Editor’s Note: The below piece is an expansion of Mr. Nordlinger’s piece in the current issue of National Review.
The world has been nervous about nuclear bombs ever since August 1945, when the United States dropped two of them on Japan, thus ending World War II. (The bombs killed about 130,000 people; the war killed about 60 million.) Some periods have been more nervous than others. We are going through a markedly nervous one now.
North Korea’s psychotic regime is testing nukes at will. (I borrow that term from Jeane Kirkpatrick, who described North Korea as a “psychotic state.”) Kim Jong-un, the dictator, is engaging in a war of words with the American president, Donald J. Trump. Trump promised “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Kim did not promise fury, but, according to Pyongyang’s official translation, he did say, “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.” (An Oxford dictionary defines “dotard” as “an old person, especially one who has become weak or senile.”)
Into this atmosphere steps the Norwegian Nobel Committee, awarding Alfred Nobel’s peace prize for 2017 to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. The group’s chosen acronym is “ICAN,” leaving out the “W” for “Weapons.” You pronounce it “I can,” which conveys a message of self-confidence and possibility. You are familiar with “Sí, se puede,” the old United Farm Workers slogan, recently revived. The sentiment is basically the same.
ICAN is based in Geneva, long known as a “peace” city. The first of the Geneva Conventions was held in 1864. The founder of the Red Cross, Henry Dunant, was a Genevan. He won the first-ever Nobel Peace Prize, in 1901 (along with Frédéric Passy, a grand old man of the French peace movement). And, of course, the League of Nations, forerunner to the United Nations, was based in Geneva.
The group — ICAN — has a symbol. It is a missile being broken within a peace sign. (In my history of the Nobel Peace Prize — Peace, They Say — I devote some space to the peace sign and its origins.)
What is ICAN, by the way? It’s a coalition of hundreds of civil-society groups around the world. Their common aim — as the name of the umbrella organization says — is the abolition of nuclear weapons.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee, in its annual press release, said this: “The organization is receiving the award for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”
ICAN has helped convene conferences whose purpose is to highlight the devastation that nuclear attacks would wreak (and did, in Japan). You would not think this needed highlighting. When I was growing up, the peace movement had a bumper sticker: “One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day.”
And what of the treaty alluded to by the Nobel committee, in the statement quoted above? That’s the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted by the United Nations on July 7, 2017. ICAN was an instigator of this treaty.
ICAN had taken a page from ICBL, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. This group achieved a treaty in 1997. That same year, ICBL and its leader, Jody Williams, an American activist, won the Nobel Peace Prize. The United States did not join the landmine treaty, and has not. President Clinton explained that the U.S. needed its million mines in the demilitarized zone between the Koreas. (You might argue that an area with a million mines is not exactly demilitarized.) The mines, said Clinton, were for the protection of American and South Korean soldiers alike. Furthermore, the Pentagon said that, without the mines, North Korea could overrun Seoul quickly.
The U.S. wanted to join the Mine Ban Treaty and asked for exceptions. The movers behind the treaty said no.
For her part, the Nobel laureate, Jody Williams, said that Clinton was “on the wrong side of humanity” — and, for good measure, a “weenie.”
The United States did not agree to the nuclear treaty either. Neither did the other nuclear powers. Neither did the allies of the nuclear powers. The U.S., in concert with Britain and France, issued a statement: “We do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it,” meaning the treaty. (The word “ever” is particularly strong.) “This initiative clearly disregards the realities of the international security environment. Accession to the ban treaty is incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence, which has been essential to keeping the peace in Europe and North Asia for over 70 years.”
Their statement further said, “This treaty offers no solution to the grave threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program, nor does it address other security challenges that make nuclear deterrence necessary.”
Security and disarmament. The role of deterrence in peace. These things have been debated by the Nobel committee, and its laureates, and others of us, for a very long time. Indeed, a Nobel lecture in 1927 was titled “Security and Disarmament.” More about that in due course.
The chairwoman of today’s committee said, “We’re not kicking anyone in the leg with this prize.” What did she mean by that statement? I’ll tell you.
