Against Treaties, Against All Postures

Since it was opened for signature in 1968 the NPT has become the most conspicuous rallying point for nuclear abolitionist around the globe. Why?

The treaty itself never had an objective intent or goal. It has always been open to subjective interpretation. Many of its articles were designed to be malleable and iffy. Ask an antinuclear activist and you'll get a sense that the NPT was implemented as a first step toward the total abolition of nuclear weapons, and that states have merely failed to abide by its law. Ask a representative of a non-nuclear state, especially a formerly colonized nation, and you'll get a sense that the NPT was agreed upon as part of a broader de-colonization movement. The NPT therefore was an effort to create a more equitable, post-colonial regime of management for atomic technology. Ask a representative of the USA, USSR, or other nuclear armed states with full atomic energy capabilities, one of the "big dogs," and you'll get the sense that the treaty, when all is said and done, was created to stabilize the nuclear status quo, mostly by stemming proliferation — this is in the treaty's very name of course.

If the treaty has never really had an objective meaning then why do so many nuclear abolitionists, be they in government, NGOs, or academia, consider the NPT a linchpin of disarmament politics? Many abolitionists obviously approach the treaty much the same way activists across a broad range of issues approach the constitutions of democratic countries like the USA: these are idealistic documents upholding inalienable freedoms and human rights which we can pressure the powers that be to live up to. In this respect it's a battle over the meaning of the treaty. The goal is to steer interpretations of all parties more and more toward the abolitionist impression, binding them to live up to their rhetoric, making incremental progress along the way.

This strategy has never worked with respect to nuclear weapons. It is a failure. And not only has it failed, today, through the ironic mobilization of anti-nuclear rhetoric by president's and elder statesmen across the nuclearized world, it has actually become an impediment to the pursuit of nuclear disarmament. The failure of this strategy to shift interpretations and implementation is especially true if we consider disarmament to be one part of a much broader movement toward a peace that is based on justice — that is a redistribution of power giving the poor control over their lives and the capital they need to freely develop their communities.

We all now live and act in the era of anti-nuclear imperialism. The ideal of nuclear disarmament is actually being used against the material reality of nuclear disarmament. We are now told that in order to seek "a world free of nuclear weapons" we must spend more on them than we ever have, upgrade them endlessly, maintain their deployment in the thousands, building new delivery systems for them, etc. Cordial engagement in the NPT by the nuclear weapons states is only one of many "peaceful" postures comprising this new arsenal for nations wishing to extend their nuclear-armed power far into the future. Those of us who seek nuclear disarmament as necessary condition for justice need to radically transform our approach if we are to be effective in this bizarre political environment. We must drastically shift our focus from elite levels of international politics, state-craft, diplomacy, military policies, and treaties, to more localized and humble levels concerned with the social and economic impacts of decisions made at the top.

The NPT's flaws are well known. Following the preeminence of the USA, nuclear armed states have long argued that Article VI does not in fact require disarmament, but only that state parties take good faith steps toward the creation of a process that will eventually lead toward disarmament. This interpretation, as cynical as it might seem, is not wrong. The treaty language was written precisely this way at the behest of the United States and USSR.

The NPT's central concern is not contained in Article VI and has little to do with limiting the powers and dangers posed by nuclear armed states. Rather the treaty was designed from the very beginning as a counter-proliferation device. During the Cold War it served to stabilize and formalize the relationships being cultivated between the Soviet Union and its satellites, and the USA, UK, France and their favored client states with respect to nuclear energy and military synchronization. The NPT may or may not have prevented many more states going nuclear. The truth is that those states that had a compelling geopolitical interest to attain nuclear status and build up a formidable nuclear arsenal did so, treaty or no treaty. The NPT therefore merely ratified a process underway, guided by the the polarized rivalries of the first and second worlds.

