Rethinking Nuclearism

6 Oct


[Prefatory Note: This post is the writeup of a presentation in Lund, Sweden at a peace gathering organized and moderated by Stefan Andersson on Oct. 3, 2018.]


Rethinking Nuclearism: Thirty Years Later



More than thirty years ago I applied the term ‘nuclearism’ to the association between the hardware dimensions of the weaponry and their various software dimensions ranging from strategic doctrine to the infatuations of powerful men with their awesome destructive capabilities. This weaponry gave humanity limitless power, not only potentially destructive of a civilization or many civilizations, but threatening the future viability of human and non-human species alike. Such a capacity to wreak destruction had previously belonged in the province of apocalyptic myth and religious foreboding. So when actualized by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the results of breathtaking technological breakthroughs., the effects recast the very essence of human condition. Myth and religion lost much of their historical agency, with final agency over human destiny seemingly transferred from God (or the gods) to ordinary human beings.


Yet those atomic explosions also challenged the rationality of the modern world, which supposedly replaced superstition and faith as the foundation for action and security in the world. Why retain a weaponry with such irrational properties now, which would only get worse in the future? The early reaction to nuclear weapons was accompanied by this rational imperative, which at first was widely endorsed by many political leaders, as well as the public. The vision of a world without nuclear weapons was at first not a dream of global idealists but viewed as a rational necessity if the modern world was going to survive and flourish. Before long this mood of foreboding was overcome by realists who managed to build a rational edifice encompassing enough to house nuclear weaponry, initially against the geopolitical background of the emerging Cold War. This grand exercise in establishing the rationality of irrationality was given the name ‘deterrence,’ and despite many changes in the global setting has persisted in a variety of formulations until today.


At the same time, there needed to be ways to reduce the dangers of geopolitical challenges, expensive and risky extensions of nuclearism, and above all, a way found to curtail the spread of such equalizing power to other states. In effect, it was recognized early on that nuclearism, to be sustainable, needed to be managed.To achieve this goal required a Faustian Bargain was needed to induce the great majority of non-nuclear states to forego a nuclear option in a manner that did not compromise their rights as sovereign states. The silver bullet of constructing a management system was nonproliferation, formalized in the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that entered into force in 1968.  The inducements for the non-nuclear states seemed substantial: unrestricted access to the benefits of what were called ‘peaceful uses’ of nuclear technology (Article IV) and a right to withdraw from the treaty on three months notice if ‘supreme interests’ reflecting the occurrence of ‘extraordinary events’ so dictated (Article X). The biggest inducement of all was a pledge by the nuclear weapons states, as a matter of urgency and good faith, to agree to pursue nuclear disarmament, and beyond this, general and complete disarmament (Article VI). It should be noted that the NPT fully respected the sovereign rights of non-nuclear states to pursue their security as a matter of national policy, including even the right to withdraw from the treaty, and provided no enforcement mechanisms for verifying non-compliance or providing enforcement in the event of serious violations by either taking steps to acquire the weaponry or through a refusal to negotiate disarmament in good faith.


What has happened since in the 50 years since the NPT was negotiated is both startling and almost totally overlooked even by the most severe critics of nuclearism. The NPT framework has been unilaterally supplemented by a geopolitical regimeof Western powers, headed by the United States. This regime undertakes to enforce the NPT against actual and potential violators, that is, exceeding the obligations accepted by the parties to the NPT. As the attack on Iraq in 2003, the coercive diplomacy directed at North Korea, and especially Iran, has shown, this geopolitical regime takes precedence over international law restraints on the use of force in international disputes, and overrides claims of sovereign rights. At the same time, the nuclear weapons states, without renouncing Article VI, have completely failed to fulfill their commitment to seek nuclear disarmament, a failure that the International Court of Justice identified in its 1996 Advisory Opinion. There is no clearer or more significant demonstration of the primacy of geopolitics in the current enactment of state-centric world order. This impression is reinforced by the refusal of the United States to allow parties to the NPT to exercise their legal right of withdrawal in accord with Article X of the treaty. Compliance with the NPT should be demanded and the geopolitical regime of selective enforcement should be abandoned.


