I found myself laughing rather too enthusiastically at a couple of jokes on last week’s Now Show (on Radio 4) about Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Laughing in the face of the apocalypse may be a sound psychological survival strategy – or have I just become complacent about the threat of nuclear war?
I have to hope that the latest stand-off between North Korea and the USA will have brought home to people one horrendously uncomfortable truth: that ours is a world which could still be devastated at any moment by an exchange of nuclear weapons, limited or extensive, or indeed by a nuclear accident of some description.
These threats are surely greater today than at any time since the end of the Cold War. The Doomsday Clock (created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) has been regularly updated over the last 70 years. At the end of January 2017, they turned the hands of the clock to two and a half minutes to midnight, a full 30 seconds closer to midnight than it was a year ago. The closest it ever got was two minutes to midnight, in 1953, after both the US and Russia had detonated their latest nuclear weapons.
The principal reason for the change this year is “the disturbing trend of world leaders espousing policies and making statements not tied to evidence.” Donald Trump is not mentioned by name, but he doesn’t need to be: “Nuclear weapons and climate change are precisely the sort of complex, existential threats that cannot be properly managed without access to and reliance on expert knowledge.”
And Donald Trump’s utterances on nuclear weapons during and since the 2016 Presidential Election certainly justify that concern. A throw-away rhetorical question (“What’s the point of having a weapon if you’re not prepared to use to it?”) was worrying enough, but in March this year, a Huffington Post headline perfectly captured the sense of disbelief at another of his nuclear utterances: “President Donald Trump Would Only Turn to Nuclear Annihilation as a Last Resort: ‘I’d be very, very slow on the draw’”.
As nuclear expert David Lowry has commented, we shouldn’t forget what this firepower looks like: “As with his predecessors, Trump’s power over the life and death of entire nations would be practically unbounded. The nuclear deluge he could command would consist of thousands of weapons, each ten or twenty times more deadly than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Nearly 2,000 US strategic nuclear weapons aimed primarily at Russia and China (at a ratio of roughly 2:1), with additional dozens aimed at each of several other nations – North Korea, Iran and Syria – would be at a President Trump’s disposal from his first few minutes in office.”
So are we sufficiently focussed on the horror story of these two ‘mavericks’ (in Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un) metaphorically eye-balling each other over their respective launch buttons? Why are we not shit-scared? And why are young people not super-shit-scared at this ratcheting up of nuclear tension?
I joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1970s, and have been a strong supporter since then. And through the 70s and 80s, we were indeed shit-scared. Our prevailing view was that deterrence would fail, something would go wrong, and the dread threat of Mutually Assured Destruction would not be enough to stop some kind of nuclear meltdown. That fear spurred us on in our anti-nuclear campaigning, and we were reinforced in that ‘belief’ by a host of supporting narratives, both non-fictional and fictional.
Writing this blog, I’ve just taken down my copy of ‘When the Wind Blows’ by Raymond Briggs, he of Snowman fame. This account of two old people trying to cope on their own with the aftermath of a nuclear conflagration seized my imagination at the time. I kept thinking about how my parents would cope, about the millions of people who would be totally isolated in the absence of any social services or military response. My parents (obviously!) told me to stop worrying, and that deterrence would work as long as the West stayed strong in its own self-belief and in the power of its ability to inflict Armageddon on the world.
Raymond Briggs provided just one of countless ways of imagining what might happen if deterrence theory failed – a powerful ‘imaginary’ that (in this case) reinforced my pre-existing fear of a nuclear disaster. There were, of course, rival ‘imaginaries’, intent on reinforcing diametrically opposed viewpoints to support deterrence theory, but in many respects, this was ‘a Golden Age of Fear’.
I put it like that because fear drove millions of people to get active, in one way or another, and that activism had a huge impact on politicians. It’s just history now, but the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Ronald Reagan’s surprising commitment to ‘a world free of nuclear weapons’, the various Strategic Arms Reductions Talks (which led to huge reductions in the numbers of nuclear weapons deployed by the superpowers) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (still not ratified) could all be said to flow from that period of activism, driven by a powerful combination of fear (of Armageddon) and hope (of a nuclear-free world).
I hadn’t thought about this stuff for years. So I’m immensely grateful to the Program on Science, Technology and Society at the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University for inviting me to take part in a seminar focussed on ‘New Nuclear Imaginaries’, embracing both nuclear power and nuclear weapons, both from an historical perspective and current. It was such a privilege to be sitting there listening to a splendidly eclectic line-up of seriously smart academics!