The end of the Cold War and the now waning era of unipolar American hyper-power have altered the treaty's usefulness. For US neo-imperialists there was a greater need to aggressively pursue nonproliferation missions against ambitious regional states as the Soviet Union's sphere of power crumbled. The Americans stepped in, often very un-welcomed, and usually with a mixture of military force and their vast powers of economic coercion, to consolidate gains in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia.

But the post-Cold War era brought problems as well as opportunities for the USA. First and foremost was the sudden lack of justification for nuclear weapons which had been valorized for decades as the most important form of deterrence against the USSR, an enemy that evaporated. It was in response to this crisis of legitimacy for nuclear weapons that the politics of antinuclear nuclearism was created. It is as if the harsh language and the unthinkable strategy of MAD and deterrence so warped our senses of perception, of real and illusion, that when state leaders began speaking in lofty idealized terms about their desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons, our actual organized opposition to the nuclear weapons establishment was abandoned so that we might fight amongst one another for a "seat at the table" or to appear in the media so as to praise the noble agenda. Meanwhile the reality, the vastly over-inflated numbers of weapons, the environmental and health consequences of nuclearism, the opportunity costs, all this and more were essentially unchanged. In fact noble antinuclear speeches condemning these weapons have even served at times to justify aggression, invasion, and intimidation.

States like North Korea and Iran now appear to believe it is in their interest to go nuclear with full atomic energy capabilities, and nuclear weapons capabilities. Given the geopolitical conditions that exist, and the recent record of wars prosecuted by the "big dogs" against smaller states, who would be so foolish to say it is not in their interest to obtain a weapon that could likely deter the US military superpower, or Russian, Chinese, Indian, European, and other great power aggression? And given the nature of the capitalist world system, with its incentives to dominate other states via economic power and military power when necessary, who would say ambitious states like Iran shouldn't go nuclear?

It is in this Hobbsian realpolitik that treaties like the NPT, CTBT, and the recently signed New START are negotiated and ratified, and we must always keep this in mind. Try as we might to change the meaning of these treaties, the simple fact is that state parties to these instruments have crafted their language and delineated the processes of their implementation with very careful eyes to strategic details. The NPT, but especially the CTBT and New START are not about disarmament. In this geopolitical context they are entirely about the kind of politics that is merely the extension of war by other means. They are ways of stabilizing the balance of powers, but also enforcing the unjust dissemblance of superpowers. Might may not make right, but it does make a mean treaty.

The NPT has been used for two decades now to browbeat any nation that would dare develop nuclear weapons. Indeed, it was under this treaty's long shadow that the United States justified and launched its 2003 invasion and running occupation of Iraq. The NPT is being used with incredible effectiveness by the United States to beat the drums of war against Iran and call for increasingly grisly forms of sanctions against the isolated and impoverished state of North Korea.

Most recently there has been the New START. Most disarmament advocates have hailed it as a "good first step," and gone on to send out action alerts or make press statements in support of the treaty, calling upon the US Senate to move toward a quick ratification. It is this kind of abstracted and idealistic politics that focuses on the lofty rhetoric of elites that is the problem. The gritty reality of the New START is that only reduces a fraction of the massively redundant overkill capacities of US and Russian arsenals. In this respect the treaty is a means of economizing and further rationalizing the ability of two states to destroy most life on earth, not at all a progressive step toward disarmament in the context of justice. Furthermore, the treaty makes room for the creation of a US missile "defense" system. As is obvious to military leadership in virtually every other nation, the United States' ambitious missile system is part of its larger gambit to maintain its exponential superiority over nearly all other states in all military matters. Missile defense is meant to negate the ability of most nations to inflict possibly deterring strikes against the US mainland or its allies in the Middle East, Europe, or Asia.