These extremely serious unilateral modifications of the NPT bargain has met with relatively little formal opposition from the affected non-nuclear states and the peoples of the world. The nuclear weapons states have been successful in diverting attention from these modifications by introducing arms controlas a complement to deterrence,even presenting arms control arrangements as steps toward disarmament. Actually, the opposite is true. Arms control is dedicated to cutting risks and costs associated with nuclearism. Its core claim is ‘to make the world safe with nuclear weapons’ rather than the transformativeidea of ‘a world without nuclear weapons.’ These steps involve various international agreements designed to avoid unintended or accidental uses of nuclear weapons. Their dominant goal is to stabilize the managerial approach while treating transformative or abolitionist demands that the weapons be eliminated in a reliably supervised manner as utopian and imprudent.  


The confusion that arises from the failure to distinguish these two approaches has helped explain the neutralization of anti-nuclear forces over the decades, despite their enjoyment of overwhelming popular support. The anti-nuclear movement has been unable to mount and sustain a focused campaign against nuclearism. My view is that until this antagonism between management of nuclearism is understood and overcome, there will be no meaningful denuclearization of world politics. Until the managerial approach is directed challenged and repudiated, anti-nuclear forces will be frustrated, forever beating their heads against an iron wall of resistance by the politics of nuclearism. In other words, to move toward a world without nuclear weapons requires an initial conceptual clarity that has so far been lacking. It may, of course, continue to be prudent for intrinsic reasons to adopt certain arms control measures, but to do so now with eyes wide open, which means recognizing that such a step is likely to be a step awayfrom adopting a transformative approach to nuclearism.


What is wrong with this reliance on the managerial approach to regulating nuclearism based on the NPT, the NPT geopolitical regime, and arms control, especially given the apparent political unattainability of nuclear disarmament? I believe a series of strong critical assessments make the managerial approach ethical unacceptable and politically flawed:


–by adopting a geopolitical solution to nuclearism the reliance is placed on hierarchyor nuclear apartheid rather than on equalityamong states and norms that treat equals equally;


–by relying on deterrence, premised on assumptions of strategic infallibility and unconditional rationality the weight of human experience is ignored, which in contrast exhibits pervasive fallibility and sporadic irrationality;


–by prohibiting some states (e.g. Iran) while permitting other states (e.g. Israel) to acquire nuclear weapons the geopolitical regime also suffers from unprincipled discrimination;


–by claiming rights to enforce the NPT, the geopolitical regime violates the UN Charter, authorizes aggression, and specific Charter norms prohibiting non-defensive threats and uses of international force;


–by rejecting a reactive approach to violations of the NPT, the geopolitical enforcers adopt a preemptive war/preventive war rationale that is inconsistent with contemporary international law;


–by threatening massive retaliation and avoiding no first use commitments, nuclear weapons states violate prohibitions against disproportionate, indiscriminate, and inhumane uses of force as embodied in customary international law and international humanitarian law (Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Protocols of 1977);


–by relying on a managerial approach to nuclearism the NPT/AC approach as enhanced by the geopolitical regime evades the bioethical challenges associated with civilizational and survival threats directed at the human species as a whole;


–by overriding the explicit obligations of an international treaty through the imposition of a geopolitical regime, the approach taken diminishes respect for international agreements, political compromise, and the role of international norms of morality and law.



Concluding Concern. If transformational approach is unattainable and the managerial approach deeply flawed, what does that suggest about the current phase of the struggle of the peoples of the world and their governmental allies against nuclearism? It implies, first of all, clarity of analysis so that false hopes are not raised. Secondly, by exposing the serious flaws of the managerial approach there are many reasons to explore and revive support for a transformational approach. Thirdly, in responding to specific initiatives, their relationship to stabilizing the management of nuclearism should be taken into account. Fourthly, a group of BAN states should consider submitting a complaint to the International Court of Justice alleging violations of Articles VI and X of the NPT, as well as organizing in the General Assembly a request for an Advisory Opinion on whether the management of nuclearism is consistent with international law.


As has been the case ever since 1945 ‘living with nuclear weapons’ has been problematic, although the political context has varied over time.  The most effective tactics at the present time is to promote an educational understanding of why transformation is necessary and desirable, while management is unacceptable. Additionally, it is vital to mount sustained pressure by the governments of non-nuclear states and international civil society on nuclear weapons states to comply with all the material provisions of the NPT and abandon the geopolitical option of unlawful enforcement that is selective and discriminatory, besides being unlawful, dangerous, and a major cause of international tensions and warfare.