In 2002, the committee awarded the prize to Jimmy Carter. The chairman said that the prize “should be interpreted as a criticism of the line that the current administration has taken. It’s a kick in the leg to all who follow the same line as the United States.” “Kick in the leg” is a Norwegian way of saying “slap in the face,” “poke in the eye.” So, the chairman was making things unmistakably clear: The award to Carter was meant as a slap at George W. Bush.
And in 2017, the committee chairwoman was saying that the prize to ICAN was not meant as a slap at President Trump or anyone else.
In its press release, the committee said that its decision to crown ICAN was in keeping with Alfred Nobel’s will, i.e., his instructions for the prize. About that, they were absolutely right. In his will of 1895, Nobel sketches three criteria for his peace prize: “fraternity between nations” (the first and foremost); “the abolition or reduction of standing armies” (a criterion you can read as “disarmament”); and “the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
Do you know that the prizes — all of the Nobel prizes — are supposed to be given for work done during the preceding year? That these prizes are not supposed to be lifetime-achievement awards? It’s true: Each prize — even the literature prize — is supposed to be given for work done during the preceding year (though this instruction is often ignored). And ICAN qualifies, given the U.N.’s adoption of the ban treaty last July.
He was an interesting cat, Alfred Nobel. I loved getting to know him when I wrote my book. Nobel made his living in explosives, and the most famous of the prizes he willed is for peace. He was an idealist with a realistic streak, or a realist with an idealistic streak. “Good wishes alone will not ensure peace,” he once wrote. “One must be able to give favorably disposed governments an acceptable plan. To demand disarmament is really only to make oneself ridiculous without doing anyone any good.”
Nobel was a very strong believer in deterrence — maybe an over-believer in it. In some moments, he thought that weapons would become so terrible, war would be unthinkable, and simply abandoned. “In the day that two armies are capable of destroying each other in a second,” he wrote, “all civilized nations will surely recoil before a war and dismiss their troops.” In other moments, he thought that men would never stop slaughtering one another.
He died in 1896. What if he had lived to see merely World War I (to say nothing of the second)? I think he would have thought his pessimism brutally confirmed. No, men would not stop slaughtering one another, no matter what.
In hindsight, some of the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decisions look silly. In the mid 1920s, the committee gave the prize to three foreign ministers for the Locarno Treaties, which were supposed to secure a new order in Europe and prevent a second world war. When the treaties were consummated, the New York Times bannered, “France and Germany Ban War Forever,” and the Times of London bannered, “Peace at Last.”
We may scoff. But 18 million were killed in the first war, and people were desperate to stop a second. And we know more now.
In 1928, the Kellogg-Briand Pact was made. This was the international treaty designed to “outlaw war,” in the phrase of the day. Frank Kellogg, the American secretary of state, received the Nobel prize in 1929. (Aristide Briand, the French foreign minister, had won earlier for the Locarno Treaties.)
Again, we may scoff. The outlawing of war! What could be more absurd? Yet a lot of non-absurd people spoke well of the pact, including President Coolidge, including Colonel Stimson. They did not think there would never be another war. They thought that a treaty would give a war-weary or war-skeptical public a tool against governments moving unwisely to war.
And, to say it again: We know more now.
When I saw a passage in the New York Times about the nuclear-ban treaty, I thought of the Kellogg-Briand Pact and its defenders, I swear I did. Here is the passage: “Proponents of the treaty have said that they never expected any nuclear-armed country would sign it right away. But they argued that the treaty’s widespread acceptance elsewhere would increase the public pressure and stigma of possessing nuclear weapons.”
That is exactly what the Kellogg-Briand people thought. That the pact would stigmatize war, and galvanize the public against it. I don’t scoff at the Kellogg-Brianders. I really don’t.
Today, we know a lot about deterrence — and rogue regimes, and aggressors, and the limits of appeasement. This is what makes current naïveté so irritating, to me. In 2008, the Guardian ran a profile of the man who was then chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee (not the kick-in-the-leg guy). The paper listed his “likes” and “dislikes.” The “likes” were his “wife and family,” “peace,” and “the arctic cathedral of Tromso.” His “dislikes” were “wars” and “nuclear weapons.”