But it's the treaty's purpose with respect to the US nuclear weapons establishment that is most problematic. Most nuclear abolitionists have been blind to this angle because of their fixation on idealistic rhetoric, rather than their sober concern with the material conditions of things as they play out on the ground. The sad fact is that the New START, if it is to be ratified by the US Senate, and this is a big if, will come only after the investment of many billions of dollars into the US nuclear weapons complex. This investment is specifically for the construction of massive plutonium and uranium processing and manufacturing facilities. Reinvestment in the complex has already been promised by the Obama administration with its $5 billion dollar increase for the National Nuclear Security Administration's budget over the next five years, expressly for the construction of the CMRR at Los Alamos, NM, and UPF at Oak Ridge, TN. Having traded all of this away already, it would appear that pro-nuclear Senators will attempt to wring further concessions out of the White House so that the Obama administration might have a political "win" with respect to "nuclear disarmament." Ominously it appears that the cost for this deeply flawed treaty's ratification may even include the go-ahead from Congress and the White House for the weapons labs to design new nuclear warheads, something the Bush administration failed to secure. All of this is for a treaty that does nothing with respect to disarmament, if that word is to have any meaning.

The CTBT, which the Obama administration and other Democrats have proposed for ratification would of course demand an even more costly price for any movement whatsoever.

We cannot win at this level. We probably cannot even make small incremental gains. Especially not with the advent of the new politics of anti-nuclearism in which the Obamas and Medvedev's of the world pronounce lofty intentions while prepping their nuclear weapons establishments for the next 100 years. From my perspective, straddling the worlds of academia and the daily grind of professional NGO efforts, the hard work of many disarmament organizations appears not only to be lost, but in fact co-opted in favor of giving nuclear weapons a life far into the future.

So what is the solution? It follows from this simple dictum: money makes policy. We should not focus on abstracted policy statements like the Nuclear Posture Review or President Obama's Prague speech, or concern ourselves with the possible ratification of treaties (especially ones like the New START which do practically nothing positive), or worry about the diplomatic maneuverings of states during the NPT RevCon. Taking our eyes off these inherently elitist levels of action we should refocus ourselves in the communities that are most directly effected by the nuclear weapons establishment. If money makes policy, rather than words, then we should focus our energies on military budgets, line items, programs, capital construction projects, and similarly "concrete" aspects of the nuclear armed state. If we are truly about nuclear disarmament we must publicly oppose the United State's huge investments in the nuclear weapons complex, its controversial warhead "modernization" efforts, and its two keystone projects to maintain nuclear weapons generations into the future: the CMRR at Los Alamos, and the UPF at Y-12. The concrete is now literally being poured into the foundations of this militaristic infrastructure.

Will we be so blinded by abstract ideas that we miss the material realities all around us?


Deepshit Horizon: Earth Day began with a blow-out, will it end with one?

Twenty seven offshore rigs were built along southern California's coastline in the 1960s. This was the inaugural boom era of deep water ocean drilling. Two key developments ushered it in. The first was a set of advances in mining technologies and engineering techniques that allowed for deeper drilling beneath the ocean surface, as well as the construction of towering rigs, some of which are taller than the Empire State building. The second key was Congressional legislation leading to the leasing of Outer Continental Shelf lands to oil firms in 1953. Dozens of offshore rigs surfaced along the California coastline in the 1960s. In regions where the geology and terrain was more suitable, and where deposits of oil were more prolific, rigs went up by the hundreds. Texas and Louisiana's Gulf Coast, for example, are cluttered with thousands of platforms today.
On January 28th, 1969 the Union Oil Company's Platform A, located six miles from Santa Barbara, experienced a "blow-out." Highly pressurized deposits of natural gas pushed upward against the newly bored well causing oil to leak from the pipe and casings. The roughnecks struggled to plug the well with mud and nearly succeeded. Then catastrophe struck. The brittle geologic formations underlying the ocean floor 188 feet beneath them began to crack. Long seams ripped across the submarine surface as gas boiled forth, bubbling toward the surfaces along with tens of thousands of barrels of oil. The blow-out was devastating. It killed untold numbers of fish, birds, and sea mammals, and even greater numbers of Sponges, Cnidarians, Worms, Lophophorates, Molluscs, Arthropods and other invertebrates. Kelp forests were wiped out. Beaches were choked with petroleum for miles east and west of Santa Barbara.

