BOOK REVIEW:  The Seventh Decade – The New Shape of Nuclear Danger (Jonathan Schell)

BOOK REVIEW:  The Seventh Decade – The New Shape of Nuclear Danger (Jonathan Schell)

by Jim Miles

The Seventh Decade – The New Shape of Nuclear Danger.  Jonathan Schell.  Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company.  New York, 2007.

Humanity is now living through it seventh decade with the threat of nuclear annihilation even more powerful than ever.  In this wonderfully written work, Jonathan Schell reviews the history of the doomsday weapons that have affected all our lives to a significant degree whether we realize it or not.  The Seventh Decade is not about the physical development of the bomb, nor a graphic description of its destructive power, nor does it detail the technological wonders of the bomb.  More significantly – and except for Hiroshima and Nagasaki – it is about the psychological turn of events surrounding a doomsday weapon, a device used only twice in a debut that in itself was as much psychological as military. 

This is one of those rare well-written works that clearly defines it purpose, explains itself in language that is readily understood, and draws the reader steadily into its position.  It is an insightful work, analysing the nuclear problem in a global sense, as one feature of an over-arching global problem of how humanity gets along with itself.  All the author’s ideas have a clear exposition and a clear analysis of what is for the most part “abstraction and euphemism.”  It is one of those situations where the answer is really quite simple; it is the route to the solution of the problem that remains difficult, bound up in human psychology, the psychology of terror, deterrence, and non-proliferation.

The first part of the book “The Bomb in the Mind”, discusses the development of the bomb, an inevitable deed once it was conceived under highly militarized circumstances.  Shortly after the Hiroshima debut, a very brief moment of one unique power gave way to a ‘cold war’ with each side threatening yet with-holding nuclear use, ultimately relying on the ‘mutually assured destruction’ – the probable extinction of the human species.  With the end of the cold war, little changed until the events of 9/11 provided the rationale for a new more dangerous approach to nuclear weapons.

Suddenly proliferation and terrorism became the new catch-words, with a single super power using ‘full spectrum dominance’, applying force unilaterally to solve these new problems.  In Schell’s argument, most “Recent studies…seem to share the assumption that the nuclear danger consists wholly of the acquisition of nuclear arms by new parties” with few addressing “the problem of existing arsenals.”  This double standard – we can have them, you cannot – leads to his thesis “that proliferation and possession cannot be considered in isolation from each other; that a solution to the former requires dealing with the latter; and this can only mean a commitment to the elimination of all nuclear arms.”  His purpose is to examine the nuclear dilemma, fully aware that there is “a lack of experience” – that is, no war between two nuclear powers – and therefore all estimates and theories have wide margins of error. 

From that very powerful and fully global perspective, Schell then examines the human thought patterns, the psychology, of how the bomb developed as an over-riding global concern.

It began with knowledge – how to make the weapon.  From that knowledge “It is the bomb in the mind, more durable than any material object, that stands at the heart of the nuclear dilemma, holding our age in thrall with its terror and allure.”  The bomb’s initial use added to that knowledge and added to the psychological knowledge, the fear, terror and power that it imparted to the possessor.  This psychology of the bomb, “tightly linked to the science that made it possible” is a “central characteristic of the nuclear dilemma.”  Very early on, proliferation and deterrence were central arguments for nuclear weapons, “two sides of the same coin.”

Justification for the bomb has its realist and romantic conceptions.  Schell’s discussion passes through Pakistan and A. Q. Khan’s network consisting “of a global network of scientists, businessmen, corporations, intelligence and military services, and states” provided by “the all pervading circulation of goods and services by the market system in our globalized economy.”  The ideas then move into India where the 1998 test “seemed less interested in delivering a message to their enemies [realists]…than in delivering one to themselves [romantic].”  Even with that, Schell recognizes that romantic pride carries the other message that nuclear weapons “are first and foremost instruments of foreign policy.”

The discussion flows through France, Great Britain, and Russia, ending up in Israel, where the true psychological nature of the weapon is in full force.  Officially, Israel does not have nuclear weapons.  While its “arsenal is an open secret” its plans remain a closed secret.”  While it may seem “the height of absurdity” to not acknowledge the bomb, that only emphasizes “appearances and psychology have been trumping realities…for more than half a century.” 

From there develops the idea of “nuclear Wilsonians”, the achievement of peace based on nuclear terror (which is arguably more absurd than Israel not officially recognizing its arsenal).  While the romantics “dreamed of global stature” the “Wilsonians dreamed of nuclear peace.”  From this came the policy of deterrence, and through that a convergence for a “new global order” in which the “psychological field of action at the center of all nuclear strategy” converged, with “the realist’s fear, the romantic’s ambition for greatness, and the Wilsonians’ yearning for peace flowed together.”

Away from these “self appointed guardians”, however, nuclear weapons “remained what they had always been “a hideous, limitless threat posed by the most deadly devices ever invented.”  Thus there developed ‘rogue’ states, the double standard as to who could possess the weapon and who could not.  It was the United States that set the definitions to this question.

