Commentary Magazine

Nuclear Abolitionism

By now all discussion about the problem of how to avert a nuclear catastrophe has been pretty clearly polarized into two opposite positions—usually known as deterrence and disarmament, but more fairly and accurately characterized, I think, by the terms “stabilization” and “abolition.” Those whom I call “stabilizers” stress the positive role that the nuclear armaments themselves have played in preserving peace in spite of the prevailing high political tension: which is to say, governments refrain from going to war because the destructiveness of weapons renders the image of war too abhorrent. The “abolitionists,” however, see no adequate assurance of continued peace in all this. Nuclear armaments, according to them, are a threat to peace. They can trigger war in various ways—through accident, through the spread of nuclear weapons among the reckless and the irresponsible, or through some technological advance enabling a power to strike without having to fear retaliation. As long as the weapons exist, nuclear war becomes more likely every day, and such a war must clearly result in the destruction of civilization. The danger can be averted only by the total abolition of nuclear weapons.

Each side in this debate claims for its position the greater degree of “realism.” For the stabilizers, being realistic means, among other things, recognizing the grave danger involved in complete disarmament, even assuming—as experience gives us no warrant whatever for doing—that a disarmament agreement could be reached. The elimination of nuclear weapons, they argue, could not also eradicate nuclear know-how. On the contrary, a nuclear vacuum would be likely to tempt one power or another to create a new nuclear monopoly. The abolitionists, however, maintain that this risk can be obviated if the nations of the world give up their attachment to an outmoded national sovereignty and turn over their power to a world authority. Thus, for the abolitionists the idea of world government is no longer a woolly-minded dream; nuclear weapons have made of it the agency of purest national self-interest.

The most recent statements of the case for complete disarmament under a supranational authority have been made in two very dissimilar books—one by an American, Max Lerner’s The Age of Overkill,1 and the other by an Englishman, John Strachey’s On The Prevention of War.2 Mr. Lerner, content to take the stock arguments of abolitionism at their face value without critical examination, deals in large abstractions. He is mainly concerned with showing how the interplay of metaphysical forces like Power, Empire, and Order determines the historical proess and leads it to a necessary culmination in the establishment of a peaceful universal authority. And in view of his sense of grand historical sweep, the immediate issue of nuclear war receives summary treatment. Mr. Lerner dismisses the whole policy of deterrence—to which he denies any credit for the stability of the past seventeen years—as being a sheer absurdity, based on “non-rational fears” and at the same time only workable if everybody acts with “flawless rationality.” In his opinion, it can finally produce nothing more than a “deadly spiral.”

Mr. Strachey, on the other hand, neither sees nor treats the problem so simply. In masterly fashion he sets forth both the conditions under which deterrence can and does contribute to keeping political tension under control, and those under which it might cease to do so. His whole analysis constitutes an implicit rejection of the idea that we can immediately bring about total disarmament. In fact, for the short run, Mr. Strachey endorses what I have called the “stabilizing” solution: that we must today operate within the margin of safety afforded us by the nuclear balance together with all the other existing (political) forces that contribute to stability. This margin may be a slim one, but it provides some degree of safety nonetheless. Strachey would agree with Lerner about the irrational aspects of a strategy of deterrence. But—and it is just this kind of sober flexibility that makes him so much more convincing than Lerner—he understands that deterrence can still work at a level considerably below that of “flawless rationality.”



But apart from their respective assessments of the role played by deterrence in preventing nuclear war, both writers, by insisting on the significance of political factors outside of nuclear force, have provided a useful corrective to the thinking of many “stabilizers.” It has lately become something of an intellectual fashion to treat the problem of war and peace as if it were primarily one of arithmetic, soluble in terms of such things as the numerical relationship between “first-strike” and ‘“second-strike” forces. Yet the problem of avoiding nuclear war is far from exhausted by considerations of how best to “deter” an unprovoked “first strike.” The immediate challenges facing the major powers in our time—as Lerner and Strachey quite properly emphasize—come from elsewhere and must be met otherwise, even if we also have to continue to maintain a posture of deterrence.