According to the self-indulgent Liberal-lore of California's coastal urbanites, this ecological disaster led to the "creation of the environmental movement." If by "environmental movement" we mean a largely aesthetic obsession for how the planet looks, and a willingness to technocratically manage "acceptable assessed risk levels" of exposure to toxins, perhaps it was. If the movement is about changing light bulbs, planting a tree every April, and altering consumer habits then it did spawn a movement. We've come a long way, haven't we?

Across coastal California "environmentalism" has arguably become the hegemonic political ideology and consumer identity. One cannot get elected to any state or local office without proclaiming fidelity to clean water, clear skies, and open space. And "green" has become the norm among the population. Hybrid cars are frequently spotted, recycling is legion, stores advertise "organic" this, and "fair trade" that. Even major timber corporations now talk about their logging operations as "sustainable" and energy companies like Chevron, headquartered in the Bay Area suburb of San Ramon, advertise themselves as eco-friendly suppliers of happiness by the kilowatt - "human energy" their latest ad campaign blabbers. This kind of environmentalism went national in the 1990s, and now most urbanites, especially blue state folks profess to pursue means of "living green."

To believe this fairy tale about the birth and existence of the movement, and be palliated by the accompanying scenery of so-called change you'd have to ignore a few historical facts and further delude yourself as to the nature of Earth Day and the context in which it has become a major holiday.

For one you'd have to forget that opposition to the environmental effects of industrial capitalism, consumerism, and imperialism were absolutely not galvanized in 1969 with the Union Oil Company spill in Santa Barbara. Nor did the fire on the Cuyahoga River of that same year create the movement. Ecological resistance and sustainable practices were already being articulated far and wide, long before one of California's most affluent (and majority white) communities had their beaches inconveniently soaked with the black blood of the earth. Indigenous peoples, anti-colonial movements in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, African Americans and Latinos in the "internal colonies" of the USA, and women in working class communities across the industrialized world had been building an oppositional consciousness against the poisoning and pillaging of their communities for centuries. Native American resistance against the United States' "manifest destiny" was an ecological movement, just as much as it was about sovereignty. Anti-colonial struggles against the British in India, and early rebellions against Spain in the New World were as much about opposition to the domination of South Asian agriculture for commodity export, or the enslavement of Bolivian and Mexican lands and labor as disposable mines of silver and gold, as they were about abstract ideals of national independence and patria. Environmentalism —care for the earth, for the diversity of life, and opposition to the capitalist or statist ethic which would have us believe that nature exist to provide us with "resources" for "progress" through economic growth— is as old as capitalism then.

Furthermore, in spite of the fact that all of the major environmental legislation protecting communities in the United States was passed in the aftermath of the Santa Barbara spill and several other high profile domestic disasters of the early 1970s, the fact remains that in practically all categories, the environment is suffering worse today than it was then. The problems have gone global and become bigger than they ever were. With the exception of several specific pollutants, emissions of nearly every toxic chemical byproduct of industry into water and soils has expanded on a global scale. CO2 emissions are higher than ever, of course. And even with the recycling of paper, aluminum and like materials, more forests are leveled and more bauxite mines tear into the earth today than in 1970. There are more cars on the road. There are fewer unpaved spaces, fewer stands of old growth, fewer un-damned rivers, fewer species, and fewer roadless areas. There are more cancers, more asthma, more clusters of maladies caused by the accumulation of synthetic toxins, teratogens, and carcinogens. There are more toxic waste dumps and ever-expanding land fills and now great oceanic stews full of plasticized garbage.
Today it is nothing short of delusional to "celebrate" Earth Day and hail the "progress" we've made.