The second part of the book examines “The Empire and the Bomb:  Rise and Fall of the Bush Doctrine.”  Its first chapter examines the “Rise of the Imperial Idea” in nuclear terms, showing the shift away from deterrence vis a vis Russia and non-proliferation to the non-nuclear club to the American policy of “Global Strike”.  This policy is not one that is publicly debated (Schell earlier noted that no nation in history has ever decided through a democratic process to build the bomb) and speaks euphemistically, speaking of “adversaries” and “aggressors” and “terrorists” that need “dissuading.”  The Global Strike policy developed from the Nuclear Policy Review assisted by the Global War on Terror, both providing “the framework in which virtually all security issues are now being analyzed.” 

There is the well-known theme of denial of international law, with the arch-evil John Bolton arguing that international treaties are “historical”, their obligations comprising “issues that do not exist.”  By adopting the value of unilateral force, U.S. foreign policy has “a free hand, unconstrained by alliances or treaty obligations.”  The American empire’s foreign policy is now based on the policy of using global pre-emptive, first strike missions.

That it is a failure Schell explains in “A Nuclear Renaissance”, claiming, “the Bush administration’s nuclear policies…have failed, in their own terms as well as absolutely.”  But that failure has not brought the world a reprieve, only more nuclear terror.  Instead of one country dominating the globe and actually achieving the oxymoronic nuclear peace, “the bomb is more deeply and more complacently accepted as a normal component of military establishments in more parts of the world than ever before.”

With the new double standard, and the failure of the Bush policy in relation to Iraq, where no nuclear facilities or capabilities were found, and where a fully armed nuclear country finds those weapons useless against a counter-insurgency (as with Russia in Afghanistan, the U.S. in Vietnam, China in Vietnam), Schell journeys on through South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Brazil and Argentina, and then back to China and Russia, all nuclear capable countries, with passing mention given to Saudi Arabia, Egypt,, Turkey and, again, back to Iraq (with “some fifty nations…now capable of building the bomb if they so choose”.).  Iran clearly highlights the double standard.  Intransigent in their insistence on the NPT articles that allow it to enrich uranium, the U.S. seems equally intransigent on imposing its double standard “to be enforced, when necessary by war, including nuclear war.”  The U.S. is giving the world a total irony – we are going to use nuclear weapons to prevent the use of nuclear weapons. 

The ‘war on terror’ only muddies the picture as ”terror has always been the coinage of the nuclear realm…and no one should have been surprised that terrorists would seek out this supreme instrument of torture.”  That would seem obvious, and the solution, that “a global effort to secure and reduce fissile material” would be better than a “full-scale militarized war on terror,” should also be obvious. 

Schell questions whether non-proliferation is the essential element of the Bush doctrine, and his suspicions lead to global empire, a “global behemoth, throwing off its chains at last, striding out into a world it means to dominate.”  The 9-11 attacks, couched in terms of a “tragedy that has befallen the United States,” is also “an opportunity to unleash the immense coiled power of the Untied States to remake the world in its own image.”  Very briefly Schell recognizes that throughout American history “episodes of pre-emptive attack, overthrow of regimes, and pursuit of dominance are common.”

The final section of the book looks at ways to respond to the current problem, and requires a significant paradigm shift away from the double standard.  The answer, “founded on the principles of law and consent…can only be one thing: the elimination of nuclear weapons by global agreement.”  This sets up a single standard, that no nation shall possess any nuclear weapons.  Simple answer, difficult journey.

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev came the closest to this ideal in the 1980s, only to be hung up on the American insistence on the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI or Star Wars), a distressing fact as “SDI was a delusion for the foreseeable future” (and except for a few rigged solitary test situations, still is).  The SDI also emphasizes “the primarily psychological character of nuclear transactions”, a “technical fantasy…at the center of the most important strategic decisions in the last years of the Cold War.”

The lessons of these nuclear failures – the failure of the Reagan-Gorbachev abolition, the failure of Bush’s “strategic school of nuclear warfighters” – confirms a “central axiom of life in the nuclear age”, that there is no true advantage to them and “they are inescapably a common danger than can only be faced by all together.”  Yet the nuclear momentum continues to build, in face of only the “perceived” difficulty in getting rid of them, with the result that for each passing year, “nuclear weapons provide their possessor with less safety while provoking more danger.”

Schell concludes with several broad principles that could guide the world to nuclear free territory, starting with the adoption of the idea that the “abolition of nuclear arms [serve] as the organizing principle and goal of all activity in the nuclear field.”  Above all else he sees global nuclear abolition as an opportunity to also address “larger planetary crisis” such as chemical and biological weapons, the inequitable global market economy (largely funded and supported by U.S. corporate militarism), natural or engineered pandemics, and global warming, the latter he considers the “most difficult item on the broader agenda.” 

Seldom do writers see, understand, and express such a comprehensive global vision in such readily understood terms.  Schell offers that global scope, and offers what should be seen as common sense solutions.  The human environment – the environment period – is endangered by most human activities in the pursuit of global power, control, and wealth.  Coming to terms with the scary psychology of the nuclear dilemma is a good place to start.  Overcoming the psychological constructs built around the need for possessing a doomsday weapon will allow the people of the world to make much more significant progress with the other dilemmas that threaten their survival. 

Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle.  His interest in this topic stems originally from an environmental perspective, which encompasses the militarization and economic subjugation of the global community and its commodification by corporate governance and by the American government.  Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.


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