On nuclear power, as it happens, we’re now living in a very different world. Our imaginaries for a non-nuclear energy future for the world were pretty anaemic back in the 80s and 90s, when the alternatives just didn’t stack up. But these days, those non-nuclear imaginaries have got the upper hand, with nuclear power’s erstwhile mixture of bragging rights and ‘little boys with big toys’ fantasies now in retreat. In ‘The World We Made’ (where I now realise I was trying out all sorts of imaginaries about our sustainable future!) it proved very easy to conjure up visions of our 100% renewable energy systems, with solar technologies becoming ever more sophisticated in both the rich and the poor worlds.
On nuclear weapons, however, I think we’re in a much less comfortable place. It’s obvious, at one level, that every nation in the world should be doing everything in its power to rid the world of all nuclear weapons. But politicians in nuclear weapons countries, whatever their fine words about the desirability of that end goal may be, just don’t believe it will ever happen.
Which leads to today’s institutionalised hypocrisy, exemplified not just by Donald Trump’s maverick machismo, but by politicians here in the UK. The official position of the UK Government (in responding to pressure from CND over the last five decades) is that unilateral disarmament (with the UK giving up its nuclear weapons regardless of what other nations do) is ‘reckless’ – only a multilateral disarmament process would make it possible for the UK to become nuclear-free.
But here’s the thing. On March 27th, a new multilateral conference on negotiating a Global Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty kicked off at the United Nations in New York. Over 120 countries have sent diplomatic representatives – but not the UK, despite its tireless championing of multilateral disarmament.
I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised by such grotesque hypocrisy. The UK is so uncertain of its future position in the world, so incapable of defining a truly inspiring post-imperial role for itself (what else do you think the Brexit debacle is all about?) that voluntarily renouncing one of its essential claims to ‘a seat at the high table’, in the shape of our notionally independent nuclear deterrent, has been literally ‘uncountenanceable’ to a whole generation of our political establishment.
Indeed, some fascinating research by Phil Johnstone and Andy Stirling at Sussex University suggests that the establishment’s implacable resolve to maintain our ‘continuous-at-sea nuclear deterrent’ (through our Trident submarines) has had a highly significant influence on the UK’s energy policy. Between 2003 and 2006, the Labour Government dramatically changed its position from broadly anti-nuclear power to rabidly pro-nuclear power.
As Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission at the time, we were totally mystified by this change of heart, for which there was no convincing rationale when looked at purely from an energy perspective. In their fascinating paper (‘The Submerged Influence of Trident Ambitions’: https://sustainablesecurity.org/2017/04/10/is-trident-influencing-uk-energy-policy-part-1/ and https://sustainablesecurity.org/2017/04/12/is-trident-influencing-uk-energy-policy-part-2/), Johnstone and Stirling present a compelling hypothesis that it was pressure from the Atomic Weapons Establishment and companies involved in the nuclear weapons industry (deeply disturbed at the potential loss of critical skills across the nuclear industry at that time) that lay behind such a dramatic shift.
For that political establishment, there are no rival ‘imaginaries’ to summon up a future for the UK in which both our security and our ‘good standing’ in the world are secured. And I suspect that’s probably true, unfortunately, for the majority of UK citizens exposed over decades to an endless barrage of pro-nuclear propaganda through our right-wing media and ‘captured’ political parties.
So how can we get back to that Golden Age of Fear, where the idea of deterrence based on Mutually Assured Destruction was seen as extraordinarily dangerous? Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are certainly doing their bit. But is there a more positive imaginary that would make people feel good about nuclear disarmament, not just shit-scared?
Here’s what I ventured, by way of a more positive imaginary on nuclear disarmament, in ‘The World We Made’:
“When the vast majority of top-ranking Officers across the UK armed services, whether serving or retired, came to the conclusion that the maintenance of our nuclear deterrent was the biggest single threat to our future defence capability, the phase-out process at last got under way in 2022.
Despite the UK’s disastrous involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at the start of the century, we also had a formidable reputation as one of the few nations that could take on often dangerous peace-keeping missions around the world. With Trident gone, that became an even more crucial part of our foreign policy. In recent surveys of what it is that ‘makes us feel proud about our country’, more than 50% of people in the UK put our role in international peacekeeping close to the top of their list. And that’s why a lot of young people today are still so keen to enlist in the armed forces.”
Far-fetched? Probably. But the fact that more and more very senior people in the UK armed services have come to exactly that conclusion about renewing our Trident submarines has to give us some encouragement.