Enormity of US Military impedes nuclear abolition (Essay 27)

Bernard Lown, MD

Among antinuclear activists there is a sense of jubilant expectation that at last a demonic class of genocidal weapons will soon be consigned to the junk heap of history. Left behind will be a shudder of memory of how close humans came to an abyss of self-extinction. Outlawing the nuclear genie will not rebottle it. The potential nuclear nightmare will need to be secured everlastingly against perverse miscreants. Nonetheless, the removal of nuclear weapons from military stockpiles will be a mighty civilizing step for humankind.

Whence the current optimism? It arises because some most unexpected voices are joining the antinuclear fray. The new allies are former leading power brokers of the national security establishment. They were among the major architects of the nuclear age who in prior times favored adding megatonnage to the already existing obscene overkill.

In 2007, the former secretaries of state George P. Shultz and Henry A. Kissinger and former secretary of defense William J. Perry, joined by a number of distinguished military hawks, issued a call in the Wall Street Journal for nuclear abolition.(1) Their analysis was forthright, and their argument compelling. The reliance on nuclear weapons for deterrence, they wrote, 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 in  unstable countries “dramatically increases the risk that nuclear weapons will be used.” The seriousness of their purpose was amplified by their launching Ground Zero, an international movement to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Further adding to the abolitionist momentum was the election of President Barack Obama, who had seeded high expectations that he would dismantle the United States’ nuclear arsenals. In a widely heralded public meeting in Prague, a mere 10 weeks after gaining the presidency, Obama announced, “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.” No previous American president had acknowledged the moral responsibility of the United States for having exploded atomic weapons in densely populated cities. Never before had an American president so unequivocally voiced an intent to abolish nuclear weapons. No doubt , this commitment spurred the Nobel Peace Prize committee to award President Obama this ultimate prize, the first time it was ever given to someone who had merely espoused noble intentions.(2)

To take an adequate measure of strategic realities, it is important to probe the antinuclear rethinking among the US establishment mandarins. Three decades ago, when the doomsday clock on the masthead of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was posed a few minutes before midnight and humanity was teetering on the brink of a fiery Armageddon, there was no like urgency among these power brokers. What accounts for this dramatic shift in perception?

Geopolitical Background

Clearly the US position as the global financial hegemon has been weakened. The recent military misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have undermined confidence in the soundness of Washington’s leadership of the so-called free world. Complaints have mounted both at home and abroad that America is diffusing its power, that the government has become reactive, unfocused, and ineffective. A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times urged a disciplined return to basics.(3) The author emphasized that maintaining the credibility of the dollar is indispensable to America’s wealth and power. The dollar remains the singular sovereign global currency, and this must continue as the most important foreign policy objective. People the world over use the dollar for pricing, saving, and investment, thereby providing the US with access to unlimited capital at very low cost. The elegance of the arrangement is that Americans can issue new dollars at will that are readily exchangeable for basic resources the country needs and luxury products the people crave.(3)

In order to maintain such a privileged position, wherein 5 percent of the world’s population controls more than a quarter of the world’s wealth, the US needs unquestioned military might. In bygone ages the Spanish armada and the British royal navy maintained imperial dominance over far-flung colonies. The realities of projecting enough military power to sustain such economic privilege have not changed over the centuries except in magnitude of scale, in amplitude of global reach, and in a lesser transparency of imperial purpose.

The American Military Establishment

In every aspect of military might the US prevails on a historically unprecedented scale. This is true whether in budgetary allocations, or in cutting-edge military technology, or in the spread of military bases encircling the word, or in the awesome reach of sea power, or in advanced robotics and drone killing power, or in offensive warfare in cyberspace. In all these, the US is unmatched. In fact it has no competitors. Even if all its imagined potential adversaries should array in a hostile alliance, the US would readily prevail in any ensuing military confrontation. Indeed, never before in human history has a single nation possessed such a predominance of military power, able to strut unchallenged as the world’s solitary police officer.