13 Responses to “Rethinking Nuclearism”

  1. Schlüter October 6, 2018 at 4:56 am #

    Unfortunately the thinking of the powerful is very different from the thinking of us, who try to work for a more just and peacfull world! And now the “Digitalism” adds to the Nuclearism, also enshrining destructions of unseen extend, possibly destroying all logistic necessary for society´s functions!
    Cordial Weekend regards

  2. Gene Schulman October 6, 2018 at 8:26 am #

    How do you rationalize irrationality? It sounds more like an oxymoron to me rather than deterrence.

    • Richard Falk October 6, 2018 at 11:21 pm #

      My claim, which is not original with me, is that the underlying reliance on nuclear weapons
      is ‘irrational’ while the doctrine of deterrence hides this reality by developing a very rational
      set of ideas about governmental behavior that presumes that governments will act rationally when
      confronted with the prospect of retaliatory massive destruction.

      • Gene Schulman October 7, 2018 at 3:05 am #

        With all due respect, Richard, that’s a bit like the MAD Doctrine we’ve already been living with these past 60 or so years. We’ve been lucky so far, but given the crazies who’ve been in our governments recently, I’m not sure I feel they can be trusted to act rationally.

      • Richard Falk October 7, 2018 at 4:09 am #

        Gene, you miss my point, or my point is too obscurely set forth. Yes, this is a continuation of MAD after the
        conditions of the Cold War no longer pertain. It continues to think that ‘peace’ can be maintained by threats
        to inflict devastation to any state that dares to attack American vital interests. Weaker states want nuclear
        weapons to discourage nuclear attacks on themselves, e.g. North Korea. Israel is in-between. It wants the weapons
        as an ultimate option, and it also wants to warn others in the region not to challenge its interests too directly
        or they might be attacked, and if they attacked in return, Israel could resort to its nuclear option.

  3. Dayan Jayatilleka, Ph.D. October 7, 2018 at 4:03 am #

    Richard, in an essay a few decades ago in a volume you co-edited, you pointed out that the Reykjavik moment had been sabotaged as a ‘logical’ move given the durable ideology of the Cold warriors within the US system. In short that ‘abortion’ was the reflex action of an ideological framework-cum-policy paradigm that was almost ontological.

    It seems to me that today, due to a number of reasons (the rise of neo-liberalism and the Alt Right response) that ideology has become toxic, malignant and metastasized.

    The West saw a triumphalist moment when it won the Cold War and is still trying to establish a firm unipolar hegemony when that moment has long past and Russia and China are back in the game– perhaps even back together. The resulting collective cognitive dissonance has led to the adoption of attitudes among western policy makers, which a few decades ago in the midst of the Cold war, would have been dismissed as of the “mad dog” variety.

    What a difference between the hawkishness of a Moynihan and that of Haley. One sees the continuity of Condoleeza Rice and Jeanne Kirkpatrick but what is Haley to Kirkpatrick (whom I detested)—and what does it signify?

    US policy intended to make the USSR a shareholder of the world order while balancing Russia and China off against each other. Today, but Russia and China are targets, not merely militarily but also economically. Does it not matter that convergence will be accelerated? Is there no comprehension of India’s massive dissent (S 400), even as a partner of the US, from the US policy of sanctions on Russian weapons systems? Are we going to head back to a Dullesian Manicheanism? And when it comes to Russia, are the Democrats any more rational than Bolton-Pompeo? (Corbyn is.)

    I know I’m venting…but is the West going irrational, or as Richard seems to imply, was the irrationality already built in with nuclear weaponization? Even so, even the ‘ managerial’ gloves of deterrence are coming off now, so maybe Oliver Stone was right when he insisted that Putin watch Dr. Strangelove, and pretty much ensured that he did so?

  4. Beau Oolayforos October 9, 2018 at 2:03 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    It seems that our best hopes are still with the Draft Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and with the Advisory Opinion you propose. It takes guts as well as brains to combat nuclearism, for it requires a detailed understanding of the weaponry, along with which comes an even more terrifying vision of what would happen if… Hence my own admiration for the Los Alamos Study Group, which has been looking intrepidly down that Barrel for decades, and fighting tooth-and-nail for all of our Future.

    • Richard Falk October 9, 2018 at 10:16 pm #

      It is difficult to be hopeful about combating nuclearism but progress will depend on a rise of anti-nuclearism in the nuclear weapons states, especially the U.S., and that is unlikely to happen in the near future.

