Year XXVII, 1985, Number 2, Page 127
JONATHAN SCHELL AND THE PROBLEM OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS
A well-known cliché has it that European intellectuals are essentially ideologists, inclined to reasoning with fairly general interpretative categories, who are capable of reaching fairly high levels of abstraction, but who are then unable to translate all this into concrete proposals or immediate objectives of political action. American intellectuals, the cliché maintains, are essentially pragmatic and more inclined to limiting the problem and isolating it from its general context so as to find a satisfying solution at once, even though it may not be the perfect solution. In other words they are said to prefer a concrete yet provisional solution to a general but abstract one.
Jonathan Schell is an intellectual whose line of thinking constantly wavers between these two models. He knows how to be a ‘European’ when he traces the general framework of problems and when he explains the issue. He knows how to be American when he indicates what he thinks is the only road to be followed in the immediate future. Naturally, these models do not necessarily manage to merge. Indeed, this is not the case or rather not yet the case, but there can be no doubt that the presence of these two styles, albeit alternating and discontinuous, is in itself a great point in Schell’s favour, if only because it facilitates constructive dialogue with those European intellectuals (and federalists in particular) who have always tried to weld theoretical rigour in analysis with suggestions about the political conditions that make a solution possible.
Schell’s latest work is The Abolition (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), but the basic concepts of his political philosophy, relating to the nuclear problem, are contained in his previous book, The Fate of the Earth (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1982). For greater understanding of what will follow, we may conveniently summarise the main points.
1. The danger that humanity will be wiped out does not lie in this or that political circumstance, but in having reached a certain level of knowledge regarding the physical universe. Ever since man managed to carry out the conversion of mass into energy, according to Einstein’s well-known formula E=mc2, an immense and previously unknown force has been in man’s hands, “the force from which the sun derives its energy”.
From that moment in time, the small human beings who freed “the fundamental force of the universe” have lived and will for ever more live in mortal danger of mankind’s self-extinction.
The nuclear threat, says Schell, does not consist in the fact that certain nations have nuclear weapons but in the fact that mankind as a whole now possesses, once and for all, the necessary knowledge to produce them. Those times when self-extinction lay beyond the reach of our species will never return.
2. The invention of nuclear weapons has removed any meaning from war as a means of regulating conflicts between States. Ever since man became stronger than nature, violence can no longer take on the form of war because war can no longer achieve what it achieved in the past (the exhaustion of one or more contenders and the victory of the other). Violence can no longer lead to victory or defeat, and can no longer achieve particular ends, and can no longer be war. For this reason, war no longer has any meaning, there is no need to ‘abolish war’ between the Superpowers: war is already dead because it is no longer a possible choice. Indeed, we can only choose between peace and annihilation.
3. We live in a world dominated by a system of sovereignties which has the same relationship to the land as a polluting factory has with the environment. It is not true that the Superpowers possess nuclear weapons only for the purpose of preventing their use and thus preserving peace. Nuclear weapons serve essentially to defend national interests, i.e. to conserve and perpetuate the system of national sovereignties. In the pre-nuclear world, nations guaranteed their sovereignties by threatening (or resorting) to war. Today they resort to threatening extinction.
4. Using Clausewitz (“It is never possible to separate war from political ties; and if in some hypothetical way it could come about, all the various threads would in some way be interrupted, and then we would be faced with something with no sense and no object”) Schell argues that, with the advent of nuclear weapons, the violence of war (which is the means) is separated from its political objectives (which are its end): the nuclear holocaust would be a political end with no sense.
It follows that, today, we are in the presence of a divide between violence and politics. This divorce, based on the irreversible progress of scientific knowledge, is both definitive and must be applied to the entire field of politics. The new political task is to build a world not based on violence. This task is divided into two basic objectives: on the one hand, saving the world from extinction by eliminating nuclear weapons and creating, on the other hand, a political instrument by which decisions can be taken which national sovereign States once took by resorting to war.
5. In our world, nuclear weapons (by not being used) have already half-renounced their traditional military role. They are psychological weapons, their true target is the mind of adversaries. Their destiny, if the system of deterrence works, is to rust away in silos. But we must go beyond this, we must make weapons completely abstract. Instead of being objects they must be turned into thoughts in our minds. We must destroy them and thus pass to a system of ‘perfect deterrence’, i.e. a system where the deterrent is given by the knowledge that, in a disarmed world, rearmament would mean extinction. For this reason, the main strategic principle would be: the deterrent is knowledge. The nuclear threat was born from knowledge and must remain in knowledge.