Ultimately, of course, the arguments of both Lerner and Strachey—regardless of any differences of tone and outlook—lead to disarmament: they share the belief that nothing but the total elimination of nuclear weapons can give us true security from nuclear war. Characteristically, it is Mr. Strachey who pays respect to the difficulties of the position, and presents an altogether fair and lucid discussion of the disarmament conferences of 1954—1955—summing up with the wry observation that “one infallible way of breaking up a general disarmament conference is to accept the other man’s proposals.”

Mr. Strachey rests his case for the feasibility of disarmament mainly on the notion that it would serve the respective national interests of the two “superpowers.” It is a notion that has been expressed before and that, even in Mr. Strachey’s kind of careful analysis, seems far from persuasive. In talking about a test-ban treaty, for instance, Mr. Strachey looks forward to a tranquil world under a dual American-Soviet “world nuclear hegemony”; and yet elsewhere he describes Soviet and American self-interest as a force for an international order in which all sovereign power would be submerged—without seeming to realize that these two views are quite incompatible.

It is, after all, possible for two powers to recognize the profit to themselves in mutual disarmament and at the same time to see, or suspect each other of seeing, an even greater profit in cheating. Surely this is the main obstacle to disarmament. The real question here is how far the idea of self-interest as the unwitting instrument of an altruistic moral order—the idea central to the tradition of British liberalism and utilitarianism—can take us. Certainly no one would disagree that any enlightened self-interest points toward peace and compromise rather than intransigence and conflict. But from there to something as grand as Mr. Strachey’s new “world loyalty” is a long, and unprecedented, step. All past history, at any rate, teaches us that new loyalities grow precisely out of conflict and self-sacrifice and not out of compromise and self-interest.

The concept of a new loyalty to a world authority, for the sake of which old national loyalties are to be discarded, is—like the entire abolitionist system—buttressed by a “realistic” assumption. This assumption, put simply, is that the sovereign nation-state is obsolete; the contemporary world no longer provides any room for national sovereignty as it has traditionally been known. Mr. Lerner’s book is essentially a large elaboration on just this theme.

The disappearance of sovereignty is a currently popular idea among a good many liberals, for whom “sovereignty” implies a self-sufficient plenitude of power, limited neither by legal restraints nor by the interests and countervailing power of others. Now, it is entirely true to say that there can be no such sovereignty in the world today—but then there never has been. The term “sovereignty” has in the past been used in many different senses, including some fairly extravagant ones; reality, however, always fell short of the claims, particularly the most extreme. Indeed, as a working legal concept, “sovereignty” usually implied the very opposite of the present liberal image—namely, a substantial limitation on freedom of action.

The modern concept of national sovereignty presupposes an international system containing many “sovereign” members having the same status while differing as to their strength and influence. In such a system arbitrary freedom of action is doubly limited: first, in that all members have a mutual obligation to respect one another’s sovereign rights; and second, in that all are constantly forced to deal with one another’s potential power. National sovereignty has come to consist above all in the generally recognized claim of individual governments to have inclusive over-all legislative, executive, and administrative control within a circumscribed territory. In this sense sovereignty, far from becoming outmoded, is being extended to more and more formerly non-sovereign territorial and ethnic units. Moreover, certain of the prerogatives of sovereignty have come to be interpreted and exercised far more stringently than ever before. Consider, for instance, the degree of control in the hands of the national state over such things as the movement of private individuals across state boundaries, foreign and domestic property, or currency exchange rates—a degree of control, of “sovereignty,” that would indeed have seemed shocking in, say, the era before World War I. National sovereignty is very much with us. Even the U.N., as a new supranational agency, does not infringe upon the sovereignty of its member states.



It is thus rather difficult to imagine what Mr. Lerner can possibly have in mind when he says: “The national state no longer exists in any sovereign sense except in its diplomatic abracadabra and its formal voting in the U.N. and other international bodies.” This statement means on the face of it that national governments can no longer do anything more on their own authority than write diplomatic notes and vote in the U.N. Surely even a man of Mr. Lerner’s internationalizing zeal cannot believe that. But of course Mr. Lerner does not intend his assertion to be taken literally; as the context indicates, what he really wants to say is that with the advent of nuclear weapons the sovereign right to wage war has lost all meaning. And here he is at least partly right; though curiously, even this idea depends on the view—rejected by Mr. Lerner—that the risks of nuclear warfare have tended to deter or restrain warlike behavior.