The asymmetry of America’s military might is captured by the annual defense budget. In fact the Pentagon’s budget exceeds the military expenditures of the rest of the world combined. This gargantuan sum presently exceeds $2 billion daily, or approximately $83 million hourly. The Pentagon presently spends more in constant dollars than it did at any time during the Cold War — this despite the absence of anything remotely approximating what national security experts like to call a peer competitor, or an “evil empire.” In the past decade the Defense Department budget increased by 70 percent. Even when excluding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it rose by 40 percent. This at a time when the United States is bleeding fiscally, with an imploding housing crisis, massive unemployment, and a mounting federal deficit. Congress is readying for an extensive budgetary shearing of social programs. In fact, between 2001 and 2008, spending on universally popular programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security declined as a proportion of the national budget. Since World War II the United States has spent more than $30 trillion for national defense, a sum so astronomic as to beggar human imagination.

Another aspect in the vast global asymmetry of military power relates to the fact that American military presence peppers the globe. In a prior age, expansion of empire was defined by the number of lands colonized. America’s version of the colony is the military base. These have grown so numerous that even the Pentagon is uncertain of their exact number. The military currently owns or rents about 900 overseas bases in 130 countries on every continent, with an additional 6,000 bases in the United States and its territories. Deployed abroad are over half a million soldiers, spies, technicians, technocrats, dependents, and civilian contractors.

In addition to permanent bases, the US projects its military might with flotillas consisting of surface vessels and nuclear-powered submarines, which range the oceans and waterways of the world. The Pentagon possesses eleven naval strike forces built around aircraft carriers. Each aircraft carrier, more than 1,000 feet long and propelled by nuclear reactors, displaces more than 100,000 tons. Each has a complement of nearly 5,000 personnel and can launch more than 75 planes. An aircraft carrier is protected from hostile action by an accompanying flotilla that comprises cruisers, destroyers, and frigates. A single such strike force can challenge any current sea power or all the sea powers combined. The rest of the world possesses only nine aircraft carriers; only one is nuclear. In their combined tonnage they could readily hide in any three of America’s eleven behemoths.

The US media increasingly portray China as readying itself to challenge the United States’ global military primacy. How does China measure up in the sea power vital to protecting its far-flung quest for basic resources and trading partners? Media Cassandras twittered with excitement when China acquired a Soviet aircraft carrier, the 33,000-ton Varyag. Left unsaid was that this unseaworthy vessel was a rusting hulk without engines, without weapons, and without electronics, abandoned by the Soviets decades ago at a Black Sea port. Our media additionally overlooked the purchase price for the Varyag as a mere $20 million, only 0.2 percent of the $9 billion cost of a US aircraft carrier. This misnamed “air craft carrier” is supposed to threaten the balance of sea power in the South China Sea, where China is beginning to flex its military muscle.

As I am writing this essay, news flashes that President Obama has just landed in Darwin, capital of Australia’s Northern Territory, to announce the establishment of a new American air and naval base to house 2,500 Marines. The base abuts a major navigation corridor in the South China Sea, which accounts for $5.3 trillion in annual trade.(4) This American military power play is being accompanied by a conference in Bali, Indonesia, where the US is promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade bloc of 16 Asian countries, which excludes China.(5) Try to imagine China fostering a Latin American trade partnership excluding the US at the same time that it establishes a military base in Venezuela to counter our presence in the Caribbean. For Washington these would constitute provocative acts of war.

If in describing American military ascendancy one were to stop with sea power, one would miss a dominant development, namely, the revolution in robotic devices. These promise to enhance and in many instances to displace nearly all previous projections of military power. Robotics will not only shape future wars but also increase their likelihood.

The robotic era began in November 2002 with a Hellfire missile targeted on a car in Yemen, a country with which the US was not at war. The occupants, reduced to cinders, were six suspected Al-Qaeda members, including someone believed to have been implicated in the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole. Such predator-drone assassinations have multiplied under Obama. Researchers at the New America Foundation estimate that to date American drones have killed between 1,717 and 2,680 suspected terrorists residing in Pakistan. The Pentagon now operates 7,000 aerial drones and has asked Congress to appropriate nearly $5 billion for additional drone construction in 2012.