  5. Mike 71 October 10, 2018 at 7:29 am #

    Taking a contrarian view, we have not had a nuclear war in the 73 years since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Actually, this new technology was initiated with the July 16, 1945 “Trinity Test” on July 16, 1945 in. Alamorogordo, N.M. Had “Trinity” failed, the nuclear bombings of Japan could not have proceeded. Nuclear deterrence is hardly “irrational,” as its beneficial effects have been well demonstrated by the absence of wars between the nuclear powers since the proliferation of these weapons from the U.S. to the Soviet Union and then to China, Israel, India, Pakistan and most recently to the D.P.R.K.(Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea). It is the limitless potential to destroy civilizations and eradicate human and other life which induces the nuclear powers to tread extremely carefully to avoid offending others and thus reduce the likelihood of “Mutually Assured Destruction.”

    A “Faustian Bargain” was required to induce the majority of nations, not facing existential threats, to forgo the nuclear option without compromising their rights as sovereign states. However, those privileges were not afforded to Israel, the D.P.R.K. and perhaps others, which must retain nuclear deterrence to maintain their sovereign existence. For example, Israel probably acquired nuclear weapons prior the the 1967 “Six Day War” and adoption of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but due to the rapidity of their military counter-offensive, found their use unnecessary. Most forget that the original “Causus Belli” was the Egyptian closing of the Straits of Tiran in May 1967. Israel practices “nuclear ambiguity,” neither confirming, nor denying existence of a nuclear arsenal.

    The inducements for non-nuclear states to accede to the NPT was access to peaceful uses of nuclear technology, such. as power generation and medical uses under Article IV, while still respecting their sovereign rights to pursue national security, including withdrawal from NPT, which. contained no mechanism for verifying compliance. NPT was supplemented by U.S. “management” to enforce NPT against potential or actual violators (Iran, D.P.R.K.). Nuclear weapons states, without renouncing Article VI, failed to seek disarmament, seeing the retention of a nuclear deterrent as necessary for national defense.

    The 1996 International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion recognized that International Law takes no position on the legality, or illegality, of use of nuclear weapons “by a state in an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which its very survival would be at stake.”

    The relevant portion of the Court’s Advisory Opinion states:

    “Accordingly, in view of the present state of International Law, viewed as a whole, as examined by the Court, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court is led to observe that it cannot reach a definitive conclusion as to the legality or illegality of the use of nuclear weapons by a state in an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which its very survival would be at stake.”

    The U.S. “coercive diplomacy” against Iran and the D.P.R.K. in international disputes, takes precedence over the use of force, overriding claims of sovereign rights, but as Article 51 of the U.N. Charter recognizes “collective,” as well as individual self-defense, the U.S. may act in defense of its allies, such as parties to the NATO Treaty under Article 5, providing that “an attack against one, is an attack against all.”

    Unilateral modification of NPT has met little opposition from non-nuclear states. “Arms Control” as a complement to deterrence does not preclude steps toward disarmament, but does control nuclear proliferation. “Arms Control” is dedicated to reducing the risks and costs of a nuclear world, to make the world as safe as practicable with nuclear warheads. Both the U.S. and the Russian Federation, possessing the bulk of the world’s nuclear warheads, have learned to live with them, as we have also learned to live with those of China, India, Pakistan, Israel and now, the D.P.R.K. All possess nuclear weapons for precisely the same reason: preservation of state sovereignty. See: Fareed Zakaria: “Kim Jong-un-Smart and Strategic,” Washington Post, September 14, 2017, at: Click on Washington Post Columns and scroll down to September 14, 2017.

    All measures to reduce unintended and accidental discharge of nuclear weapons should be welcomed; those states secure in meeting security needs without nuclear weapons should be respected, but none should impose their policies against the sovereignty of others having different, more significant security needs. Where “anti-nuclearism” conflicts with a nation’s security needs, that nation’s security requirements must prevail. Elimination of “unnecessary wars of choice/wars of aggression” must be a condition precedent to nuclear disarmament!