The conclusions of The Fate of the Earth are fairly explicit: renounce weapons, whether nuclear or conventional, give up national sovereignty and find a political system which, by replacing the current political decision-making mechanisms is able to resolve international disputes peacefully. This is no doubt a book rich with analysis and fairly interesting reflections, with a ‘pathos’ which transpires from every page and which ends with a big question: what is the political instrument which, today, needs to be ‘invented’ to prevent international tensions from ending up in a nuclear holocaust?
In his latest book, The Abolition, Jonathan Schell constructs what he thinks is a possible concrete reply. What is most striking in this latest work is the sharp break with a number of ideological positions he previously held (for example, on the theme of the renunciation of national sovereignty), and the abandonment of a more analytical and more problematic style in favour of a fairly ‘concrete’ style of argument centred on an anxiety to find a practical solution that can be offered up to the rulers of the Earth here and now. Once again it is helpful to summarise the salient features of this latest book to be able to give an overall assessment of Schell’s work.
1. The radical turning point in his thinking occurs precisely on the theme of national sovereignty – a further demonstration, if there was any further need, that this is precisely the key factor – for he accepts the official thesis of current political ‘realism’ which claims that the abandonment of sovereignties must be considered as absurd.
Schell recognises Albert Einstein as the leader of the cultural and political current which sustains the historical need for the abandonment of national sovereignties in favour of a world government, the only guarantee of universal peace. He considers Einstein’s proposal, however, to be an abstract, almost scientific formula: with his science he changed the world and now he wants to change it again through a political proposal. But, adds Schell, politics is different from science, its time span is different, the end to national sovereignties is not something for today, sovereignties are not in crisis. It is necessary, therefore, to accept them at least for an indefinite period.
The current fact, which must be taken as the point of departure, is the following: the existence of national sovereignties (= theoretical possibilities of using weapons) tied to the existence of nuclear weapons (=the impossibility of using them for the purposes of war, but only for the holocaust) have laid the bases for a new system: nuclear deterrence. Schell thus uses the approach set out by Bernard Brodie who is considered to be one of the founders of American nuclear strategy, based precisely on deterrence.
2. With the system of nuclear deterrence the world has changed. Today the alternative is no longer between the conflict of the States and world government, because with deterrence, the conflict is forestalled, and therefore avoided, while the contrasts are frozen, suspended or deferred or even pass to the economic and cultural fields, or the field of internal insurrection, local revolutions included.
Thus the task of deterrence is not to control conflicts or to sanction results but to forestall them.
From this point of view, then, while the hypotheses of war and world government (the ‘savage freedom’ and the‘civil state’ as Kant put it) are the means by which to control conflict, and are hence the instruments of change, on the other hand, nuclear deterrence favours a stalemate, the status quo and the conservation of what already exists.
But the merit of nuclear deterrence, according to Schell, is that, thanks to it, we have passed into a world where the use of force to regulate international conflicts is lost. Although we have not yet reached the ‘civil state’, the ‘free state’ no longer exists. We are, in fact, in a deterred state, i.e. in a situation where, thanks to nuclear deterrence, contrasts between sovereign States no longer develop into armed conflicts, but are deferred, and deviated towards other forms of conflict. Nuclear weapons have taken the sword of war out of our hands: we cannot abolish war because nuclear weapons have done it for us. The question moves from how to abolish war, to how to go ahead in a world in which war is already abolished. Deterrence, therefore, is not a continuation of international anarchy (the ‘free savagery’) in which war is still possible, but a new system by means of which we can move forwards into a world where war does not exist.
We should add that Schell recognises quite frankly that the choice of deterrence shows that the main objective is the maintenance of sovereignty, but we will return to this later.
3. Unlike Brodie, Schell realises, however, that there is an objective disparity between ends and means with deterrence. If the end is stability, the defence of the status quo, and if the means is, every time, the threat of a holocaust, then we risk an unbearable situation: even the tiniest attempt against international stability entails the threat of a nuclear holocaust! And then one wonders whether there is no other means by which to preserve stability with less risks.