The Limits of Conventional Military Power

Human beings have an uncanny capacity to develop antidotes to seemingly overwhelming challenges. American military power is no exception. We witnessed this in 9/11, when a handful of suicidal terrorists, their sole weapons being box cutters, were able to inflict incalculable mayhem, death, and destruction on the United States. This terrorist orgy revealed a colossal failure of the gargantuan American military machine, whose foremost mission is to promote homeland security. It also adumbrated a far more nightmarish deficiency: namely, that conventional military power cannot prevent the use of nuclear weapons by rogue states or jihadist terrorists. These weapons enable the weak to inflict unacceptable damage on the strong. Few societies are more susceptible to the malevolent consequences of nuclear weapons or nuclear devices than the rich urbanized, technologically advanced industrialized North, foremost the United States. Even a limited nuclear assault or primitive nuclear device would exact incalculable pain and incur long-lasting social disorganization.

Some of America’s power elite have properly assimilated the lesson of 9/11. Our massive conventional military might is not enhanced by stockpiling nuclear overkill. On the contrary, it poses unseemly threats for the US. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by others stalemates the free exercise of American military power, thereby interfering with the enormous economic tribute that has hitherto been exacted, especially from developing countries. No wonder that the likes of Kissinger and Shultz campaign for a nuclear-free world.

Herein a diabolical dialectic is playing out the unintended consequences of America’s colossal military power. The more military might the US possesses, the less convincing the argument for a nuclear-zeroed world.

Only a nuclear arsenal, however limited, can assure a nation’s sovereignty. In fact, the asymmetry of US military power fosters global nuclear proliferation.

Two additional elements add to the spread of the witches’ brew vapors of nuclearism. First is the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention.” Second is the increasing abandonment by Washington of adherence to international law.

Humanitarian Interventions

Who does not wish to lend a hand to beleaguered citizens being bludgeoned by thugs, made ill by epidemics, or afflicted by natural disasters? These two conjoined words, “humanitarian intervention,” short-circuit a reasoned moral analysis, thereby causing us to yield to our emotional brains. The powers dominating society shape our understanding of the world largely through the 24/7 news cycle. We associate propaganda with totalitarian states, but engineering consent prevails in democratic societies as well. Propaganda is essential to a consumer society. How else would we be made to acquire what we don’t need but what we are convinced we cannot do without. What else would compel us to shop until we drop. One of the earliest architects of the public relations age was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays. He argued that maintaining control in a democratic society “requires the intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.”

Every nation has a deeply embedded folkloric narrative that defines the self-imaged virtues of its unique heritage. We Americans, from the evangelizing of the Puritan John Winthrop a century and a half before founding of the republic, have regarded our country as a “city upon a hill.” Unlike the Hebrews, who considered themselves God’s chosen people, Americans anointed themselves with exceptionalism. Our government’s mission was preordained to benefit humankind.

Such a beneficent self-image at times constrained America’s projection of its extravagant raw power. The dilemma was straightforwardly expressed to General Colin Powell by then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Governments in democratic societies ultimately have to gain wide support for their policies if they are to be legitimized by the public purse. How can imperial designs be implemented except through the pufferies of humanitarian pretensions? Consent is engineered by appealing to the deeply inbred decency of ordinary people.

The duplicities of such pretensions are painfully evident to those unafraid to confront the anguish prevailing in the wake of our military incursions. The Washington historian William Blum documented that the US has subverted or destroyed more than 50 governments since 1945. In a number of these countries we foisted a mass murderer on a populace to replace a formerly democratic government. Some of the dictators we sponsored left in their malignant wake enduring social disorganization. Among these were François Duvalier in Haiti, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Jonas Savimbi in Angola, Mobutu Sese Seko in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavi of Iran, the Somozas in Nicaragua, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in Pakistan. Would one dare soil the word “humanitarian” by conjoining it with these sordid interventions?

