Nuclear Weapons are not Instruments of Peace!

10 Apr


            A few days ago I was a participant in a well-attended academic panel on ‘the decline of violence and warfare’ at the International Studies Association’s Annual Meeting held this year in San Diego, California. The two-part panel featured appraisal of the common argument of two prominent recent publications: Steven Pinker’s best-selling The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined and Joshua Goldstein’s well-researched, informative, and provocative Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide. Both books are disposed to rely upon quantitative data to back up their optimistic assessments of international and domestic political behavior, which if persuasive, offer humanity important reasons to be hopeful about the future. Much of their argument depends on an acceptance of their interpretation of battlefield deaths worldwide, which according to their assessments have declined dramatically in recent decades. But do battlefield deaths tell the whole story, or even the real story, about the role and dangers of political violence and war in our collective lives?


            My role was to be a member of the Goldstein half of the panel. Although I had never previously met Joshua Goldstein I was familiar with his work and reputation as a well regarded scholar in the field of international relations.  To offer my response in the few minutes available to me I relied on a metaphor that drew a distinction between a ‘picture’ and its ‘frame.’ I found the picture of war and warfare presented by Goldstein as both persuasive and illuminating, conveying in authoritative detail information about the good work being doing by UN peacekeeping forces in a variety of conflict settings around the world, as well as a careful crediting of peace movements with a variety of contributions to conflict resolution and war avoidance. Perhaps, the most enduringly valuable part of the book is its critical debunking of prevalent myths about the supposedly rising proportion of civilian casualties in recent wars and inflated reports of casualties and sexual violence in the Congo Wars of 1998-2003. These distortions, corrected by Goldstein, have led to a false public perception that wars and warfare are growing more indiscriminate and brutal in recent years, while the most reliable evidence points in the opposite direction.


            Goldstein is convincing in correcting such common mistakes about political violence and war in the contemporary world, but less so when it comes to the frame and framing of this picture that is conveyed by his title ‘winning the war on war’ and the arguments to this effect that is the centerpiece of his book, and accounts for the interest that it is arousing. For one thing the quantitative measures relied upon do not come to terms with the heightened qualitative risks of catastrophic warfare or the continued willingness of leading societies to anchor their security on credible threats to annihilate tens of millions of innocent persons, which if taking the form of a moderate scale nuclear exchange (less than 1% of the world’s stockpile of weapons) is likely to cause, according to reliable scientific analysis, what has been called ‘a nuclear famine’ resulting in a sharp drop in agricultural output that could last as long as ten years and could be brought about by the release of dense clouds of smoke blocking incoming sunlight.  <;


            Also on the panel were such influential international relations scholars as John Mearsheimer who shared with me the view that the evidence in Goldstein’s book did not establish that, as Mearsheimer put it, ‘war had been burned out of the system,’ or that even such a trend meaningfully could be inferred from recent experience. Mearsheimer widely known for his powerful realist critique of the Israeli Lobby (in collaboration with Stephen Walt) did make the important point that the United States suffers from ‘an addiction to war.’ Mearsheimer did not seem responsive to my insistence on the panel that part of this American addiction to war arose from role being played by entrenched domestic militarism a byproduct of the permanent war economy that disposed policy makers and politicians in Washington to treat most security issues as worthy of resolution only by considering the options offered by thinking within militarist box of violence and sanctions, a viewpoint utterly resistant to learning from past militarist failures (as in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Iran). In my view the war addiction is real, but can only be treated significantly if understood to be a consequence of this blinkering of policy choice by a militarized bureaucracy in nation’s capital that is daily reinforced by a compliant media and a misguided hard power realist worldview sustained by high paid private sector lobbyists and the lure of corporate profits, and continuously rationalized by well funded subsidized think tanks such as The Hoover Institution, The Heritage Foundation, and The American Enterprise Institute. Dwight Eisenhower in his presidential farewell speech famously drew attention to the problem that has grown far worse through the years when he warned the country about ‘the military-industrial complex’ back in 1961.


