Monday, April 24, 2006


The half-way house

Max M. Kampelman, who served as an arms control diplomat in the Reagan administration, has a guest editorial in the New York Times arguing for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Kampelman makes a strong case for combining realism with idealism, instead of seeing them as mutually exclusive, and he persuasively argues that "the goal of globally eliminating all weapons of mass destruction" needs to be "put back at the top of our [foreign policy] agenda."

Unfortunately, as recent rumors surrounding contingency plans for air strikes on Iran demonstrate, the abolition of nuclear weapons -- including our own -- is not near the top of our agenda. And yet the Iran crisis also demonstrates precisely why it should be. So long as the United States is willing to countenance the military use of nuclear weapons (and the funding of research on nuclear bunker-busters at least shows that we do not discountenance such use), so long will other nations continue to possess an incentive for acquiring them. Our strong condemnations of the proliferation of nuclear weapons in states like Iran, coupled with our implicit threats to stop their proliferation, only convinces non-nuclear states to acquire them more quickly than ever as a deterrent to our acting on such threats. As I've argued before, "rational actors will not tolerate monopolies on asymmetrical power," and today the distribution of nuclear power in the world is radically asymmetrical.

Back in the 1980s, opponents of nuclear weapons sometimes referred to themselves as the "new abolitionist movement." There are plenty of ways in which the movement for the abolition of slavery differs from the movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons, and those differences would probably make any systematic historical comparison between the two spurious. (I hope this post won't be taken for such a comparison.) But at least in some respects, the comparison is apt, particularly when one is focusing on what both movements were up against in the battle for popular opinion.

In both cases, the abolitionists had to deal with a large number of people who were sympathetic to their arguments but not to their prescriptions. In the antebellum period, there were numerous critics of slavery who nonetheless argued only that the institution should not be allowed to expand into states where it did not already exist. There were more still who favored the abolition of the slave trade as a natural way to quash slavery itself, gradually and indirectly. Both of these groups saw the abolitionists -- those who called not just for non-expansion or non-trade, but for immediate emancipation -- as ridiculous fanatics who were endangering Southern men and women by fomenting slave insurrection. To take the power of slaveholding out of the Southerners' hands would dangerously place that power in the hands of so-called savages, who would allegedly terrorize and murder the moment the legal power of masters was surrendered.

But the abolitionists understood what the non-expansionists did not: that so long as the right to hold human beings as property was acknowledged in any part of the Union, those who claimed that right would assert it absolutely. South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun argued (logically, if coldly) that if slaves were legitimate forms of property in the South, then it was not clear why Southerners could not carry their property into any new state, just as Northerners were not restricted from expanding their property in cattle or carts into the West. (The famous decision of Judge Roger Taney in the Dred Scott case ratified Calhoun's argument.) Non-expansionists could retort with procedural arguments that Congress had the right to govern in the territories and that compromises had been made (in 1820 and 1850) that forbade slavery in certain territories; they could contest Taney's decision, in other words, as a matter of legal interpretation. But their moral argument against expansion was critically weakened by the fact that they acquiesced to the continuation of slavery at all, no matter how much they bemoaned its evils.

Non-proliferationists can argue, much like non-expansionists did, that nuclear weapons should simply remain in the states where they already are. But unless that argument is coupled with a strong argument for their total abolition -- even here -- we will continue to find ourselves dealing with latter-day Calhouns who claim for their states a sovereign right to possess weapons of mass destruction. Until that argument for total abolition is also made, loudly and clearly, laws for the abolition of trade in nuclear arms will (like the laws for the abolition of the slave trade) continue to be vulnerable to enforcement problems and charges of hypocrisy.

How can we aver that trading nukes is immoral without making the corollary claim that possessing them in the first place is? No more easily than someone who believed that holding human beings as property was immoral could consistently oppose the slave trade without opposing slavery. And how can we claim that those states who presently hold nuclear weapons -- by the mere accident of their historical discovery and development in certain wealthy countries -- have a right to hold them indefinitely, while those states who, by accident of history, are free of nuclear weapons cannot acquire them? No more easily than someone who opposed the proliferation of slaves in the West could support their continued bondage in the South. To be sure, the compromises that prevented slavery from expanding into the West accomplished a great good, just as every successful prevention of the proliferation of nuclear weapons is good. But as the famous Boston abolitionist Wendell Phillips once said, "let us not mistake the half-way house for the end of the journey." Let us not lower our sights from abolition to non-proliferation.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

Collective Improvisation:
Oh but we possess them for good.

Posted by Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" on 4/25/2006 11:22:00 PM : Permalink  

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