The truth is that nuclear-weapons technology has made inroads of a different nature upon national sovereignty. It has led to the formation of political-military blocs in which the sovereignty of the members as war-making powers is more or less submerged. This is in fact what Mr. Lerner points to in his concept of “empire,” by which he refers to a superpower surrounded by a coalition of dependent partners or satellites. But “empires” of this kind do not mark the attrition of national sovereign power, even with respect to making war: an “empire” is merely the pooling of such power, not its nullification.



With the “realistic” grounding for the case not so safe or certain as it might at first have appeared, we are back once more with our “idealistic” hopes. The world, according to Mr. Lerner, can and will move away from the “power principle” embodied both in nation-states and in “empires”; and beyond this “power principle” there looms a new universal “order.” The principle of order, of course, will not and cannot dispense altogether with power. Disarmament, Mr. Lerner says, must be followed by the creation of a supranational authority with “teeth.” The U.N. in its role as the protector of peace will rely on a volunteer police force having a monopoly of the “more lethal weapons.” The police force will, on any decision by a mixed political-judicial tribunal that an act of aggression has taken place, impose its sanctions. Mr. Strachey calls for something similar, endorsing Bertrand Russell’s demand for a U.N. world nuclear police force.

Now, even if one accepted such a plan as practical—forgetting that it is based on the unlikely expectation that the great powers will one day give the U.N. power over their life and death—the “idealistic” principle itself here is highly questionable. The abolitionists, who as sincere humanitarians are probably repelled by the execution of individual criminals, are nevertheless in this case implicitly supporting the possible extermination of whole populations in punishment for the sins committed by their governments. Mr. Strachey indicates some moral qualms about this but quickly suppresses them, apparently on the grounds that international “aggression” constitutes such a hideous crime and threatens such enormous public danger, that the world has a moral right and duty to curb it by any means, including extreme terror.

There is a great weakness in this argument. Aggression and the resort to violence can be considered wholly inexcusable only in a wholly just world in which nobody need despair of obtaining redress for grievances. But if the world is not a just place, one must be prepared for a good deal of violence and aggression—and prepared, moreover, to recognize that some of it might be morally excusable if not entirely justified. The mere fact that “aggression has been committed” cannot morally justify extreme repression in these circumstances.

And a world that is less than just—to put it mildly—is the real world in which we live; even the best and most humane national communities do not measure up to this ideal. Nor can a supreme world authority automatically produce a just situation, or even guarantee redress for every wrong. The very meaning of social and political justice is, and will remain, under contention, and there can be no “world loyalty” if there is no consensus at least on basic principles. And yet the supreme authority envisaged by our authors depends on precisely such a loyalty: and on a denial of the possibility that spontaneous violence might be excusable, that aggression might involve a good deal of moral ambiguity, that rights and wrongs might be parceled out more or less evenly among “aggressors” and “defenders.” Admitting these possibilities would in fact be tantamount to rehabilitating war—the one thing that abolitionist doctrine must rigorously and absolutely exclude.



The evil that a universal authority promises to banish from the world, then, is in fact not the Bomb but war itself and the national sovereignty which makes war possible. Once placed in the hands of the U.N., the Bomb is no longer a thing to be Banned but becomes nothing less than the instrument of justice. The central doctrine of this system is that no one—on pain of extermination—may take justice into his own hands. The supreme crime is unauthorized violence, no matter the provocation or justification; authority will simply crush anyone who, by rebelling, infringes its absolute monopoly of violence.

This is the definition of tyranny. Terroristic threats from authority destroy all freedom and all moral responsibility. Men like Lerner and Strachey do not see this: they think that threatening “aggressors” with extermination, or even exterminating them in the name of justice, would affect no peaceful and honest man’s rights or freedom. But I think this is a fundamental error. No just and peaceful political order can be built upon outlawing offenders. Moreover, one should not think that weapons of mass extermination supposed to serve the cause of justice could only be used against “them,” the “bad” people, but never against “us,” the “good.” One can perhaps understand the moral callousness involved in accepting the idea of mass extermination as a means of protecting peace-loving humanity: callousness of this order is the heritage of 20th-century history and has become endemic among humanitarian progressives. What is incomprehensible, however, is the euphoric assurance with which they contemplate a U.N. nuclear force.