Revealing a ‘realism’ which is taken to the extremes of unreality, Schell maintains, first of all, that it is necessary to accept the world as it is, without wishing to change it. He realises that he is professing a conservative faith, but, he says, it is the price we must pay for the nuclear threat. This does not mean that peoples subjected to a great power must not fight for their own liberty because the principle of maintaining the status quo exists: it only means that they cannot count on external military help.
In the second place, and here we finally reach the core of his proposal, we need to pass from the idea of offensive weapons to defensive weapons. The cornerstone of the entire operation consists in establishing an agreement which abolishes nuclear weapons and replaces them with a defensive shield. It seems to us that there is no way of escaping the similarity between this vision and the current American administration’s policy – indeed, Schell himself recalls that Reagan’s proposal for a space shield would be fine as long as the timetable of the operations were reversed: we must first abolish (offensive) nuclear weapons and then construct defensive weapons.
Schell goes so far as claiming that this system of purely defensive weapons would not need any international control. The guarantee that the system will work is given by the knowledge that a breach of the agreement would be to nobody’s advantage and would plunge all nations into an abyss. Indeed, in this new world of deterrence without weapons (perfect deterrence) both security and deterrence would be guaranteed by the capacity of all nations to re-arm within a short period. If, for example, the agreement was violated, the aggressor would have an immediate advantage, but would know that retaliation would come in any case, even after a few weeks, because knowledge of nuclear weapons is given once and for all. Schell puts it this way: if Japan had had nuclear weapons in 1945, would the USA have risked New York and Chicago for Hiroshima and Nagasaki? With the abolition of nuclear weapons alone, we would remove the threat of a holocaust for an indefinite period of time, while still protecting national sovereignties with conventional weapons.
4. The final part of Schell’s discussion is entirely taken up with what procedures are necessary to create a world with no nuclear weapons. Negotiations must be based on the objective, whatever it may be: the stability of current arsenals, space weapons (apparently, Schell thinks they are exclusively defence systems), weapons limitation etc. Once the objective of the negotiations is settled, negotiations can be carried out in several stages, bearing in mind that, in the various stages: a) deterrence always works; b) the principle of not using nuclear weapons first (no first use) must be introduced. This principle, together with the principle of obtaining a deterrence which is not based on weapons, can create the bases for complete nuclear disarmament.
The solution of the nuclear issue, therefore, comes in two stages: a) agreements between the powers to fix the status quo and abolish nuclear weapons. In this phase, disagreements between nations would not be tackled and resolved, but only suppressed or deferred; b) with the nuclear threat removed, all the main issues in the world could be tackled with new non-violent means, and new decision-making systems could be discovered and tested. In conclusion, the world of deterrence without weapons is not a world without frontiers; indeed the latter, far from disappearing, would become sacrosanct. The world would thus be ‘crystallized’ into unchangeable units within which the peoples would not be able to conquer others, but would be sheltered from the conquests of others.
We have given a detailed account of Schell’s thesis for three basic reasons. The first is that Schell’s work is a serious attempt to overcome the current system of deterrence based on nuclear weapons and this attempt is carried out bearing in mind the need for ‘political realism’ (or at least this is the intention). The second is the fact that this contribution falls entirely within the culture of major intellectual environments and the American establishment – which is of no small significance, particularly for Europeans. The third is that some of Schell’s arguments are to be found in the European debate: for example, considering nuclear weapons as psychological weapons, which will never be used, or the acceptance, which is taken for granted, of national sovereignties and even the desire to resolve everything by means of negotiations among the powers. It is useful, therefore, to show what conclusions are necessarily reached when we depart from certain premises.
While we have stressed the significance of Schell’s work in itself, we must at the same time stress that his attempt to develop a system of deterrence which is not based on nuclear weapons does not seem to come off for a number of reasons, in particular, because of his approach to the problem, the contradictions within the system of thinking which underlies the approach, and the really ‘fideistic’ conclusions, which are so out of step with the ‘realism’ of the premises.
Frankly, we are obliged to say that The Abolition is a step backwards with respect to the positions in The Fate of the Earth and it is difficult to understand the reasons for the about-turn on various points. Our critical assessment may be summarized as follows:
a) According to Schell everything began with the invention of nuclear weapons. From that moment onwards, everything changed: war no longer has any sense, there is only the possibility of the holocaust, it is necessary to eliminate nuclear weapons. Certainly, nuclear weapons are not just weapons which are a little more deadly than the previous weapons: they are certainly something different which makes the idea itself of their use irrational and contradictory. But irrational does not mean in this case unreal. And we should not forget what war meant in the past, when entire populations, such as the Indians and Indios of America were wiped off the face of the planet (due to the passage from the sword to firearms), or when defenceless people were slaughtered wholesale because no distinction was made between theatre of war and the remaining territory (the First and particularly the Second World War, and subsequent ‘local’ wars). And what could we say if one day the diabolical human mind went beyond nuclear weapons, and used new weapons capable of annihilating only the adversary without running the risk of annihilating the entire human species?