            What to me was most shocking about the panel was not its overstated claims that political violence was declining and war on the brink of disappearing, but the unqualified endorsement of nuclear weapons as deserving credit for keeping the peace during Cold War and beyond. Nuclear weapons were portrayed as if generally positive contributors to establishing a peaceful and just world, provided only that they do not fall into unwanted hands (which means ‘adversaries of the West,’ or more colorfully phrased by George W. Bush as ‘the axis of evil’) as a result of proliferation. In this sense, although not made explicit in the conversation, Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons set forth at Prague on April 5, 2009 seems irresponsible from the perspective of achieving a less war-prone world. I had been previously aware of Mearsheimer’s support for this position in his hyper-realist account of how World War III was avoided in the period between 1945-1989, but I was not prepared for Goldstein and the well regarded peace researcher, Andrew Mack, blandly to endorse such a conclusion without taking note of the drawbacks of such ‘a nuclear peace.’ Goldstein in his book writes on p.42, “[n]uclear deterrence may in fact help to explain why World War III did not occur during the Cold War—certainly an important accomplishment.” Goldstein does insist that this role of nuclear weapons has problematic aspects associated with some risk of unintended or accidental use and cannot by itself explain other dimensions of the decline of political violence, which rests on a broader set of developments that are usefully depicted elsewhere in the book. These qualifications are welcome but do not offset a seeming willingness to agree that nuclear weapons seemed partly responsible for the avoidance of World War III or the liberal internationalist view, perhaps most fully articulated by Joseph Nye, that an arms control approach is a sufficient indication that the threat posed by the possession and deployment of nuclear weaponry is being responsibly addressed. [Nye, Nuclear Ethics(New York: Free Press, 1986)]  


            Steven Pinker in his book takes a more nuanced position on nuclear weapons, arguing that if it were indeed correct to credit nuclear weapons with the avoidance of World War III, there would be grounds for serious concern. He correctly asserts that such a structure of peace would be “a fool’s paradise, because an accident, a miscommunication, or an air force general obsessed with precious bodily fluids could set off an apocalypse.”  Pinker goes on to conclude that “[t]hankfully, a closer look suggests that the threat of nuclear annihilation deserves little credit for the Long Peace.” (p.268) Instead, Pinker persuasively emphasizes the degree to which World War III was discouraged by memories of the devastation experienced in World War II combined with the realization that advances in conventional weaponry would make a major war among leading states far more deadly than any past war even if no nuclear weapons were used.


            Pinker also believes that a ‘nuclear taboo’ developed after World War II to inhibit recourse to nuclear weapons in all but the most extreme situations, and that this is the primary explanation of why the weapons were not used in a variety of combat settings during the 67 years that have passed since a single atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. But Pinker does not raise deeply disturbing questions about the continued possession and threat to use such weaponry that is retained by a few of the world’s states. Or if the taboo was so strong, why this weaponry remains on hair trigger alert more than 20 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and why on several occasions a threat to use nuclear weapons was used to discourage an adversary from taking certain actions. (see for instance, Steven Starr, “On the overwhelming urgency of de-alerting US & Russian missiles, And it the taboo was so valued, why did the United States fight so hard, it turns out unsuccessfully, to avoid having the International Court of Justice pronounce on the legality of nuclear weapons? (see ICJ Advisory Opinion, 8 July 1996; <>) And why has the United States, along with some of the other nuclear weapons states, refused to declare ‘a no first use policy.’ The taboo exists, to be sure, but it is conditional and has been contested in times of international crisis, and its strength rests on the costs associated with any further use of nuclear weapons, including creating a precedent that might work against future interests.


            Most surprising than these comments on how the presence of nuclear weapons dissuaded the United States and the Soviet Union from going to war, was the failure of my co-panelists to surround their endorsement of the war-avoiding presence of nuclear weapons with moral and prudential qualifiers. At minimum, they might have acknowledged the costs and risks of tying strategic peace so closely to threatened mass devastation and civilizational, and perhaps species, catastrophe, a realization given sardonic recognition in the Cold War by the widely used acronym MAD (mutually assured destruction). The questions put by the audience also avoided this zone of acute moral and prudential insensitivity, revealing the limits of rational intelligence in addressing this most formidable challenge if social and political construction of a humane world order was recognized as a shared goal of decent people. It is unimaginable to reach any plateau of global justice without acting with resolve to rid the world of nuclear weaponry; the geopolitical ploy of shifting attention from disarmament to proliferation does not address the moral depravity of relying on genocidal capabilities and threats to uphold vital strategic interests of a West-centric world (Chinese nuclear weapons, and even those few possessed by North Korea, although dangerous and morally objectionable, at least seem acquired solely for defensive and deterrent purposes).


