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Remember your humanity but forget about nuke-free world for now

Pugwash 2015: Remember your humanity, but forget about a nuclear free world for now

Posted: 03 Nov 2015 10:29 PM PST*

Pugwash 2015: Remember your humanity, but forget about a nuclear free world for now


"The person who prays for peace must not hide even a needle, for a person who possesses weapons is not qualified to pray for peace."

-Takashi Nagai, Towers of Peace [1]


Remember your humanity, but forget about a nuclear free world for now. That may not be the official line, but it was the take-away message from the Pugwash Conference sessions in Nagasaki on November 1, 2015. Diplomatic niceties and patience were emphasized at this time when "mutual trust and confidence" have declined amid alarming new regional conflicts and refugee crises. The imbalances of economic and military power make nuclear deterrence, with only slow, incremental disarmament, the only safe way to proceed.

Remember your humanity but forget about nuke-free world for now

Maiden of Peace, Nagasaki Peace Park


One might think that because the Pugwash Conference espouses such high ideals that it has always called for the immediate abolition of nuclear weapons, but it never actually made such a radical demand. The website of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs includes the following description of the founding of the organization:


During the darkest days of the Cold War, the founders of Pugwash understood the dangers of nuclear weapons. In their efforts to change dangerous policies they became pioneers of a new kind of transnational, "track 2" dialogue. [2]


The conference was founded two years after Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell had released their famous 1955 manifesto, signed by nine other distinguished scientists [3]. It is notable that the manifesto did not stress the abolition of nuclear weapons but rather the abolition of war. It stated, "Although an agreement to renounce nuclear weapons as part of a general reduction of armaments would not afford an ultimate solution, it would serve certain important purposes." A footnote called for this to be a "concomitant balanced reduction of all armaments." The manifesto seemed to assume that nuclear weapons were here to stay and would inevitably be used in war, so the more urgent issue was for nations to accept "distasteful limitations of national sovereignty" and "find peaceful means for the settlement of all matters of dispute between them." Thus one shouldn't expect the Pugwash Conference to be a militant organization that cannot tolerate the existence of nuclear arsenals. Pugwash and its co-founder were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 in recognition of their mission to "diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international politics and, in the longer run, to eliminate such arms." [emphasis added] [4]

Remember your humanity but forget about nuke-free world for now

Other organizations have emerged over the years that have much less patience for elimination "in the long run," so the Pugwash Conferences seem complacent by comparison. At the Pugwash Conference public session in Nagasaki on November 1, 2015, most of the speakers, aware that they were facing an audience of divided opinions, chose to stick to factual reports and to refrain from expressing their personal conclusions. Government officials preached pragmatism and patience.

There was no opportunity for the audience to challenge the ideas presented or have a dialogue with the speakers. The Q and A sessions were too short, and only the Pugwash members in the front rows were offered chances to ask questions, and most of them were inarticulate and long-winded commentaries. Some of them showed by their questions that they hadn't even been following current events like Fukushima and didn't know some of the basic science and history of the nuclear era, but they have been deliberately asking naïve questions just to make a point.

Meanwhile, the general public and media representatives in the back rows were supposed to only listen and learn. It was ironic to hear the speakers saying repeatedly that the public is woefully ignorant about the issues and needs to be educated, while here members of the public had made the effort to attend yet their questions and comments were not wanted. Why should the public get educated if they are not going to have any influence even at a small conference such as this?

This structure revealed what seems like a serious problem with the Pugwash organization. Perhaps back in 1957 when the US and USSR were playing with hydrogen bombs like they were firecrackers, there really was an urgent need for scientists from both countries to get together in a remote place for private meetings so that they could go back and hopefully influence leadership in their respective countries, but this hardly seems necessary now. This sage-on-the stage approach seems unnecessary now when scientists are even more sidelined from power than they were then. The mass media would flock to a press release concerning the latest iPhone release, but here is no equal to Russell or Einstein today who could assemble the media to take note of an "important announcement."

What is needed now are truly participatory events that are connected with critical voices, citizen groups and contrarians who can break through the polite diplomatic niceties and stale frameworks in order to truly debate the issues—at the risk of offending the dignitaries present. These problems can't be solved if leaders are not going to really make the effort to educate themselves while they educate others, get out of their elite bubbles, then listen and do the hard work of leading by obeying.