It is here that the error in Schell’s approach lies. Indeed, the problem is not nuclear weapons (or tomorrow another weapon). The problem is: there is a possibility of war (or the holocaust) not because there are weapons, but there are weapons because there is still the possibility of war, i.e. there is still in our world the possibility that States will resort to war as an extrema ratio. And it is no good arguing, as Schell argues, that with the advent of nuclear weapons war no longer has any sense, because the loss of sense is not the same thing, in itself, as its disappearance. Time and again, if not always, men have acted irrationally without rational institutions. The key problem is, therefore, the possibility of wars, not the existence of weapons which is a clear consequence of this possibility.
Now the possibility of war (or the holocaust) is, in its turn, the consequence of the exclusive sovereignty of States which is the true cause of the problem of peace and war. Not by chance, indeed, precisely on this point, Schell makes the real political choice which, subsequently, determines all the rest. By accepting the sovereignty of States as an unchangeable fact, he is forced to try to square the circle of general disarmament without international control by falling back on the hope – which is simply unrealistic – that the true deterrent is simply the knowledge of everything nuclear.
b) Do nuclear weapons abolish war as Schell says? Certainly, we agree when he says that a different war would be fought with nuclear weapons from those which men have fought for thousands of years. It would be a war which in the end would have no winner or loser, but only losers or rather extermination. But what sense is there in saying there is no more war, but only a holocaust? Does the problem change perhaps? Does something change perhaps if we know that we will not die from a war but from a nuclear holocaust?
In our opinion, if it is used in this way, the distinction between war and holocaust (even though, in some respects, conceptually correct) is in danger of causing confusion. It is liable to encourage the fairly widespread illusion that, thanks to nuclear weapons and deterrence, there will be no armed conflicts between the Superpowers. Here, too, we are up against an error in approach, an error which derives from the belief that the problem of war lies in the existence of weapons. Indeed, just as it is true that it is not weapons which create the possibility of wars, it is equally true that it cannot be the invention of a particular weapon (nuclear weapons) which will eliminate this possibility.
Certainly, nuclear weapons, inasmuch as they give rise to the problem of the mankind’s extinction, also pose the problem of the abolition of war. But let us tread warily: they only pose the problem, they do not resolve it in themselves.
About two centuries ago, Immanuel Kant set out the problem in the proper way. He said that it would be war, because of its increasingly destructive nature, that would bring an end to itself, provoking, “after at first imperfect attempts”, an end to the “savage liberty” of States with a “federation of peoples”. Hence nuclear weapons pose the problem of an end to war, but the solution, once again, does not lie in its abolition (Schell) but in an end to exclusive national sovereignties, in the power to prohibit war, in the creation of a world federation (Kant), because only by abolishing exclusive national sovereignties is it possible to abolish war (and hence weapons).
c) Schell seems to be very aware that the key problem lies in sovereignty. In a fairly lucid way in The Fate of the Earth, he says that mankind has always lived in a system of sovereignties: “the leading feature of this system ... was the apparently indissoluble connection between sovereignty... and war... For without sovereignty, it appeared, peoples were not able to organize and launch wars against other peoples”. And he further adds: “Indeed, the connection between sovereignty and war is almost a definitional one – a sovereign State being a State that enjoys the right and the power to go to war in defence or pursuit of its interests.” But in The Abolition, all this is forgotten. On several pages a certain fastidiousness emerges vis-à-vis those who argue that it is necessary to overcome the system of sovereignties if we wish to abolish war forever. He says that the world, as a whole, intends to preserve the sovereignty of States, even at the risk of its own survival, as if we could expect that one fine day, suddenly, States decided to give up their sovereignty spontaneously!
The passage from a system of independent and sovereign States to a federal system of States is never spontaneous or painless, but is the fruit of hard political fighting which can only be successful when this passage is dictated by profound and impelling historical and political reasons (are not the peace and safety of mankind just this?), and when a political movement exists which is the bearer of new aspirations.