Attempts to lend stability to the nation-state have an ancient lineage. The carnage of the Thirty Years’ War nearly destroyed Europe. The Peace of Westphalia that followed, crafted in 1648, formulated two principles aiming to assure the security of national sovereignty: the inviolability of territorial integrity and the noninterference in internal affairs by foreign agents. This system is now being shattered by American policies. The resulting instabilities will necessarily be countered in various ways. One inevitable direction is for countries to obtain a nuclear deterrent. It needs to be recalled that the NATO attack against Libya occurred after Qaddafi gave up efforts to go nuclear. EU states then acclaimed and rewarded him with military hardware worth $1.56 billion, with promissory notes for much more. At the same time the more brutal regime of North Korea was spared largely due to its nuclear potential. Governments around the world will not miss the contrasting treatments of Qaddafi and Kim Jong Il.

Abrogation of International Law

In the past, the US government has upheld the inviolability of international law. Our finest hour was in crafting the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. We did not resort to summary executions of the architects of genocide. Instead we codified a meticulous judicial process and conducted criminal trials based on unimpeachable evidence,  adhering to civilized precedents with scrupulous fairness. The Nuremberg trials significantly expedited the evolution of international law. They led to the Genocide Convention, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Conventions, and the International Criminal Court.

With the advent of the Bush and Obama administrations, adherence to international precedents, treaties, and conventions has been eroded and even abrogated. The following dreary enumeration is but a partial list:

–The US rejected agreements to prohibit small-arms sales and continues to be the leading merchant of weaponry for the developing world.

–The US has rejected the international convention to ban child soldiers.

–The US rejected the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

–The US rejected the protocol to the Biological Weapons Treaty to make compliance verifiable, “because it would put confidential business information at risk.”

–The US did not ratify the Ottawa Treaty to ban land mines.

–The US rejected the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

–The US did not ratify the Law of the Seas.

–The US did not ratify the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women.

–The US rejected the Kyoto Treaty for reducing carbon emissions.

–The US has contravened the Geneva Convention against torture conducted in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo while practicing extraordinary rendition, namely, the odious and illegal practice of kidnapping foreign citizens presumed by the CIA to be involved with terrorism and transporting them to be tortured by the secret service of some of our client states.

–Last month in Geneva the Obama administration weakened the international convention banning cluster munitions.

Yet by far the most pernicious development that promises to unravel the weak fabric of international law is the introduction by the US of extrajudicial, remotely implemented assassinations by means of predatory drones. An arms race in military robotics will soon follow. One year ago at the Zhuhai Air Show, Americans were startled when Chinese companies unveiled 25 different models of remotely controlled aircraft.(5) How long before the Russians, Chinese, Indians, and Israelis launch killer drones targeted, respectively, on Chechens in the Caucasus, Uighurs in Khazakstan, Pakistanis in Kashmir, and Hamas adherents all over the Middle East?

Horrific science fiction scenarios are moving out of comic books and forging a new barbarous world of disorder and lawlessness. Many nations will seek protection against military incursions by going nuclear. The world will pay an inordinate price for America’s sick exceptionalism.

Inevitably the US will face the unintended consequences of this criminally foolhardy action. Blowback is coming to the US as well in the form of unmanned predator drones loaded with radioactive material or some makeshift nuclear devices, equivalent to the box cutters of yesteryear. Flights at treetop level across our huge permeable borders will make these predators difficult to identify and next to impossible to counter. Who will be weeping by the waters of Babylon for the moral imbecility and historical criminality of America’s best and brightest?

