Chain Reactions: Bad Faith and Bold Moves in the New Nuclear Age

Seventy-one years after the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, “the danger of some sort of nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War, and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.” The warning comes not from a lonely peacenik prophet-of-doom but a chastened member of the American national security elite, William Perry, defense secretary under US President Bill Clinton from 1994-1997, and author of a just-released call to disarmament action, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.

As a senior intelligence aide to President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Perry is familiar with the precariousness of nuclearized national security; as a businessman enriched by his secret military-industrial contracts, he knows equally well the enormous incentives to maintain the status quo. In 2007, however, Perry, together with three other pillars of the US foreign policy establishment— Henry Kissinger, secretary of state under Presidents Nixon and Ford; George Shultz, secretary of state under President Reagan; and Sam Nunn, the former Democratic chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee—declared the whole concept of a nuclear-armed ‘status quo’ null and void, asking, “Will the world be as fortunate…as we were during the Cold War?” If the answer, as they firmly believe, is ‘no,’ then a new goal needs urgently to be set, a “world free of nuclear weapons.”

Japanese School Kids at Hiroshima memorial (Genbaku Dome)

Japanese school children near Hiroshima Peace Memorial, also known as the Atomic Bomb Dome (“Genbaku Dome”). An exhibition hall, it was the only thing left standing in the area after the bomb. Photo by Catherine Campbell (June 2014)

Nearly 10 years after their clarion call, the situation, with the significant exception of the deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear activities, has significantly worsened. Instead of honouring the solemn, legally-binding commitment, set out in the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to negotiate “in good faith” the progressive elimination of their arsenals, all five Permanent-5 Members of the UN Security Council—China, France, Russia, the UK and the US—are engaged in multi-billion dollar ‘modernizations,’ extending the service life of their weapons by decades. Outside the NPT, four more states—Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea—are either secretly renovating or frenetically developing their capabilities, while over 30 NPT states, many in highly unstable regions, stand ready and able to cross the ‘threshold’ from peaceful to military nuclear programs.

The US, despite President Barack Obama’s rhetorical commitment to a nuclear-weapons-free world, has approved a one trillion-dollar, 30-year upgrade and overhaul of the land-, sea-, and air-based ‘triad’ of strategic forces, including the scheduled deployment by 2024 of 200 B61 ‘flexible yield’ bombs on aircraft in five NATO countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Turkey). What ‘flexible yield’ means, as former US Strategic Commander General James Cartwright told the PBS Newshour last year, is “more usable,” a ‘variable’ inevitably increasing the odds of a Russian first strike.

For its part, Russia under President Vladimir Putin has learned to ‘love the Bomb’ again, even planning to introduce what Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund calls an “insane” weapon, a “bizarre new nuclear torpedo” or “underwater drone” programmed to “swim 6,000 miles” and detonate a megaton warhead. The most dangerous race of all, however, is between India and Pakistan, with both sides now authorizing battlefield commanders to decide when and where to launch ‘tactical’ nuclear strikes. And behind all this state activity, of course, lurks the growing danger of radioactive material falling into the sadistic hands of ISIS or other terrorist groups.

Perry, though, is only half-right to claim “most people are blissfully unaware” of the threat. Millions, for sure are kept in the dark by sporadic, selective and inaccurate media coverage, especially in the nuclear-armed states and their allies. At the UN last May, for example, the NPT Review Conference failed to achieve consensus when three states out of the 190 in attendance (Canada, the UK and US), in an effort to shield Israel from criticism, blocked a proposal to convene a meeting on a Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction-Free-Zone in the Middle East. The resulting diplomatic shockwave produced barely a ripple of wire reports.


Alternative Pathways

Those wires, though, could be humming with news of momentous developments. Most dramatically, the crisis of confidence in the NPT has led 127 states to sign a ‘Humanitarian Pledge’ to negotiate a convention banning all nuclear weapons, just as all biological and chemical weapons have long been prohibited. In December 2015, 138 states passed a UN General Assembly resolution establishing an open-ended working group (OEWG) to report to this year’s assembly on the prospects and parameters of such a convention. The nuclear-weapons states are boycotting the OEWG, much to the chagrin of Kim Won-soo, the UN’s High Representative for Disarmament, who noted in Geneva on May 11 that due to “clear and present frustration with the status quo…pressure is rising for alternative pathways.”

One such route is being explored by the Marshall Islands, site of 67 massive nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958, which are taking the nuclear-weapons states to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, alleging gross violation of both the NPT (in the case of the P-5) and humanitarian and customary international law. In 1996, an advisory ruling by the ICJ confirmed that the NPT establishes not merely the political option but the legal obligation to abolish nuclear weapons through negotiation. The Court is now considering the Marshall Islands’ view that continued failure to act undermines the basis of all international law, “predicated” as it is “on a civilizational right to survival rooted in the principles and elementary considerations of humanity.”

The global peace movement is enthusiastically supporting the Humanitarian Pledge, the OEWG, and the Marshall Islands’ case. In Hiroshima on August 6 last year, the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings, a statement on ‘A Nuclear-Weapon-Free World: Our Common Good,’ was issued by Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (PNND), Religions for Peace, and Mayors for Peace, the alliance of over 7,000 municipalities which the Cape Breton Regional Municipality joined in 2013. The statement, calling for “principled action to advance shared security and well-being based on deeply held and widely shared moral principles,” has generated broad support, including, in Canada, from Paul Dewar, PNND co-president and former NDP foreign affairs critic; Liberal MP Hedy Fry; former Canadian disarmament ambassador Douglas Roche; and the Rev. Gary Burrill (United Heritage Church), leader of the Nova Scotia NDP.

Inspired, in part, by the ‘Our Common Good’ statement, a ‘chain reaction’ of peaceful actions for nuclear disarmament is being coordinated this year from July 8 to October 2 by the civil society alliance Unfold Zero. Events have begun and are planned in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, Nigeria, the UK, the US and elsewhere—although not, as yet, Canada. The question of Canada’s often contradictory position on nuclear weapons and disarmament will be considered in a future column, but the issue should not be left to politicians alone: maybe some concerned Cape Bretoners can start a ‘chain reaction’ of protest in our province and beyond. When you’re standing on the brink, it’s not enough to be spectator.



Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton. Peace Quest invites all Cape Bretoners to find time on Hiroshima Day, August 6, to reflect on the horror and legacy of the atomic bombings.