History is Screaming

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

Nobody opines sagely anymore that the races will never get along, calmly ladling conventional certainties over the earnest idealism of civil-rights activists. But we live in a world so permeated with militarized fear of demagogic leaders and rogue states that nuclear deterrence retains enough of the default credibility it had during the Cold War, as the opposite of utopian naïveté, that common sense is still on the defensive.

No matter that some of the most prominent old Cold Warriors have lost their faith in nuclear weapons, and grasp that us vs. them security concepts are disastrously counterproductive in today’s more complex, more nationally porous global reality, and have downgraded that era’s most notorious acronym — M.A.D., as in Mutually Assured Destruction — to just plain mad.

“U.S. leadership will be required to take the world to the next stage . . .”

Let` those words reverberate, as we ponder their seriousness: “. . . to a solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons . . . and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world. . . . (which) is now on the precipice of a new and dangerous nuclear era.”

They were written, in early 2007, by two former secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and George Schultz; a former secretary of defense, William Perry; and former Sen. Sam Nunn, long-time chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. All are ex-hawks, stalwart defenders of the Free World back in the day, but here they are speaking in humbler language, language that is plaintive and almost prayer-like, of “a world free” — of nuclear weapons.

They warn: “. . .the U.S. soon will be compelled to enter a new nuclear era that will be more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically even more costly than was Cold War deterrence. It is far from certain that we can successfully replicate the old Soviet-American ‘mutually assured destruction’ with an increasing number of potential nuclear enemies world-wide without dramatically increasing the risk that nuclear weapons will be used.”

And they quote JFK: “The world was not meant to be a prison in which man awaits his execution.”

Their words have given courage to editorial boards here and there. In August, the San Francisco Chronicle, citing the support of “well-known realists” Kissinger and Shultz, editorialized that “the United States should take the lead in building a consensus for reducing, and ultimately disarming, global stocks of nuclear weapons.”

In other words, reduction of the world’s supply of 25,000 nuclear weapons isn’t enough. Foreswearing “the next generation” of nuclear weapons, and the multi-billion-dollar weapons industry hell-bent on birthing it, isn’t enough. National and, indeed, human security demands nothing short of the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, a goal that can only be achieved, in the words of Kissinger, et al, as a global “joint enterprise” — you know, with international or trans-national cooperation, kind of the opposite of the Bush/neocon vision of American hegemony and its comic-book battle with evil.

“U.S. leadership will be required to take the world to the next stage . . .”

So far this remains the cry of the powerless. The old Cold Warriors are out of the game now, as they lend their voices and their realpolitik bona fides to those who were never in the game. And therefore these voices, no matter their urgency, can still be dismissed as utopian and “a bit Pollyanaish” (a comment I received recently) because the vision they are articulating doesn’t have the status of conventional wisdom yet.

The default response is still too easily a mocking flicker of “father knows best,” a replay of the old canards of institutional racism. The races can never get along. Bad people are out there; we have to protect ourselves.

Only someone currently in full possession of the blessings and curses of power can give this vision the credibility of inevitability, which brings me to my point: We have just elected such a person president, and, as the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg put it, “there is already the feel of the beginning of a new era.” The prevailing fabric of political cynicism has a gash from top to bottom, and a global yearning for change rushes in.

Why else are a million and a half people expected to pack the D.C. mall for Barack Obama’s inauguration? Scalpers are selling tickets to the event for as high $60,000. History is screaming. Surely it is a cry for international cooperation, a safer world, a new way of thinking. Surely it is a cry that we step away from the madness of our nuclear suicide pact.

But only the man of the moment can give this cry political traction. Obama needs more than our cheers. He needs our ultimatum as well: our insistence that he step into the future we voted for.