Remember your humanity but forget about nuke-free world for now

Statue of Mother and Child at the Hypocenter, Nagasaki


What follows is a discussion of the session that was held on the afternoon of November 1, 2015. For anyone who has been following the anti-nuclear movement on the street or in the free-for-all of alternative media, blogs, twitter and facebook groups, the stilted and constrained parameters of discussion will come as a shock. All discussions were limited by the realities that have been laid down by the United Nations and the signatories of the Non-Proliferation, Strategic Arms Limitation and Nuclear Test Ban Treaties. The experts who know the history of these treaties can extemporaneously list all the dates, treaty numbers, signatories, conditions and exceptions, with the effect that the listener is left in a state of utter confusion and intimidation. Once one becomes an expert in this subject, one is in that world and can no longer think about lofty ideals and principles. The possible is restricted to only what the treaty history has carved out. So this process is very slow at nuclear disarmament, but it is very effective at disarming anti-nuclear activists who would like to see rapid change.

From the start the anti-nuclear activist is already out of the picture because the basis of all the Non-Proliferation Treaties is that all states which agree to forego the development of nuclear weapons are guaranteed the freedom to develop nuclear energy. This idea became entrenched before the first nuclear catastrophes, and it is always presumed the IAEA will be eternally omnipotent and capable of spotting any attempt to convert plutonium from a civilian waste product to a product that is militarily useful.

Thus the entire framework of global disarmament has no problem with the legacy of Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi, and the risk of other future catastrophes is not a concern. The treaties have nothing to say about unsecured uranium mine tailing ponds, depleted uranium weapons, and the seventy-year-old unresolved question of what to do with nuclear waste. Ecological, social and human health impacts are of no concern.

Spent nuclear fuel facilities could be considered as a radiological weapons which nations stupidly build as if they wanted to do a favor for any future aggressors they might have. They spare enemies the need to have a nuclear weapon because all they require is a conventional missile to launch at a nuclear facility. Or it could be that nuclear facilities are supposed to be a kind of a deterrent. Who would want to pillage or occupy a country after it has been turned into a nuclear wasteland? Unfortunately, disarmament treaties pay no attention to this hazard.

One of the first people on the stage was Hitoshi Kikawada, Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan, who repeated the usual government platitudes: the only country ever attacked by nuclear weapons, deeply committed to a world free of nuclear weapons, and so on…

If the Japanese government were serious and it really wanted to change the behavior of the nuclear states, it would break off ties, impose sanctions, and employ any means available to alter the behavior it wanted changed. This is where Japan's hypocrisy becomes obvious. It is hardly "deeply committed" to a nuclear free world at all. It may wanta nuclear free world, but it is not a high priority. If Japan were serious, it would come out from the US nuclear umbrella, and, as long as the US insisted on having nuclear weapons, it would not host US military bases on its soil. In interpersonal relations, we call this having the courage of one's convictions. Or it's just the use of simple strategies, like those of a housewife who has various ways of withdrawing affection and cooperation to deal with a wayward husband. But governments seem to have trouble resorting to strategies that are just common sense within personal relations.

States like Japan which live under a nuclear umbrella have been called the "weasel states" [5] of global disarmament talks, and along with the truly non-nuclear states they have always overlooked their power to shun, exclude and sanction the nuclear powers as a strategy for forcing them to change their ways. Perhaps the time has come for them to employ this strategy, but so far they have been divided and ruled, or other considerations force them to stay in their alliances.

At this time of "heightened tension" and "degraded trust" (no one at the conference had the courage to say "Syria" or "Ukraine" explicitly), it was interesting to see two officials from the US and Russia sitting side by side, sticking to their talking points while diplomatically only alluding to the mutual grievances that were on full display at the UN just weeks earlier. [6] But at least they showed up in this forum to respond to an organization that has for 61 years urged the superpowers to seek peaceful solutions and pursue disarmament. In the roster of speakers, the absence of representation from North Korea, Pakistan, Israel and France was notable, and no one from Germany was there to discuss the recent exit from nuclear energy or its diplomacy on the front lines between East and West.

Anita Friedt, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, Department of State (USA), claimed that arms reductions are continuing, and went over the progress of the 1990s. She said the expensive upgrades to the arsenal consist of no expansion of capability. Knowing that President Obama has been ridiculed for his Nobel Peace Prize, she insisted that his commitment to a world without nuclear weapons hasn't diminished. She just blamed Russia for not picking up the offer to begin talking about reductions.

