Why Not Disarmament?

A prominent disarmament activists recently wrote in a major lefty blog; "Obama cannot unilaterally get rid of all the United States [sic] nuclear weapons tomorrow — even if that's what he wanted to do."

I've heard this before. In fact, the last time I heard it, it was at a meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the executive director of a major antinuclear NGO defended his organization's elitist strategy to convince the US Department of Energy to "consolidate" the nuclear weapons complex, largely in Albuquerque and Los Alamos. ( His managerial acumen for showing the United States how to better operate its nuclear weapons complex is borne out of a convoluted strategy that I can't get into here, but you can read about here, and you can read a critique of it here.) What I'm most interested in is the statement from so many purported antinuclear activists that the US, "cannot unilaterally get rid of all [its] nuclear weapons tomorrow — even if that's what [it] wanted to do."

Why not? And why are antinuclear activists going out of their way to point this out?

Will someone please explain, because while I hear this a lot, uttered by everyone from the Democrats and Republicans to supposedly non-ideological activists, I rarely ever hear a realistic, sane, detailed explanation. To be clear, I understand that to safely dismantle thousands of nuclear weapons would take several years, and that much more effort would have to go into dismantling the larger architecture of atomic war. Nevertheless, I fail to understand why the US couldn't fully and truly commit itself to nuclear disarmament right this moment.

Why couldn't the US unilaterally disarm itself?

Let's take a different direction. I actually tend to think that this question and rhetorical statements about US abilities to disarm are a distraction.

A much better question for all is; why wouldn't the US disarm itself?

This second question gets to the crux of the matter. Instead of preemptively answering a vague how question, we're getting to the why. Addressing it from this angle forces each of us to reveal the premises on which we pose the how/what question, and our very motivations for posing it.

Assuming one thinks the US can't get rid of its nuclear weapons relatively quickly and easily, why not? I would like to know from everyone their thoughts on why the US has a nuclear weapons stockpile. Seems to me like this is actually the most important question to be debating right now, and not in private, not over pints of beer, after hours, "just between you and me."

We need to have this discussion in public and commit ourselves to an honest strategy that conforms to our ethics and values. Far too many disarmament activists are reticent to speak their beliefs in public for fear of losing the air of "responsibility" they rely on to secure foundation funding and access to the higher circles of power. Can they not see that this dynamic is politically damaging and is purposefully established by pro-nuclear institutions to prevent a shift in discourse?!

How disarmament could happen really isn't that interesting, mostly because it's not that complex. You take the weapons apart. You dismantle them, permanently, and you don't build them ever again. You deform the plutonium pits and store them in secured bunkers. You stop producing weapons grade fissile materials. Further, you don't sustain multi-billion dollar weapons labs, and you get rid of the military commands that wield nuclear arms. The virtual cartel of corporations that make billions by supporting this whole enterprise either find newer, less death-oriented things to do, or they decay so that new life -economic, political, ecological- may grow. The economy transforms and the society becomes less centralized, hierarchical, unequal.

Finally and most fundamentally, you renounce the imperial policies these weapons facilitate. This is how disarmament will happen.

Why nuclear disarmament would and could happen seems much more important than harking on endlessly about how it can or can't proceed. As long as more than half of the disarmament NGOs buy into the nonsense about nuclear weapons serving the "national security" and "deterrence" interests of the US and its allies, then hopeful talk of disarmament seems pointless. Even more aimless is any reference to how disarmament might happen. If we accept this purposefully constrained mythology about nuclear weapons and why the US has thousands of them, then we may as well agree with Bill Perry, James Schlesinger, Brent Scowcroft, and the other neophyte disarmament advocates who somehow find a way to simultaneously explain that nuclear weapons will remain a core part of the US military's force structure far into the unforseeable future.

Actually, stressing the issue of how disarmament can or can't happen just yet is much worse than aimless because it serves the interests of some very powerful political actors whose intentions are quite concrete and unambiguous: extension of US empire and preservation of the US nuclear weapons complex far into the future.

It's long past time for disarmament activists to have a soul searching debate about the future of the antinuclear movement. Is it going to be a movement that NGO activists are involved in? Or are they more comfortable remaining as a technocratic cottage industry, pumping out standardized reform-widgets and mimicking the language of their state and military colleagues whom they purportedly disagree with, but whose power, and their access to it, is viscerally craved? Will there be a real challenge to the state, military, and corporations on why they wield nuclear arms, or will we simply jabber about how it is that they can or can't disarm in this or that time frame, and therefore we recommend this or that small reformist direction (such as consolidating nuclear weapons operations into a "Southwest Nuclear Triangle")?

These times demand big, visionary, confrontations between those who seek global justice and those who seek global empire. The struggle against nuclear weapons (and energy) has its place in this larger movement toward democracy, but thus far the leaders of the major NGOs and foundations preoccupied with "nuclear issues" remain highly irrelevant to the movement for global justice. It is reasonable to say that the more relevant the NGOs are with respect to state and military leaders, the more irrelevant they are to the democratic, global social movements struggling against empire.

This is a shame, for the billions of human beings whose existence is colonized and brutalized by the nuclear armed state hegemons of global capitalism desperately need solidarity from within the US. They need us to firmly oppose nuclearism and demand the impossible with all our might.