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Obama’s much-applauded war against nuclear weapons is about boosting Washington’s moral authority, not securing world peace.
‘The Nuclear Family’ runs the front page of this morning’s UK Independent, with photos of Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and others shaking hands as they agree to ‘stop atomic material falling into terrorist hands’. Yet for all the liberal overexcitement, this is not an unadulterated triumph for peace. Rather, through an apparent struggle for civility over barbarity, the US and its allies have been able to affirm their moral authority over the rest of the world.
This time last year, American president Barack Obama was setting out his ‘agenda to seek the goal of a world without nuclear weapons’. We were told that the US had a ‘mission’, a ‘moral responsibility’, to rid the world of the nuclear threat. It was as part of America’s peace-seeking vocation that 46 world leaders (plus British foreign secretary David Miliband) gathered in Washington this week at the Nuclear Security Summit, where Obama sought to win new commitments to nuclear non-proliferation.
It has been a grand display from the Obama administration, and one in which a lot of energy and high-flown rhetoric has been invested. Indeed, no sooner had Obama signed an agreement with Russia to reduce their mutual nuclear weapons stockpile than he was conferring his blessings upon the leaders of Kazakhstan and South Africa for their commitment to decommissioning, celebrating their contribution to the US-forged dream of a ‘world without nuclear weapons’.
Obama’s attempt to cleanse the world of the nuclear threat has been met with plenty of praise. ‘A bold step to disarmament’, ran a headline in the UK Observer. Likewise, a New York Times leader piece applauded Obama’s ambition, while raising concerns that the summit – and the meetings being held alongside it, most notably with China – might not result in anything concrete enough to avert the ‘terrifying nightmare’ of a nuclear attack by terrorists.
This is a fear shared by the Guardian in Britain, except that in the Guardian’s version the bringers of Armageddon are not straight out of US TV series 24 but rather are those nation states too juvenile to be trusted. ‘[While] the handful of powers that once held a monopoly on nuclear arms retention come to realise these weapons are a problem not an answer, irrelevant in the post-Cold War world, that position is not understood by others. Notably Israel, North Korea, India, Pakistan and arguably Iran, who see the issue of nuclear weapons retention not just as one of prestige but as serving a regionally deterrent function.’
None of the concerns raised by various observers come anywhere near to questioning the essential rightness of the US-led quest to purge the world of nuclear weapons. It is simply assumed to be a moral mission for which the West is ideally suited. Yet this anti-nuclear weapons posturing, this peace-loving, morally superior pose, really does need to be questioned.
Firstly, despite the concentration on the international personas non grata of North Korea, Iran and Syria (none of which have been invited to the Nuclear Security Summit), a small group of powerful nations has a virtual monopoly on nuclear warheads. In fact, of the 22,000 nuclear warheads estimated to be knocking around the world, Russia has 12,000, the US 9,400, France 300, China 240, Britain 185, with Israel, Pakistan and India sharing somewhere in the region of 250. North Korea, that moustache-twirling caricature of a threat to international peace, has a grand total of two. And Iran, its dastardly counterpart in America’s nightmare scenario, has precisely none.
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And of course, there is also the all-too-grisly irony of America’s moral posturing: it is still the only country to have actually used an atomic weapon against human beings, in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
This crusade against the nuclear threat by those who have used and continue to possess nuclear weapons seems very contradictory. Unless, that is, one grasps the peace-seeking posture on the part of the most militarily capable nations in the world as something other than it claims to be – that is, as a form of moral imperialism at a time when the old racial terms of superiority are completely untenable.
The context in which the original Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed in 1968 is revealing. During the 1950s and 60s, the success of anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia in casting off the fetters of empire had overturned the old order. And in the West itself many were questioning the moral rectitude of Empire as it had been understood. The ability to divide the world up between the civilised colonialists of the West and the uncivilised swathes of the colonised nations had to find a new mode of expression. And it did this in terms of non-proliferation, a peace-seeking vocation that seemed right, where old-fashioned imperial might seemed wrong. Hence the NPT gave the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – consisting now of America, Russia, China, France and Britain – the right to own nuclear weapons but withheld it from every other country on Earth.
Although the NPT’s second pillar insists on progressive disarmament by states that do possess nuclear weapons, its first and principal pillar insists that those states which do not possess nuclear weapons should never seek to build one – and what’s more that the states with nuclear weapons should ensure that they don’t, by withholding information and uranium and so on. What this implies is that some nations are morally responsible enough to possess nuclear weapons and others are not. Some are mature and civilised enough to possess the means to destroy the planet, while other more volatile nations, full of volatile, immature people, are not. The old, racially inflected imperial superiority, often backed by a pride in military capability, was reframed in non-racial, explicitly moral terms.
It is upon this rich vein of moral authority that Obama now draws. He adds to it, however, by giving the nuclear threat a non-state twist. As US secretary of state Hillary Clinton put it, ‘The threat of nuclear war… has diminished. The threat of nuclear terrorism has increased.’ ‘We know that organisations like al-Qaeda are in the process of trying to secure a nuclear weapon’, Obama explained, ‘a weapon of mass destruction that they have no compunction at using’.
And Obama believes that terrorists might get uranium and nuke-building technology from some of those unreliable Third World states. So once again, the argument is that there are some countries – irresponsible, unstable countries, full of unstable, terror-loving people – where access to enriched uranium is simply too easy. Which is why Obama came up with the idea of a UN international fuel bank, a means to monitor civil nuclear programmes and supply low-enriched, safe uranium for the purposes of electricity generation. Thus the UN can prevent certain countries from developing their own fuel-enrichment programmes. Because, unlike the US, they can’t be relied upon to manage them properly.
Yet one signal fact remains. Despite the oft-mentioned threat of nuclear terrorism, a threat that has grown in the imagination since the end of the Cold War, there has been not one instance of fissile material being used in a terrorist attack. Planes, bombs, yes – but enriched uranium? No. As the US and its Western allies bask in the warm, righteous glow of moral responsibility, it is necessary to remind ourselves that there is still only one nation that took it upon itself to incinerate tens of thousands of people with an atomic weapon.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.