The question of who might be threatened by such a force depends on many things—but first of all, of course, on the political coloration of the ultimate judicial-political authority. The force might be more threatening to the “haves” or to the “have-nots” as the authority should turn out to be more revolutionary or conservative. And if—as seems likely from the record of the U.N.—the authority itself should be divided on this, its striking arm would function erratically or be paralyzed altogether.

Another factor would be the composition of the force. If its members were unable to transcend all natural feelings of solidarity with their respective native groups, they would refuse to carry out nuclear sanctions against their own people. So that if the force were homogeneous in its basic ethnic-political orientation, it would be effective only against the out-group; if heterogeneous, it would split. In a crisis, its members would fight among themselves, perhaps with the outcome of leading nuclear missions against both sides in a given contention. The result would be a general nuclear conflagration—the very thing from which the U.N. nuclear monopoly is supposed to protect us.

To be sure, the U.N. could establish a policy of recruiting for its police arm only those people who are free of particular national, cultural, and political loyalties and who are dedicated solely to the service of the world authority itself. Such is the solution envisaged by Mr. Lerner and Mr. Strachey. On the face of it, the idea of a new international class whose direct and exclusive allegiance is to world justice is attractive enough. But it would be well to consider first what sort of personalities would be drawn to the job of exterminating international lawbreakers—even if they be kin. It is highly doubtful that there would be many gentle humanitarians among them. Alas, the most attractive thing about such an assignment would probably turn out to be the exhilaration of total power, of being able to wreak death and destruction without the slightest risk of retribution—in the name of “higher justice.” The same sort of thing, it is true, can be found sometimes in the psychological makeup of soldiers; but there is still a difference between a soldier, who may have been pressed into duty, and a man who volunteers to be a hangman.



Would the world really be safer in the hands of such personalities? An important element in the abolitionists’ argument is the proneness of our presently constituted nuclear forces to accident, to excessive zeal and impetuousness on the part of commanders and subalterns, to the grave risks of insubordination. By what magical process would a “neutral” nuclear force under the U.N. become immune to the same dangers? It would, presumably, be largely free from national prejudices and combativeness; but it could nevertheless easily become responsive to other forms of aggressiveness, other destructive impulses. Rootlessness, the absence of traditionally conventional human ties, sympathies and antipathies, could, instead of providing a more perfect neutrality, only shift the bases of prejudice.

All of which is intended not to rule out the abolitionist solution, but rather to suggest that there is a certain smug over-facility in the thinking that has been used to arrive at it. Abolition might, all things considered, still turn out to be our best chance for peaceful survival. In arguing this, however, one must concede that the choice is not between a policy which gives us perfect safety and another which can only lead to ruin. Rational thinking is blocked if the cards are stacked in this way to begin with.

The choices that are open to us unfortunately do not include any feasible ready-made option for perfect safety. We can only choose among imperfect policies, giving our preference to that which holds out the best chance. Now the idea of abolition certainly suggests greater safety than we can have while nuclear weapons remain in existence. Yet, seeking maximum safety in this direction may turn out to be illusory. It is entirely conceivable that the actual policies upon which we must rely to reduce the danger of nuclear war to the attainable minimum will have to be mapped in a nuclear environment. This is a good enough reason for working on peace strategies that do not presuppose the abolition of nuclear armaments. If other alternatives turn out to be practicable, well and good—but it won’t do to cut off discussion by stipulating that no solution short of the abolition of nuclear weapons is worth considering.

The moral passion behind such a stipulation is understandable and commendable. But letting this passion guide us can only too easily lead to wishful thinking. Unfortunately, the abolitionist position is often supported with pseudo-arguments disposing of the many practical flaws and difficulties besetting disarmament policies by making facile, arbitrary assumptions about the future course of history. Real problems cannot be solved in this way.




1 Simon & Schuster, 308 pp., $5.95.

2 St. Martin's Press, 334 pp., $5.95.

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