            I doubt very much that such a discussion of the decline of war and political violence could take place anywhere in the world other than North America, and possibly Western Europe and Japan. Of course, this does not by itself invalidate its central message, but it does raise questions about what is included and what is excluded in an Americans only debate (Mack is an Australian). Aside from the U.S. being addicted to war I heard no references in the course of the panel and discussion to the new hierarchies in the world being resurrected by indirect forms of violence and intervention after the collapse of colonialism, or of structural violence that shortens life by poverty, disease, and human insecurity. I cannot help but wonder whether some subtle corruption has seeped into the academy over the years, especially at elite universities whose faculty received invitations to work as prestigious consultants by the Washington security establishment, or in extreme cases, were hosts to lucrative arrangements that included giving weapons labs a university home and many faculty members a salary surge. Princeton, where I taught for 40 years, was in many respects during the Cold War an academic extension of the military-industrial complex, with humanists advising the CIA, a dean recruiting on behalf of the CIA, a branch of the Institute for Defense Analysis on campus doing secret contract work on counterinsurgency warfare, and a variety of activities grouped under the anodyne heading of ‘security studies’ being sponsored by outside financing. Perhaps, such connections did not spillover into the classroom or induce self-censorship in writing and lecturing, but this is difficult to assess.


            The significance of this professional discussion of nuclear weaponry in 2012, that is, long after the militarized atmosphere of the Cold War period has happily passed from the scene, can be summarized: To witness otherwise perceptive and morally motivated scholars succumbing to the demons of nuclearism is a bad omen; for me this nuclearist complacency is an unmistakable sign of cultural decadence that can only bring on disaster for the society, the species, and the world at some indeterminate future point. We cannot count on our geopolitical luck lasting forever! And we Americans, cannot possibly retain the dubious advantages of targeting the entire world with these weapons of mass destruction without experiencing the effects of a profound spiritual decline, which throughout human history, has always been the prelude to political decline, if not collapse. David Krieger, President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and I explore this range of issues in our recently published book, The Path to Zero: Dialogues on Nuclear Dangers (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2012).

19 Responses to “Nuclear Weapons are not Instruments of Peace!”

  1. Reza April 10, 2012 at 12:47 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk, You write,
    “I cannot help but wonder whether some subtle corruption has seeped into the academy over the years, especially at elite universities whose faculty received invitations to work as prestigious consultants by the Washington security establishment, or in extreme cases, were hosts to lucrative arrangements that included giving weapons labs a university home and many faculty members a salary surge. Princeton, where I taught for 40 years, was in many respects during the Cold War an academic extension of the military-industrial complex, with humanists advising the CIA, a dean recruiting on behalf of the CIA, a branch of the Institute for Defense Analysis on campus doing secret contract work on counterinsurgency warfare, and a variety of activities grouped under the anodyne heading of ‘security studies’ being sponsored by outside financing. Perhaps, such connections did not spillover into the classroom or induce self-censorship in writing and lecturing, but this is difficult to assess.”
    Your observation is a reflection of your ever-present intellectual dexterity, piercing through the main pretensions of the US global power. More importantly – and what I have always admired about your analysis since the late 1970s – it is indicative of your moral courage. Thank you.
    Incidentally, it is no longer a case of seeping into the academy. It has become a deluge, thronging us overboard into its overfilled dumpsters.

  2. John Scales Avery April 11, 2012 at 5:25 am #

    Dear Professor Falk,
    Many congratulations on the deep insights and eloquence of this post. I would like to add that the exhaustion of the world’s non-renewable resources may lead to an increase of resource-related wars and political violence in the future.One can predict a global food crisis and widespread famine resulting partly from climate change, and partly from the end of petroleum-based agriculture. The result may be an increase in xenophobia and a failure of human solidarity. In the face of this danger, solidarity and avoidance of war will become increasingly important.

