No New Information on the Consequences of Nuclear Weapons?
Deconstructing Nuclear Discourse at the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference
Adapted and republished from a version published in NPT News in Review.
Many diplomatic discussions of nuclear weapons tend toward the dry and mind-numbing—perhaps by design—trying the patience of those who are working for a nuclear free world. However, late in the afternoon on Monday, the debate in Main Committee I of the 2015 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) took a turn for the dramatic.
France took the floor and delivered a statement that astounded both in its absurdity and forcefulness, dismissing the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons, including the conferences in Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna. “There has been no new information” on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons “in decades,” the French ambassador fumed. Shortly thereafter, the delegate of the Russian Federation mused that those who believe that nuclear disarmament efforts are slowing must be using a “different version of maths”.
As I listened to this, I noticed I had started shaking. This sort of “emotional response” is often disparaged as not belonging in the United Nations, but I think my fear was justified.
France’s claim that there is “no new information” sounds remarkably like what social psychologists would identify as a projection of fault onto others. The claim that there is no new information is actually an admission that they do not listen to new information or wish there was no new information.
Indeed, the French and Russian statements unmask the brutal madness underlying the discourse of nuclear “realism” peddled by nuclear-armed states. It is an assertion that reality is what we with power say it is, not what scientists have observed about it. It recalls the comment made by a Bush administration official in 2002 to a journalist that those who “believe that solutions emerge from … judicious study of discernible reality” are misguided because, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities.”
The philosopher Hannah Arendt actually saw this attitude, what she called “action-as-propaganda,” as the essence of totalitarianism: claim something blatantly surreal and then force everyone to live in that reality, creating the evidence for your own claim. Say there is no new information; block any attempts to gather new information; then say, “See! There’s no new information!”
Might, apparently, makes right.
Ironically, this view recognizes the possibility that the status quo can change through exercising power. It also perhaps explains the ferocity of France’s rhetoric—they understand the fragility of the status quo and sense the possibility of losing control.
The Austrian ambassador’s response during the debate offered an alternative vision for global policymaking, distinct from unabashed great power strongarming. Listing the voluminous new insights into the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons since the 1980s, he called for an approach to nuclear disarmament based on “human security.” He also suggested that those states that claim there is no new information might have benefited from attending the conferences in Oslo, Nayarit, and Vienna (which France did not).
But at a certain point, he paused uncomfortably and said he was “lost for words”. I empathize. At a certain point when someone makes such a brazen claim of denial, does it make sense to continue to try to state the obvious?
It strikes me that it is actually the silence of the nuclear-dependent states that most enables the ongoing “nuclear consequences denial” of the nuclear-armed states. They remained conspicuously quiet after France’s statement.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. argued that it was seemingly well-intentioned white “moderates” —those who said “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods” —who perpetuated the persistence of racism and segregation. “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection,” he said. They provided the veneer of legitimacy and normalcy to an illegitimate system. Dr. King noted that a “gentle” segregationist was still “dedicated to maintenance of the status quo.”
Similarly, eliminating nuclear weapons requires that those states acknowledging the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons but remaining complicit with the nuclear-armed states to break their silence. “Building consensus” around denial would be a consensus of delusion and support a “security” system based on the most inhumane weapons ever built.
For an earlier installment in my “Deconstructing Nuclear Discourse” blog posts, click here.