She said all this apparently oblivious to Russia's reasons for not being ready for such a step. She would be a rather incompetent official if she didn't know that Russia is displeased with eastward expansion of NATO, overseas "democracy promotion" propaganda in Eastern Europe and even within Russia, [7] the recent decade of illegal wars and drone targeting against sovereign nations (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, drone in Yemen and Pakistan), and America's enormous expenditures on conventional weapons—including advanced weapons projects that aim to eliminate strategic parity. [8] It's hard to know if she is incompetent or if she was deliberately trying to portray this false image of American innocence. Vladimir Putin has spoken very clearly on these points at recent press conferences, so the Russian point of view is hardly a state secret. [9]

Mikhail Ulyanov, Director of the Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russia, hinted at these grievances but didn't state them explicitly. This was a shame because the audience may not have grasped exactly what he was referring to, and in any case, a good raging argument would have made things interesting. It was mid-afternoon by this time and everyone was getting drowsy. I had to wonder if this is the reason we now have this lamentable state of "degraded trust" over "situations" that couldn't be described. If speakers at such gatherings didn't use such passive-aggressive and evasive language, perhaps they could really talk and work out their differences right there. Every couple knows bad things happen later if one goes to bed angry.

Mr. Ulyanov stressed the important point that one cannot talk of nuclear disarmament without talking about imbalances in conventional weapons. He could have expanded this point by adding that conflicts are ultimately driven by financial interests and financial crises. Russia knows well that the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria involve struggles over energy resources and efforts to bring those countries, and surrounding regions, into Western economic spheres.

Mr. Ulyanov, like his counterpart, also tried to pass off some nonsense as pearls of wisdom. He claimed that we just have to accept that disarmament will proceed slowly because the rapid loss of deterrence could be extremely destabilizing. As evidence he said that deterrence with conventional weapons failed in WWII, and the USSR lost 27 million lives in that war. He said Russia cannot accept ever risking that situation again. However, he left out some crucial details such as the fact that Stalin had purged his military of effective leadership by the time the Nazis invaded. They had no effective conventional deterrence at the time. Also, the harsh conditions imposed on Germany after WWI created the resentment which in turn led to Nazism and militarization. All nations in Europe ignored the build-up and made no attempt to create conventional forces that would deter Germany. The "deterrence failed" argument is very weak. War can be avoided in numerous ways without a nuclear arsenal, and in fact, the existence of a nuclear arsenal can make nations extremely complacent about building the foundations of lasting peace.

Furthermore, if we assume that nuclear deterrence succeeded after WWII, that is only the selfish viewpoint of the superpowers counting the lives of their own citizens. The Third World countries that were devastated by Cold War conflicts might have a different view. We also have to take account of the opportunity costs, and the ecological and human toll of uranium mining and the manufacturing and testing of nuclear weapons, both inside and outside the territories of the US and the USSR. The nuclearization of nations also transformed them into paranoid security states, and the harm to the political and social fabric was carried over to the "war on terror." Finally, while one is busy nuclear deterring, one is running the constant risk of unleashing all the consequences that would follow from the accidental detonation of a nuclear weapon. The logic of deterrence doesn't hold up, but if Russia still wants to insist they need deterrence, then logically it makes sense for all nations—and so the weaker ones need it all the more.

Mr. Kim Won-soo, UN Under Secretary-General and Acting High Representative of Disarmament Affairs (Republic of Korea) was next and spoke of being "deeply disappointed" by the recent failure of NPT Conference (May 2015). [10] For this author it was "deeply disappointing" that he couldn't specifically talk about some of the reasons for the failure. The hesitation to name names and describe specific disagreements amounts to a shrug in which global leadership just seems to wistfully say "stuff happens."

Professor Hiromichi Umebayashi, of the University of Nagasaki, discussed his group's proposal for working toward a nuclear free Northeast Asia. This plan seemed fatally flawed. It is hard to understand how they could seriously believe that North Korea would ever consider this plan. It depends on the building of mutual trust among North Korea, South Korea and Japan, with China, Russia and the US promising (scouts honor) to never resort to the use of nuclear weapons in a dispute in this region. One flaw in the plan is the fact that the US is called a "neighboring nation" when its territory is nowhere near Northeast Asia. More importantly, North Korea would never consider this proposal while Japan stays under the US nuclear umbrella and hosts US military bases. Even if the US promised not to use nuclear weapons, its nuclear-armed submarines would still be patrolling the ocean in the region, and the US would be capable of hitting North Korea from afar by other means even if the subs were removed.