Ironically, and tragically, this year's Earth Day celebrations coincided with another oil rig blow-out, this time offshore of Louisiana. Like other recent mining disasters, the explosion and sinking of the rig caused by a well blow-out has claimed the lives of at least eleven workers.

Named the Deepwater Horizon, the rig is as massive and ocean-straddling as it sounds. Costing about $600 million, it was built over a span of three years by the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai Heavy Industries. Delivered to the Gulf of Mexico in 2001, Deepwater Horizon spent the last decade floating from prospect to prospect, sinking wells, and moving on while stationary rigs were set atop its exploits. The Deepwater Horizon is a mobile mega-rig, among the largest and most advanced in the world. Some of its complex operations are carried out via satellite by technicians in Houston who relay commands through computer terminals. It has, it had, a live-aboard workforce of 126.

In its short operating life Deepwater Horizon lived up to its name by expanding the scale and scope of humanity's planetary oil mining ambitions, and the outer limits of irresponsible economic expansion. It's recent discoveries, drilling accomplishments, and now its self-immolation also have ushered in an era in which the consequences of further hydrocarbon exploitation will become increasingly clear to all of us. Our economy's limitless appetite for petroleum is becoming increasingly and undeniably the cause of heretofore unimaginable disasters, both as episodic tragedies, as in the case of Deepwater Horizon, as well as systemic disasters that will undermine the basis of life on earth far into the future.

Deepwater Horizon holds the record for boring the deepest oil and gas well in the world, a 35,050 foot vertical penetration. This astounding feat was accomplished no less while working in over 4000 feet of water. It was this exploratory well that led BP, plc, the British oil giant that leases the Deepwater Horizon from its owners Transocean, to announce last year the discovery of the immense Tiber prospect. Tiber is an oil field with perhaps 3 billion barrels in recoverable deposits. If Horizon and other mega-rigs were to make more discoveries like Tiber then the decline of oil output in the Gulf of Mexico, which peaked in 2003 at 1.56 million barrels per day, could be temporarily overcome. Oil industry guru Daniel Yergin said so much when he told the Washington Post that the find "demonstrates how technology continues to expand the horizon of the Gulf of Mexico."

Prolonging the age of oil is excellent news for the energy industry and Wall Street financiers who bank on its success. It's also good news for American consumers who seem to care more about cheap goods than un-payable foreign and ecological debts. Extending the era of oil even a few years beyond its projected decline after the global peak of production (which probably occurred in 2008), and the US domestic production peak (which occurred in 1970 at 10 million barrels per day), is of course catastrophic with respect to climate change and all the other environmental damages associated with oil, from well to tailpipe.

Deepwater Horizon was exploring the literal horizons of deep water drilling precisely because there are virtually no high quality oil deposits left in easily exploited regions. The days of gushers in the shallow fields of Texas and California are long over. Corporate energy giants like BP, and ConocoPhillips, as well as state firms like Petroleo Brasileiro, SA (which are minority shareholders in the Tiber field) are shifting their industrial and financial assets quickly into high-risk and ecologically devastating operations like the Tiber in response to the peak and decline of oil production. States and corporations across the world are following suit. Canada's tar sands —easily the single most dangerous economic operation in existence— is a perfect case in point. The tar sands have tied up billions of dollars in development, wiped out many square miles of boreal forests lands, and proportionally produced more greenhouse gas emissions as a result of extraction than any other hydrocarbon source. Like ultra-deep ocean wells, tar sands operations in Alberta, Canada, and other sites worldwide, are expected to grow in scale as the price of oil rises. It has kept oil cheap in the USA, where Canada has become the largest source of imports.

