Magazine | October 30, 2017, Issue

No Nukes, They Say

The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize and the momentous issues it raises

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. 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. Based in Geneva, ICAN is a coalition of hundreds of civil-society groups around the world. Its symbol is a missile being broken within a peace sign.

The Nobel committee, in its annual press release, said this: ICAN “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 DMZ between the Koreas. 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, and neither did the other nuclear powers, and nor did their allies. In concert with Britain and France, the U.S. 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.”

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.

In its recent press release, the committee said that its award to ICAN was in keeping with Alfred Nobel’s will — his instructions for the prize — and they were absolutely right about that. In his will of 1895, Nobel sketches three criteria: “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.”

He was an interesting cat, Alfred Nobel. He 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, 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, no matter what.

He died in 1896. If he had lived to see merely World War I, he would have thought his pessimism brutally confirmed.

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 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.

We know a lot about deterrence — and rogue regimes, and aggressors, and the limits of appeasement. This is what makes current naivety so irritating. In 2008, the Guardian ran a profile of the man who was then chairman of the Norwegian committee, Ole Danbolt Mjøs. The paper listed his “likes” and “dislikes.” The “likes” were his “wife and family,” “peace,” and “the arctic cathedral of Tromsø.” 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, Chairman Mjøs was awarding the peace prize to the International Atomic Energy Agency and its then director general, Mohamed ElBaradei. He 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 aforementioned Nobel lecture in 1927 was delivered by Ludwig Quidde, a German peace campaigner. He is one of my favorite laureates. (Several years ago, I wrote a history of the Nobel Peace Prize, Peace, They Say.) In his lecture, Quidde said, “The popular, and one may say naive, idea is that peace can be secured by disarmament and that disarmament must therefore precede the attainment of absolute security and lasting peace.” This, the laureate contradicted. “To a great extent, disarmament is dependent on guarantees of peace. Security comes first and disarmament second.”

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 said, “We seek the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the earth.” That comes from his second inaugural address, in 1985. A year later, he said, “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.

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners




Price Controls for Health Care? In “The Price Is Right” (October 16), Peter Laakmann gives much-needed insight into why per capita spending on health care in the U.S., although higher than ...
The Week

The Week

‐ Who do you think has a higher IQ — Trump, or someone who chose to work for Trump? ‐ President Trump picked a fight with Senator Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), ...

Most Popular

PC Culture

Britain’s Joke War: The Pug and Count Dankula

In 1941, a German vice consul in Nazi-friendly Finland reported a suspicious act: a dog had reportedly mocked the Führer. A Finn named Tor Borg was called in for questioning: Was it true that his dog had, upon hearing the word “Hitler,” made a mockery of the chancellor by performing a Nazi salute? After a ... Read More

Thursday Links

It's William Shatner's birthday: Here he is in 1978 'singing' Rocket Man, plus a Star Trek/Monty Python mashup. Sold: Isaac Newton’s Notes on the Philosopher’s Stone. It was a long time before anyone admitted that he was interested in alchemy. High-tech forgery: Computer-generated 'Rembrandt' ... Read More

Korea: A Deadly Question

Olympic Games often have political significance, as in 1936 and as in the Olympics just past -- the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Those Games seemed as much political as athletic. I talk about this with Michael Breen on my latest Q&A. Breen is one of our best Korea-watchers, one of our soundest ... Read More