Well, thank you very much. There are no lovers, or even likers, of wars and nuclear weapons, except for psychopaths, who, it is true, sometimes rise to power (as in North Korea). There are people who think that war is occasionally necessary, and people who think that nuclear weapons are needed for the maintenance of peace, until lions lie down with lambs, all cuddly.
In 2005, the chairman was awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Atomic Energy Agency and its then director general, Mohamed ElBaradei. The chairman said, “It is hypocritical to go on developing one’s own nuclear weapons while doing everything in one’s power to prevent others from acquiring such weapons.” He also quoted ElBaradei, to the effect that you shouldn’t tell others not to smoke if you have a cigarette dangling from your mouth.
A good line — but does it not matter who possesses nuclear weapons, and why? Democratic Israel, totalitarian Iran — does it make no difference?
The earlier-mentioned Nobel lecture in 1927 was delivered by Ludwig Quidde, a German peace campaigner. He is one of my favorite laureates. In his lecture, he said,
The popular, and one may say naïve, idea is that peace can be secured by disarmament and that disarmament must therefore precede the attainment of absolute security and lasting peace. This idea prevailed in the early days of the organized peace movement. “Lay Down Your Arms!” was the title that our great pioneer, Bertha von Suttner, gave her famous book … This title was generally understood to mean: “Lay down your arms and we shall have peace.”
This, however, was misguided in the extreme. As Quidde went on to say, “To a great extent, disarmament is dependent on guarantees of peace. Security comes first and disarmament second.”
(In 1889, Bertha von Suttner, an Austrian, published her pacifist novel, Die Waffen nieder! or Lay Down Your Arms! Tolstoy compared it to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in its impact. Suttner inspired Alfred Nobel’s establishment of a peace prize. A long time before, he was in love with her. In 1905, she won his peace prize.)
Hawk though I may be, I don’t scoff at the men and women of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. I listen to them and respect them. On receiving the Nobel, the organization said, “This prize is a tribute to the tireless efforts of many millions of campaigners and concerned citizens worldwide who, ever since the dawn of the atomic age, have loudly protested nuclear weapons, insisting that they can serve no legitimate purpose and must be forever banished from the face of our earth.”
You know who often talked a lot like this? Reagan. This was chronicled in a 2005 book by Paul Lettow, Ronald Reagan and His Quest to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Reagan’s views on nukes made a lot of conservatives nervous. Some thought he was naïve. Some thought he was just kidding: that he really didn’t mean it.
Reagan said, “We seek the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.” He did not say this offhandedly. He said it in an inaugural address (1985).
Here is something he said extemporaneously (and he alludes, of course, to the United States and the Soviet Union: “I can’t believe that this world can go on beyond our generation and on down to succeeding generations with this kind of weapon on both sides poised at each other without someday some fool or some maniac or some accident triggering the kind of war that is the end of the line for all of us. And I just think of what a sigh of relief would go up from everyone on this earth if someday — and this is what I have — my hope, way in the back of my head — is that if we start down the road to reduction, maybe one day in doing that, somebody will say, ‘Why not all the way? Let’s get rid of all these things.’”
The end of the line for all of us. My hope, way in the back of my head. Aren’t those arresting and interesting phrases?
Another time, Reagan said this: “It is my fervent goal and hope that we will some day no longer have to rely on nuclear weapons to deter aggression and assure world peace.”
But until that day …
There are nine nuclear nations, five of which are democracies. And one of the other four is North Korea. Iran is knocking on the door. The A-bomb is 1940s technology, remember: How long can it be confined to only nine states? “You can’t put the genie back into the bottle,” goes an old cliché. Another cliché speaks of toothpaste and tubes. You can say that these infernal, world-destroying things should not have been invented. But here they are.
Curiously, there was a government that gave up nuclear weapons. Apartheid South Africa had six and a half bombs. (One was not quite complete.) They destroyed them, rather than bequeath them to the successor government.
That is very, very exceptional. And an old bumper sticker most likely applies to the world of nuclear weapons: “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.”
What Reagan wanted, fervently, was missile defense — a shield against nuclear weapons, a way out of Mutual Assured Destruction, also known as MAD. There ought to be a prize for that, Nobel or not.
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