taken over by a dictator. “It can’t happen here” was the standard answer. Yet Lewis was worried that fascism had become fashionable. His novel, a warning, shows how Americans elect ‘Buzz Windrip’, a folksy president who rules through suppression and terror, all draped in red, white and blue bunting. Lewis’ conclusion? When it happens in the U.S., everyone should be prepared to resist. Yet the story shows how difficult it can be to sort out what to do in moments of political change and social confusion. Will we be aware of what’s happening, while it’s happening?

In Lewis’s novel, politicians promise a golden highway to Utopia in the midst of the Depression. Nationalization of banks, mines, waterpower and transportation. Five thousand bucks to every man and woman and child. Most of the novel is a satire. Only a single sentence in the entire book lays out a solution: “I am convinced that everything that is worthwhile in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever.” No utopias. No despair. Lewis’s hero is a courageous individual who never stops thinking and acting. Lewis’s disdain for manipulated utopia is harsh:

“Is it just possible,” he sighed, “that the most vigorous and boldest idealists have been the worst enemies of human progress instead of its greatest creators? Possible that plain men with the humble trait of minding their own business will rank higher in the heavenly hierarchy than all the plumed souls who have shoved their way in among the masses and insisted on saving them?”

neibuhrDuring the Cold War, Reinhold Niebuhr also had a lot to say to Americans on their coming of age as a nuclear superpower. In his book The Irony of American History, Niebuhr pointed out the confounding irony of nukes: The need to use the threat of atomic destruction as a way to preserve peace. (Today, the dilemma is framed slightly different: How do you prevent a nuclear attack while preserving your ability to launch one?) And Niebuhr went on to point out four uncomfortable truths:

  1. American exceptionalism is not particularly unique. Almost every nation has had a version of it.
  2. The false allure of simple solutions.
  3. The imperative of appreciating the limits of power.
  4. The overly shiny halo of moral sanctity, seeing America as liberator of the world’s oppressed.

Looking at the present brouhaha between North Korea and America through Niebuhr’s eyes is persuasive. Sure, the idea of a preventive war is tempting. You get to pick the most propitious moment to start what you see as inevitable hostilities. But Niebuhr encouraged those with their fingers on the switch to resist the temptation. To pursue the art of statecraft instead. To be okay with mere stability; tentative equilibrium of power. Why? Because “nothing in history is inevitable including the probable.”

“They [our people] become impatient and want to use the atomic bomb…not only to put an end to the recalcitrance of our foes, but to eliminate the equivocal attitudes of the Asian and other people who are not as clearly our allies as we should like them to be.”

In 1952, Niebuhr encouraged America to establish community with many nations. Despite the hazards created by pride of power on the one hand and the envy of the weak on the other. The advice still holds. Vigilantly holding the tensions can allow wiggle room for reconciliation to emerge. We’ve seen it happen before, and in some very tense situations. President Eisenhower came close to the brink in the Korean War in 1953, and again with Soviet Premier Khrushchev in 1958. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, ultimatums were issued and the Soviets backed down, just in time. And then there are the false alarms. In 1980, President Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski got notice Soviet submarines had launched twenty-two hundred missiles in the direction of the United States. A retaliatory strike would have to be ordered quickly as Washington might be destroyed in minutes. It was a false alarm, the mistake discovered and crisis averted. Hollywood has even capitalized on the horrors.

crimson tideCrimson Tide: On a U.S. nuclear missile sub, a young First Officer stages a mutiny to prevent his trigger happy Captain from launching his missiles, before confirming orders to do so.

There will, no doubt, be people whispering in President Trump’s ear about the logic of a first strike. Shooting first offers some chance that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal could be wiped out and no retaliation will follow. Admittedly, there are some who don’t see mutually assured destruction as a barrier to nuclear war. Not everyone acts rationally. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour knowing they didn’t have the capacity to win a war against the United States. Terrorists wouldn’t be deterred. And Kim Jong-un doesn’t seem to be fully motivated by rational thinking, at least he seems to want America to think that he’s irrational.

Watching the rising tensions, I try to imagine myself:

  • A South Korean living in Seoul watching American supersonic B-1B bombers fly over the Korean peninsula.
  • A North Korean living in Pyongyang listening to my leader: “We are small in terms of people and area, but in terms of dignity we are the most powerful in the world. We will die in order to protect that dignity and sovereignty.”
  • An American living in Hawaii reading Trump’s tweets about the “little rocket man” on my iPhone.

In any of those places…would I believe, “it can’t happen here?”

May that ticking clock wake up the whole darn bunch! There cannot be a winner in this stand off if a single nuke is fired.

Donna Kennedy-Glans, citizen of a nuclear world, signing off, September 28th 2017, two- and-a-half minutes to midnight.



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