    • walker percy May 2, 2012 at 5:42 am #

      While I agree that Falk’s analysis is great, I am less sanguine about your comments: in light of recent developments in natural gas resource development in the US and elsewhere, it is no longer correct to state flatly that fossil fuels are being dangerously depleted. As for climate change, that is remediable through various technologies, and environmental conditions tend to improve spontaneously in good economic times. The problems we face are political and have to do with a culture of greed among certain groups, and the use of sophisticated manipulation of media and governments by these same groups to ensure their continuing, and ever-increasing domination. This bad behavior is really endangering all of our futures, and must be stopped by any means necessary.

  3. John Scales Avery April 11, 2012 at 5:32 am #

    Regarding nuclear weapons, my article entitled “Flaws in the Concept of Nuclear Deterrence” is posted under “Additional Reading” on and it discusses the moral issues that you mention, as well as the dangers of accidental nuclear war and nuclear terrorism.

    • Richard Falk April 11, 2012 at 10:28 pm #

      Thanks, John, for your encouraging words, and I will read your post as soon as I am able. Best wishes, Richard

  4. monalisa April 11, 2012 at 6:54 am #

    Dear Richard,
    thank you so very very much for this so very important essay/article !

    In my opinioin the decandence is insofar quite a while present, as resources used are not renwable and when totally exploited there will be nothing left.
    This is known.
    And because this is very well known, politicans with some affiliated corporations should be held responsible.
    Responsible because of not fulfilling their duties towards its citizen.
    Responsibility would mean instead of getting “bribed” or in other more softer words “supported” by corportations they should have put some foresight into their actions. Foresight for the time where no renewable energy resources could be available. Foresight in putting the money collected from the citizen (tax payers) into some research programmes. Foresight: knowing that people could fall prey to bribe/money and therefore only independent research could regarded as responsible action.
    Foresight knowing that intense research in different fields is usually followed by the opening of new companies and with it more jobs.

    I don’t think that any nuclear strike would be accidental.
    The Western mainstream media has already done its job thoroughly.
    There is only the “last point” I think to know 100 % that Iran doesn’t have a nuclear bomb directed towards Israel. Point.

    It is a shame in my opinion that well educated Western politicans don’t act as really well educated people.
    Because without renwable energy-resources or far too little (or not enough resources for building electromagnetic equipments) more and more desasters can be foreseen – as above already said.


    • Richard Falk April 11, 2012 at 10:31 pm #

      As always, Monalisa, your insights are original and illuminating. I am rushed, or else I would write more fully in response. Your presence is a strong source of support, really a matter of imparting spiritual strength. Warm wishes, Richard

  5. rehmat1 April 15, 2012 at 5:15 am #

    Last October, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) held a meeting between Israeli and Iranian activists in London (UK). Israeli representatives informed Iranians that Israelis tend to consider the nuclear question taboo or too complex for expressing dissenting opinions. It’s fine by most that only top acting political and military leaders assume that right, only in closed forums. Any relevant information in Hebrew is rare; information in English is abundant but arduous to analyze. The absence of discussion stems also from the fact that, since the inception of its own nuclear program in the late 1950s, Israel has officially stuck to a policy of “ambiguity”: it “won’t be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons in the region” is the official posture.
    “If we as a society give any thought to nuclear weapons, it’s to Iran’s, which hasn’t yet become a reality,” notes Sharon Dolev, Greenpeace Mediterranean Disarmament Israeli campaigner.”Like the hunchback who doesn’t see his hump, we don’t see our own weapons.”
    In fact nuclear bombs have not saved USSR in Afghanistan in 1980s or Israel from its military humiliation in Lebanon in 2006 – or the US from its defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  6. NAJ Taylor (@najtaylor) April 16, 2012 at 9:57 pm #

    It would be interesting to read your reflections on being based at Princeton for all that time, whilst it was so embedded within the MIC.