Additional Thoughts

Cassandra speaks truth, but she need not render the last word. People worldwide must comprehend that the major obstacle to abolishing genocidal nuclear weapons is  the enormous military establishment of the United States. For the first time increasing numbers of Americans are beginning to connect their immiseration with the profligacies of empire. The militarism that crashed many former empires is now contributing to the havoc befalling Americans. The US is no longer a city upon a hill. An affluent middle class that rooted strong democratic traditions is being decimated. A secure working class is increasingly jobless and increasingly homeless. A college education is out of reach for the large majority of aspiring young people. Debt-ridden graduates are not guaranteed gainful employment. At the same time the upper 1 percent in income is gorging on wealth never before equaled. In fact, 400 families possess more wealth than half the population, or 150 million Americans. A systemic pathology roils the country wherein schools do not educate, doctors do not heal, and religious figures do not succor.

The global challenge is beyond nuclear weaponry. It involves an urgency to address climate change and a host of other issues endangering human survival on planet Earth. The grim fact, though, is that the world order has remained largely intact since the days of Christopher Columbus. The prodigious transfer of wealth from poor to rich has not ceased. Pitted against one another are claims of luxury and claims of subsistence. Ours is a world built on a structure of inequality and injustice, where some can luxuriate while others can only toil. The developing world is excluded from social privilege and political control, as outsiders in their own home.(7) The primary aim of the American military is to assure the stability of such a global economic arrangement.

The widening political struggle must be global in reach and probing in analysis as to its cause. This is already anticipated by the sweep of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Globalism is awaiting its historical fulfillment by assuring a livable world for generations yet unborn.


1. George P. Schultz,William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn. A World Free of Nuclear Weapons, Wall Street Journal January 4,2007: page A 15
2. Bernard Lown. Prescription for Survival: A Doctor’s Journey to End Nuclear Madness. Barrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco ,2007.
3. Jeremi Suri. “America the Overcommitted.” Op-Ed, New York Times, October 14, 2011
4. Ian Johnson and Jackie Calmes. “As U.S. Looks Toward Asia, It Sees China Everywhere,” New York Times, November 16, 2011.
5. Scott Shane. “Coming Soon: The Drone Arms Race.” New York Times,October 9, 2011.
6. BruceG. Blair and Mathew A. Brown.”World Spending on Nuclear Weapons Surpasses $1 Trillion per Decade. The Defense Monito,vol 40, No 3. July -September 2011.
7. Bernard Lown. “A Farewll but Not a Goodbye.” Valedictory address to the 11th Congress of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). Mexico City October 2, 1993.

11 responses to “Enormity of US Military impedes nuclear abolition (Essay 27)

  1. Barbara H. Roberts, MD

    Having read your most recent blog, “optimism is a moral duty” seems like a laudable but impossible sentiment. Your article also instills in this reader a deep sense of shame and outrage at the actions of my government over the last few decades. Just as pernicious as US militarism run amok, and inextricably bound up in it, are the gathering storms of human-induced global warming, ecologic degradation, and the stripping of our planet’s non-renewable resources. Like an addict in the late stages of denial, we ignore the depths to which we have fallen, in our quest for the next fix. But all is not yet lost.

    As Naomi Klein wrote in her article Capitalism vs the Climate in The Nation: “In the rocky future we have already made inevitable, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people, and a capacity for deep compassion, will be the only things standing between humanity and barbarism.” Your erudite exposition of how US military asymmetry stands in the way of a rational approach to healing our world should be required reading for politicians and activists around the globe.

  2. Bernard, your expose of the grim global situation of the possible annihalation of humanity is truly excellent. You point to most if not all the different elements that underlie and sustain global injustice and oppression. You also point to the fragility of the powers of empire as revealed in the entire episode of 9/11. Since the tentacles of the octupus of oppression and global domination are so great and so entangled, it is difficult for many of us not to give up and conclude that our puny efforts are useless. Admittedly the Occupy Movement as it has hit the US is a ray of light in the darkness although I have to admit I do not see very clearly how it can dramatically change the world state of injustice. It would be wonderful if you could follow this essay with an outline of a strategy that follows from your analysis.

  3. A wonderful essay which must be fully understood and acted on.
    But, the world needs policing and there is no effective world government, So the US must do it, but abjure self interest, respect others, and use restraint, as a professional police force should.

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