It is highly singular to recall these things to an intellectual from the USA, a State which would not have existed today if, two centuries ago, the more far-sighted section of the American population had not opted, with the Philadelphia Convention of 1788, for the abandonment of the thirteen States’ sovereignty in favour of their federal union.
Schell certainly knows these things better than we do, as he will certainly have heard of Alexander Hamilton, indeed he quotes a well-known passage from him, precisely the same one that this review has had on its front cover for the last twenty-five years (“To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent unconnected sovereignties situated in the same neighbourhood, would be to disregard the uniform course of human events and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages”), but then he forgets it – which is such a pity!
Certainly, the problem of the passage from a system of sovereign States to a federal union cannot be envisaged in a uniform and contemporary way for all the countries in the world. It is an enormous problem and cannot be dealt with here. We shall restrict ourselves, therefore, to making the following concluding remarks.
First of all, the abandonment of national sovereignties presupposes a historical and political crisis of States, without which it cannot be proposed. And this is something, which, in the second half of the Twentieth century, concerns European States primarily, whose political and historical crisis is matched by an increasingly deeper economic and social interdependence (birth of the EEC). The federal unification of mankind can begin only in Europe, the area of the world which saw the birth, the apogee and collapse of the nation States and which, precisely for this reason, can launch a message of great historical importance to the whole world by uniting itself, thus indicating the road to the world’s unity. For this reason, this is an objective which, for Europeans, is already couched in terms of political struggle.
For other areas of the world, the problem arises in different terms: because their economic and social interdependence is not yet sufficiently developed, nation States are still too recent an acquisition and still represent the achievement of independence (Third World countries). For yet other areas, the problem does not even arise, because the States are not yet historically in crisis (USA and USSR): and this explains why in these areas of the world the problem is not felt either by public opinion or by the ruling classes and the intellectuals. This does not mean that we cannot think and act now: a) in terms of regional unification, albeit restricted to the earliest stages of development, in all those countries which (unlike the USA, the USSR, China and India) do not yet possess a multinational dimension and/or a multistate dimension; b) in terms of foreign policy in all countries, including the USA. Any American can, like any other person, support or contest the reinforcement of the UN on concrete issues, such as the creation of an International Authority (“Convention on the Law of the Sea”, Jamaica, December 1982, ratified so far by 140 States, mainly Third World countries, but openly contested by the USA) which should run the riches of the sea-beds and their sub-soils for all mankind without regard to national jurisdictions. Any American, like any other man, can support or contest European unification and other regional unifications.
For an American it is an already effective choice, between an imperialist policy (divide et impera) and a policy of support for all the seeds of world unification already activated. And it is reasonable to think that only a world which begins to realise it is moving towards political unity (a world government based on great regional governments) could find the moral orientation and indispensable political capacity to resolve the greatest problems of our times, which do not make it possible to separate issues of security from those of the economic and civil development of all the countries of the world. It is this idea that we would like to discuss with all American intellectuals.
North America certainly is not undergoing a crisis in sovereignty. It is a country with enormous political, economic and military power which directly or indirectly dominates half the world (if not more). There is therefore no basis for a policy of renunciation of part of national sovereignty. And this explains why intellectuals like Schell, initially favouring the idea of world government, end up by falling back on the acceptance of the world of sovereignties, when they see that no practicable roads appear before them. But it is also true that American intellectuals can already take a concrete stand against the imperialist policy of divide et impera which the weakness of a divided Europe fatally unleashes in the USA.
Today, the cultural leanings towards cosmopolitanism and world government which were once consistent (up till 1945) in the USA – not by chance precisely in the State born from an end to sovereignty – only exist as a minority trend. Despite this, they are still present and may be strengthened.
The weakness of federalism in contemporary American culture is serious for the entire world. It must therefore be brought to the attention of American intellectuals. The intellectual is a person who filters and develops stimuli, suggestions and ideas which come from society. The average intellectual usually reworks the dominant ideas of his age and Marx was right when he said “the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class ”.
But the true task of the intellectual is research into truth even, and above all, when this truth goes against dominant ideas and against the powers that be. And the truth is that, although we can debate the question, it is not possible to speak of lasting peace, general definitive disarmament, if we do not begin by renouncing exclusive national sovereignties in favour of federal unity, today in Europe, tomorrow in other regions and, eventually, in the world.