Furthermore, North Korea distrusts Japan for all the same reasons as China and South Korea. There is no common agreement about what happened in the region in the early 20th century, and this problem provides a rather weak foundation for building the trust needed for a nuclear weapons-free zone. A nuclear free Northeast Asia seems to require a nuclear free world, so the first step would be for South Korea and Japan to each unilaterally break with the American alliance. This would be the only change that North Korea could believe in. But even then there would be that little problem of Japan's plutonium stockpile in Rokkasho. What, exactly, are their intentions?

The final speaker was Ambassador Akylbek Kamaldinov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Kazakhstan to Japan, who was honored by Pugwash for his nation's bold decision to give up the nuclear weapons it had on its territory at the breakup of the USSR. Kazakhstan has recently announced that it wants to lead a movement that will see the world free of nuclear weapons by 2045. They stole my idea, but that's OK. They only seem to have the half of it that pertains to nuclear weapons. They take the high ground in speaking about nuclear weapons, but speak little of the widespread contamination throughout the country caused by seven decades of uranium mining. Kazakhstan is a leading producer of uranium, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was recently there concluding deals for the future development of nuclear energy. [11]

Progress in nuclear disarmament is impossible if two aspects of the accepted reality continue to go unchallenged. Firstly, nuclear energy is incompatible with a world free of nuclear weapons. Secondly, few countries will want to give up their nuclear deterrence as long as one superpower maintains a global network of military bases and outspends all others combined on conventional military forces. [12] I got the impression that the resolution statement of this year's Pugwash Conference will have little to say about these two obstacles.

It may seem unrealistic to call for such drastic "unrealistic" changes, but history shows that the unchangeable reality can unravel very fast. No one in 1980 predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union by the end of the decade. It is entirely foreseeable that nuclear energy and the American empire will soon have a confrontation with reality. The evident costs and dangers of both are catching up with them.




[1] This quotation is on display in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. For information about Takashi Nagai see: Shohei Okada, "Film tells story of Nagasaki scientist who cared for A-bomb survivors," Asahi Shimbun, February 15, 2014, http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/social_affairs/AJ201402150015.


[2] History, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, http://pugwash.org/history/.


[3] The Russell Einstein Manifesto, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, July 9, 1955, http://pugwash.org/1955/07/09/statement-manifesto/.


[4] Oslo Award of the Nobel Peace Prize, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, http://pugwash.org/1995/12/10/oslo-award-of-the-nobel-peace-prize/.


[5] "Alice Slater: US is not Honoring its NPT Promise for Nuclear Disarmament," Farsnews, October 31, 2015, http://english.farsnews.com/.


[6] Luciana Bohne, "A Game of Dice With Russia: 'Do You Realize What You Have Done?'" Counterpunch, October 1, 2015, http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/10/01/a-game-of-dice-with-russia-do-you-realize-what-you-have-done/


[7] Gerald Sussman, “The Myths of ‘Democracy Assistance’: U.S. Political Intervention in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe,” Monthly Review, December 6, 2006, http://monthlyreview.org/2006/12/01/the-myths-of-democracy-assistance-u-s-political-intervention-in-post-soviet-eastern-europe/.


[8] "Gorbachev calls US military might 'insurmountable obstacle to a nuclear-free world,'" Russia Today, August 6, 2015, http://www.rt.com/news/311796-gorbachev-nuclear-free-world/.


[9] "Vladimir Putin Meets with Members of the Valdai Discussion Club. Transcript of the Final Plenary Session of the 12th Annual Meeting," Valdai International Discussion Club, October 23, 2015, http://valdaiclub.com/opinion/highlights/vladimir-putin-meets-with-members-of-the-valdai-discussion-club-transcript-of-the-final-plenary-sess/.


[10] Editorial, "Disappointing NPT Conference," Japan Times, May 26, 2015, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2015/05/26/editorials/disappointing-npt-conference/#.VjlzqnorK71.


[11] "Abe Says Japan Can Reap 3 Trillion Yen in Central Asia Projects," The Japan Times, October 27, 2015, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/10/27/national/politics-diplomacy/abe-vows-support-kazakhstans-plan-introduce-nuclear-power/#.VjgbG1_XfCQ.


[12] Chalmers Johnson, "America's Empire of Bases," TomDispatch.com, January 15, 2004, http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/1181/tomgram%3A_chalmers_johnson_on_garrisoning_the_planet.


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