By Winslow Myers
“The human capacity to ‘live in truth,’ . . . is the nuclear weapon that gives power to the powerless.” —Michael Zantowsky, writing about Vaclav Havel
I’m not an expert, just another interested citizen who follows the news, but something sticks in my craw about our negotiations with Iran, whether they are ultimately successful or not.
There is a huge distance between what can be realistically accomplished politically and some rarely acknowledged truths that might allow us to go much further. I admire the way President Obama (see the recent interview (link) with Tom Friedman in the New York Times) acknowledged candidly that Iran has had legitimate beefs with the U.S., like our meddling in their elections in 1953, or our support of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war even as Saddam used chemical weapons against Iran. It’s a step toward truth, and not a mere giving in to facile moral relativism, to acknowledge that there are multiple frames of reference that are useful to take into account in international relations.
In no way should Iran be let off the hook for its virulent anti-Semitism and its own destructive meddling by proxy. But, as Obama rightly points out, Nixon negotiated successfully with China just as Reagan did with Soviet Russia, the erstwhile evil empire.
The true, almost entirely unspoken, context for negotiation between two or more sides in the nuclear age who each see the other as untrustworthy, flawed, or devious is epitomized by the sentence Albert Einstein wrote in a telegram to world leaders way back in 1946: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
That’s a huge assertion: everything has changed. Is it true?
Even taking into account U.S.-Russian arms reductions, there are still 17,500 nuclear weapons extant on this small planet, distributed among 9 nations. What Einstein prophesied has come to pass in spades: the nuclear powers maintain an elaborate fiction that their security interests are furthered by possessing a robust nuclear arsenal and that deterrence will protect us all forever into the future. This is the Big Lie that undergirds our anxious search for security.
The truth—the new mode of thinking that Einstein implied is desperately needed—is that the existence of nuclear weapons, no matter who has them, is a common, shared, trans-national challenge that, far from making us safer, moves us day by day toward the abyss. Ordinary people seem to have a clearer grasp of this than “experts” and politicians determined to maintain the status quo, a status quo that is actually a gradual drift, as Einstein said, toward catastrophe.
The assumption is that America is so technically advanced that our nuclear weapons are fail-safe must be set against accounts in the news of the bored servicemen in the missile silos of the Midwest cheating on readiness tests. Should a fatal error occur and a nuclear war begin by accident, it would be an ultimate evil that far transcends the putative good or evil of any existing national regime—including the United States, which refuses to see itself as anything but an exceptional force for good in the world.
A further danger of this illusion of exceptionalism is our propensity to define ourselves by who our enemies are (Iran tortures routinely; we do not—wait—oops!) without examining our own role in the mix. Politicians who wish to distract their constituency from domestic difficulties can find the notion of a fearsome “other,” whether African at home or Persian abroad, all too convenient—setting aside that it keeps the weapons industry humming. The truth is, on this small planet, there is no “other.” We’re all in this together.
So perhaps what bothers this ordinary citizen about the frenetic negotiations with Iran and the equally frenetic opposition to them on the part of hard-liners in both countries is the elephant in the room of a grossly hypocritical double standard. Our thousands of nukes, Israel’s hundreds, Pakistan’s hundred or so are O.K. Iran coming anywhere near building even one—not O.K.
Einstein would see this double standard, almost seventy years beyond his pronunciation of naked truth, as deeply illusory—a kind of planetary psychosis rooted in a now obsolete mode of thinking, which pits nation against nation as if we were back in the time before the world wars, when the most destructive weapon was a cannonball.
While we ought to applaud Obama and Kerry for their tenacious perseverance and fervently hope the newly minted arrangements with Iran overcome the doubts both in our Congress and among Iranian hard-liners, the deeper issue of seeking the worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons, no exceptions, continues to be painfully ignored in favor of obsolete power politics based on the Big Lie. Only if we live in truth can this be changed.
Winslow Myers, the author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide,” writes on global issues and serves on the Advisory Board of the War Prevention Initiative.