    Equality among states’ rights to sovereignty and the needs to treat all states equally, rather than utopian “false hopes,” and externally imposed solutions, will not induce nuclear disarmament. On the contrary, such externally imposed demands induce states to acquire nuclear arsenals. The author seems to suggest that some nation-states, like some pigs in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” are “more equal than others.” However, an Old West adage states that “God created men and Samuel Colt (inventor of the “six shooter”) made them equal.” Likewise, the 1648 “Peace of Westphalia,” ending the “Thirty Years War,” created the modern nation-state and nuclear weapons made them equal.
    Prohibiting states, which would use nuclear weapons for aggression to acquire them, such as Iran, while allowing them to states which would use them for deterrence, such as Israel, India and the D.P.R.K. is consistent with principles of national defense, as recognized under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter. To reiterate, Israel would be denied its sovereign rights without the nuclear option; it like India, the D.P.R.K. and others, must employ nuclear deterrence to aggression to maintain sovereign rights, such as self-determination and territorial integrity. Israel’s use of nuclear weapons would be permissible “in an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which its very survival would be at stake,” as specified by the 1996 ICJ Advisory Opinion! An unprovoked nuclear attack would violate Article 2, Section 4 of the U.N. Charter, while a “preemptive strike” in the initial stages of war, would be permissible under Article 51, as was Israel’s non-nuclear preemptive strike on Egypt on June 5, 1967, following Egypt’s closing the Strait of Tiran, the original “Causes Belli.” Iran’s threatened closing of the Strait of Hormuz would provide the same justification. Barring “massive retaliation” and “first use” of nuclear weapons “in an extreme circumstance of self-defense,” as described in the 1996 ICJ Advisory Opinion, would directly contravene the “inherent right to individual or collective self-defense,” as recognized under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter.

    Utopian “false hopes and magical thinking” are no substitute for responsible “management” of nuclear weapons. While far from perfect, responsible management is far superior to its absence. While living with nuclear weapons since 1945 may be problematic, the deterrent effect of “Mutually Assured Destruction” has prevented wars between the major powers. We have learned to live with American, Soviet, Chinese, Israeli, Indian, Pakistani and now D.P.R.K. nuclear weapons. Rather than promoting irrational “false hopes” of nuclear disarmament prior to satisfaction of the condition precedent of eliminating “unnecessary wars of choice/wars of aggression,” we must understand why the management of nuclear weapons is necessary to reduce the likelihood of nuclear war. As the late science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, put it succinctly: “An armed society is a polite society!”

  6. Clif Brown October 15, 2018 at 4:39 pm #

    The genie can’t be put back in the bottle. The US has always considered itself a cut above all other nations on the side of morality and that combined with a huge inventory of nuclear weapons can only produce a satisfied feeling in Washington since the bad guys are always on warning from those who cannot conceive of themselves as anything but good guys.

    The trouble is that eventually a nuke will go off and in the panic that follows regarding responsibility I place no bets on stopping a general exchange of nukes. I would hope that all nuclear powers have an agreement on holding off any launch when a single event takes place, but I have no evidence that such an agreement exists.

    I think nothing will change until this inevitable event occurs that, should it miraculously not produce an escalation, will result in a worldwide demand for the reduction of nuclear weapons. Unless all of them are eliminated there can be no assurance that one will not go off intentionally or accidentally, but the odds improve against a detonation as the number of nukes goes down. The best to be hoped for is improving the odds. Great power will never give up the ultimate sword, even though it promises to slash those that hold it.

    The situation with Iran is laughable in that it is assumed that country cannot be trusted with nukes but the US and Israel can, homo sapiens all.

    • Richard Falk October 15, 2018 at 11:47 pm #

      I am very impressed, and generally persuaded by your careful reasoning. I
      share this pessimism, but know that historical patterns are very difficult to
      discern in advance, and just maybe enough sanity will descend to allow the species
      to become post-nuclear without the traumatic learning of global catastrophe.

      With thanks for such a thoughtful contribution, Richard

    • Mike 71 October 16, 2018 at 7:33 am #

      That is realistic and sound reasoning Cliff. Since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no nation in possession of nuclear weapons has used them to initiate a war. The question that must be asked is why nations elect to possess nuclear arsenals; those that possess them for reasons of deterrence of aggression, such as the U.S. and Israel, pose little threat to their neighbors unless attacked. However, those that possess them for purposes of Imperial Adventures and expansionism, such as Iran, must be deterred by the more responsible nuclear powers.

  7. Fred Skolnik October 16, 2018 at 10:48 pm #

    By the way, Israel’s incredible patience with the balloon attacks, which have destroyed 3,000 acres of nature reserves, is bound to come to an end soon. Anyone who cares about the welfare of the Palestinians should be urging Hamas to put a stop to them. Where are your voices? Saying “What do you expect”” and “Can you blame them?” isn’t good enough.

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