  7. imleif April 26, 2012 at 11:07 am #

    Dear professor Falk,

    I found your blog some time ago when you wrote the article about warmongering in the Middle East. Your eloquence and insights took my breath away, so does this article.

    The “doomsday clock” is 5 minutes before midnight, still there is almost no focus on the urgency of nuclear and conventional disarmament, at least there was that during the cold war.
    As a father I worry about my two small children’s future every day.

    There was expected to be a “peace dividend” after the world war, but instead the USA has nearly bankrupted itself on wars and built a “homeland security” apparatus. I thought for some time that it was due to the minds of certain people like of Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld, and would be reversed, but the military-industrial complex practically runs the country under Obama also. Evidence of revolving doors and political decision makers with personal business interests in “security”, war or armament is still abundant, and openly tolerated. A war profiteer only has to call himself a patriot and he’s a hero for it.

    Thank you professor for your long dedication to the fight for peace and justice, it’s so desperately needed!


    • imleif April 26, 2012 at 11:48 pm #

      Should have been “cold war”, not “world war”.

    • Richard Falk April 27, 2012 at 10:37 am #

      Dear Leif Petersen:

      Thanks for your messages, and supportive words. Yes, I share this anxiety about our human future, but we need all to do whatever we can
      to make ‘the impossible’ (that is, a turn toward survival sanity) happen!

      With best wishes,


    • walker percy May 2, 2012 at 5:54 am #

      while I agree with you in general, I think your criticism of Obama is misplaced. There are things he knows about that we cannot, and it is improper to second guess his decision-making. For example, I would imagine that he is working hard to allay fears of economic cataclysm, which would make today’s hard times seem like a party. He cannot turn the ship of state around on a dime, and he cannot simply dismantle the MIC without causing other unpleasant fallout. We know that Obama and his administration are not villains like the previous bunch, so we have to allow him to make these crucial decisions. So far, he has performed masterfully, in my opinion. I cannot imagine a better president for America in these perilous times, and while a certain amount of criticism is fair, we should count our blessings and give him the support he deserves.

      • Richard Falk May 2, 2012 at 7:57 am #

        I understand, and even appreciate, your enthusiasm for the Obama presidency, I believe there is a lot of discretionary space between the constraints of the structure and the sort of approach taken toward American global militarism on the one side and the failure to do more for peace in the Middle East, including abandoning threat diplomacy in relation to Iran. Thanks for raising these issues in an intelligent manner.

      • walker percy May 2, 2012 at 9:30 am #

        I am honored to have an in-person response from one of my all time heroes. Thanks.

      • imleif May 2, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

        I think it is perfectly proper to judge a politician on his actions after 3½ years as president, and based on that there is nothing new from Obama. He has continued the exact same foreign policy, and the extremely high military expenditures from the Bush era. You may have an idea that Obama has done this reluctantly or for good reasons common people can’t see, but that is placing him on a pedestal above accountability. A less trustful person than you might have the idea that Obama has dreams little different than Bush’s, and that he knows very well that it is free for him to turn his back on the peace movement, because there are no better presidential candidates they can turn to, besides they don’t finance his campaign much anyway.

      • walker percy May 2, 2012 at 3:13 pm #

        I understand your reluctance to suspend disbelief, especially given the recent record of our politicians. My only response is to say that I have peered into his soul and I find that he is a righteous dude. I guess that’s not much different from saying that he is someone I would like to have a beer with. At some point, we all have to make that kind of a decision. And, since there is so much riding on his success, I am reluctant to question his efforts to make things incrementally better, and I strongly want to support him. This seems especially important given the outrageous attempts at interference by some who apparently could not care less about our country or the world, I mean the people who think that politics (and war, for that matter) are just a form of entertainment, like sports.

  8. Margaret Kelso March 4, 2013 at 7:29 am #

    Guns right now are the biggest problem in countries.
    Let law enforcement and only law enforcement have the guns


  1. TRANSCEND MEDIA SERVICE » Nuclear Weapons Are Not Instruments Of Peace! - April 16, 2012

    […] Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).Go to Original – richardfalk.comClick to share this article: facebook | twitter | email. Click here to download this article as a […]

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