This year as North Americans celebrated the 40th Earth Day and the Deepwater Horizon went down in flames, Peabody Coal, the largest private coal company, announced profits up ten percent from last year. The company's CEO told global financial markets that "with rising Australian volumes and pricing and a growing global trading and brokerage business, we have enormous capacity to capitalize on expanding Asian coal demand." He added, "we have the leading position in the lowest-cost U.S. regions, with leverage to improving prices as the economy recovers." Meanwhile two southern California casino's took Earth Day as an opportunity to release detailed figures on their sustainability efforts, including their composting of 10-12 tons of food scraps from their buffets, and five tons of co-mingled recyclable materials, each week. At one of the nation's two nuclear weapons design and production labs in Los Alamos New Mexico, lab officials urged their employees to participate in Earth Day. Among other things the nuclear weaponers were asked by the lab's Earth Day web site to: "Participate! Check out our Facebook; Buy locally grown food; Learn about saving residential energy, and; Reduce, reuse and recycle." Not to be out-greened by the nuclear weapons establishment, casinos, or big coal, the US Navy announced that in honor of the holiday, "The Green Hornet, an F/A-18 Super Hornet fueled with a 50/50 mixture of biofuel made from camelina oil, will fly on Earth Day, April 22, at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md."

This is the deepshit horizon, a point at the edge of environmental oblivion toward which are racing faster than ever, Earth Day or no Earth Day. Indeed, Earth Day seems to have largely become an enabler of denial and self-immolating lies, undermining any ability or will to acknowledge the crises we face. The consequences beyond the deepshit horizon include a planetary die-off of all life, including humans. Beyond the deepshit horizon is a point of no return, involving climatological feedback loops that will be fueled by thawing permafrost and melting polar caps and glaciers. Somewhere out there, within the time frame of several more generations, in the economic frame of perhaps a few more business cycles, a decade or so status quo levels of coal fired energy and a billion cars, out there is mass extinction and an end to the planetary conditions that created and sustain life.


New Book - Beyond arms control: challenges and choices for nuclear disarmament

The title says it all; "Beyond Arms Control."

"Arms control" is an academic and policy field invented during the Cold War to ideologically legitimate American empire as it is manifested through the vastly superior armaments of the US warfare state which no other nation's war-making capabilities can remotely compare to. Arms controllers have spent decades justifying why the United States possesses nuclear weapons and other especially destructive implements of war (landmines, bio-weapons, depleted uranium, etc.), while explaining why other nations, particularly non-white, Islamic, and formerly colonized nations should never aspire to these kinds of killing systems.

In the 1990s stateside peace and disarmament activism was professionalized with serious infusions of foundation money, and the end of the Cold War simultaneously brought about a demobilization of mass movements that until then had sought to check the reckless qualitative and quantitative expansion of nuclear and other arms. Around this time dozens of think tanks and centers sprang up at prestigious universities and freestanding organizations established themselves inside the D.C. beltway, all to employ a cottage industry of "experts" who would advise the state on how to control world armaments after the Reagan era race against the Soviets. Surviving antinuclear and antiwar NGOs changed with the times. The result was that many activists began to adopt the language and rationale of the formerly elitist and state employed arms controllers; they began to speak to the state, to advise its bureaucrats, generals, and politicians in their uses and abuses of power, to assist them in legitimating the project of American imperial expansion after the fall of the Soviet "evil empire."

Because it was created and developed as an organ of the imperial state, arms control as a paradigm can never be used to pursue democratic, self-determined development of nations. Its entire purpose for being is to maintain the military (and thus economic and political) hierarchy of nations with the USA at the top.

So what kind of "field" of study and political action do we offer instead? If we are not focused on giving "better" advice to state leaders, then who are we advising instead? If controlling the proliferation and use of armaments is not the first priority then what is? If nuclear weapons are in fact and in order of our intellectual concern not the single most alarming "threat" to "humanity" than what is? If nuclear weapons are not for "deterrence" and never were, then what are they for? Who really benefits from militarism?

Check out the first, fifth, eighth, ninth, and tenth chapters.

Big ups to Ray Acheson of Reaching Critical Will for editing this volume.