Obama, the Promise of Nuclear Abolition, and the Nobel

Bernard Lown, MD

I continue to be asked about Barack Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize. A previous essay dealt with some aspects of the issue. My brief answer is that he did not merit the big prize, yet I am pleased that he is the recipient. This contradictory response deserves elaboration.

The new president inspires hope. An end to the malignant Bush era is a relief not only for Americans but for the entire world. Sharp changes from catastrophic foreign and domestic policies have been promised. Among a generation of anti-nuclear activists, expectations are high that President Obama will begin dismantling nuclear arsenals.

Indeed, on April 5, 2009, a mere 10 weeks after occupying the White House, in an open-air rally in Prague’s Hradcany Square, Obama stated:

“The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War… . Today, the Cold War has disappeared, but thousands of those weapons have not. In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.”

He added:

“As a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. … So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Never before had an American president so unequivocally voiced an intent to abolish nuclear weapons. No previous American president had acknowledged the moral responsibility of the Unites States for having exploded atomic weapons in densely populated cities.

In September the Obama administration announced that it was not following through with plans for a missile defense deployment in the Czech Republic and Poland. This provocative act against Russia should not have been launched in the first place. It fostered a climate of suspicion and hostility and impaired negotiations with Moscow regarding a further reduction of still-burgeoning nuclear arsenals. Also in September, President Obama chaired a special U.N. Security Council session on disarmament. He presented a draft U.S. resolution to sustain momentum toward “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Indeed, the Norwegian Nobel Committee in the award statement “has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”

An abolitionist policy can no longer be dismissed as naive. President Obama’s vision had been anticipated two years earlier by leading architects of the Cold War. In 2007, the former secretaries of state George P. Shultz and Henry A. Kissinger and the former secretary of defense William J. Perry, joined by a number of distinguished military hawks, issued a call for nuclear abolition. Their analysis was forthright, and their argument was compelling. The reliance on nuclear weapons for deterrence was “becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.” They reasoned that “non-state terrorist groups with nuclear weapons are conceptually outside the bounds of a deterrent strategy.” They emphasized that the ongoing nuclear proliferation to unstable countries “dramatically increases the risk that nuclear weapons will be used.”

That risk is not imagined. Today nine countries stockpile 23,000 nuclear weapons, many of which are on instant alert, programmed to be launched within minutes. In the last two decades there have been more than 25 instances wherein highly radioactive nuclear material was lost or stolen. Terrorism, now coupled with nuclear proliferation, is a growing threat.

This is the very reason that unease is growing among those in the upper echelons of power. This anxiety is also demonstrated by the novel initiative calling itself Global Zero. At its launching conference in Paris a year ago, it brought together an exceptional group of world leaders committed to ending the nuclear era. Among these were nine former heads of state, eight former foreign ministers, six former national security advisors, and 19 retired top military commanders from nuclear states. Global coverage was extraordinary, with 1,800 media placements including those in the BBC, Le Figaro, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, among many others. On the first day of the conference, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for nuclear disarmament on behalf of the European Union. The British foreign secretary, David Milband, declared that his government shared Global Zero’s aims. In a poll of 21 countries, commissioned by Global Zero, majorities ranging from 62 to 93 percent supported the total elimination of nuclear weapons. Both the Russians and Americans are moving resolutely on a new START agreement designed to substantially reduce their strategic and tactical nuclear arsenals.

Achieving a total of zero nuclear weapons is a formidable challenge. It will require skillful leadership by President Obama to untangle a maze of issues. Abolition will demand the repair of strained relations between the United States and Russia, the two nuclear superpowers. Soothing rhetoric will not work. The U.S. will have to abandon the so-called Star Wars program and halt NATO’s eastward expansion. Furthermore, a recalcitrant and powerful Pentagon will have to discontinue efforts to gain space dominance and abandon programs to modernize its nuclear arsenal. The U.S. Congress will have to be coaxed to ratify the long-delayed Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The most pressing concern is that the ongoing nuclear proliferation to more states, and even to terrorists, be halted. The U.S. will have to bite the bullet and address the mighty Israeli nuclear stockpile, a major destabilizer of the Middle East for the past 30 years.

These are formidable road blocks. Indeed President Obama suggested as much in the Prague speech: “I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime.” As Obama is only 47 years, in his vision the goal is in the distant future.

A far more deadlocked world and more dangerous nuclear confrontation existed during the presidency of Ronald Reagan a quarter century ago. I describe this in my recently published memoir “Prescription for Survival: A Doctor’s Journey to End Nuclear Madness.” (1)

The threat of nuclear war between the USSR and the U.S. was unlike any that humankind had faced before. In fact, these superpowers had stockpiled a nuclear capacity sufficient to kill every man, woman and child on earth at least 20 times. These two nuclear-deranged nations were not only threatening the genocide of each other but ecocide, which could have made the planet uninhabitable. In the past, wars had winners and losers, victors and the vanquished. Nuclear war had neither. It was to be a perverse dance macabre: genocide of the victim and suicide of the aggressor. The world as we knew it was teetering on the brink of extinction.

The prevailing geopolitical perspectives were distorted by equating national security with nuclear overkill. The experts maintained that the Communist world was immutably frozen into permanence. The power of people was regarded as romantic and irrelevant.

The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), founded by the Soviet physician Evgeni Chazov and myself, together with medical colleagues from around the world, had a different world view. We believed that no political system is permanent, that military force is not equivalent to national strength, that confrontational politics in a nuclear age is the prologue for unprecedented tragedy. We insisted that a reliance on nuclear weapons was morally corrupt as well as politically and economically bankrupting. We aimed to educate a wide public on both sides of the Iron Curtain. We intended to mobilize mass action not to beseech but to compel global sanity. We seethed with outrage that a handful of political leaders threatened not only our lives but also those of future generations. We knew that there is no greater force in modern society than an educated public aroused and angered by blatant injustice. Our optimism stemmed from a conviction that the power of the powerless is overpowering once they realize their collective power. (1)

The unique flow of historical events vindicates the physicians’ analysis. The power of people when voting both with feet and with voice proved overwhelming. Where is the unbreachable Berlin Wall? Where is the Iron Curtain? Where is the mighty Soviet Communist empire? Where are the Warsaw Pact countries? At the sound of the people’s trumpet, these toppled like the biblical walls of Jericho.

To rely on Obama to do what only people can achieve would be blinding ourselves to history. I am reminded of a passage from Shakespeare’s “Henry IV Part 1 .” Glendower boasts: “I can call spirits from the vasty deep.”
Hotspur responds: “Why so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?”
Will Obama’s facile rhetoric mesmerize and persuade us that he alone can do it? In that case the nuclear arsenals will continue as spirits in “the vasty deep.”

Without educating and mobilizing the public, little progress will be made in eliminating nuclear weapons. Indeed Obama throughout his campaign for the presidency insisted that only the active participation by the American people will make his agenda for change possible. This demands the unrelenting engagement of Americans with the Obama administration.

A world movement is as necessary today as it was 25 years ago. An intergenerational conversation is needed between anti-nuclear activists, with their rich organizational experience, and young people brimming with energy and eager to bring a more humane and livable world into being.

In fact, we the people can make Obama truly deserve his Nobel Peace Prize.

1. Lown, B. “Prescription for Survival; A Doctor’s Journey to End Nuclear Madness. ” Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2007.

3 responses to “Obama, the Promise of Nuclear Abolition, and the Nobel

  1. Alice Yeager suggested I comment.
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    My work is focused on rrejuvenating telomeres, which, in the long run will enhance health optimally.

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