by John Atcheson
The Twin Horsemen of the New
Slowly, the nuclear genie escapes
from the carefully constructed bottle of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,
threatening the world with annihilation.
Inexorably, global warming advances
across the decades as temperatures climb, fires rage, glaciers melt, droughts
escalate, hurricanes intensify, habitats shrink, species disappear.
These, then are the twin horsemen of
the new apocalypse: the prospect of nuclear war and the reality of global
No biblical prophesy this. The pale
riders mounted upon these steeds are men, and they wait eagerly at the gate,
their time come at last. Arrogance is their vehicle; hypocrisy their fuel.
We are Become Death, the Destroyer
Imagine a world in which more than
twenty-five countries possessed nuclear weapons, instead of the nine that do
now. Imagine that number relentlessly growing, decade by decade until a hundred
or more nations - all but the very poorest - were capable of detonating a
nuclear device and initiating a nuclear holocaust. In such a world, the
unthinkable would become the inevitable.
The only reason we’re not living in
that world today is that in 1968, the international community seized a rare
moment of sanity and produced the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, stuffing
the nuclear genie back in its bottle.
Led by Ireland
189 states signed the treaty.
The NNPT was supposed to work as
follows: Nations who had not yet developed nuclear weapons agreed not to pursue
a nuclear arsenal. In return, nations possessing nuclear weapons agreed “to
pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation
of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a
treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective
In short, the treaty was a
quid-pro-quo. Nuclear have-nots agreed not to obtain nuclear weapons in
exchange for nuclear haves agreeing to take real, verifiable steps to get rid
Now imagine a nation that broke this
grand bargain, and risked bringing forth death and destruction of biblical
proportion. That nation exists. It is US.
At the time of the treaty, South Africa, Egypt,
Argentina, Brazil, and several other countries
who were actively developing nuclear weapons suspended their programs. Five
nations - the US, Russia, Britain,
China, and France agreed to suspend active
programs and begin negotiations to dismantle their stockpile. Countries capable
of constructing nuclear weapons, including Australia, Norway, Japan, New
Zealand, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Finland, South Korea, and host of
others then had no incentive to initiate programs, and the world was moved a
little further from the brink of a nuclear insanity. There have been leaks. Israel, India,
Pakistan, and North Korea
have all developed nuclear weapons.
But for years, the dream of a
nuclear free world was a powerful card the world could play in constraining the
spread of this deadly ambition.
The nuclear haves - led by the US -
have steadfastly ignored their responsibilities under this treaty. Indeed,
under Bush, the US
has scrapped the ABM treaty, sought funding for a new generation of nuclear
weapons, and proposed to resume testing of nuclear devices, even as we’ve
insisted that others abandon efforts to produce them. Thus, we approach the
world as an arrogant hypocrite, and seem surprised that it is not working.
Climate: the slow-motion nuclear war
Forget wars, famine, pestilence and
death. They are merely the stepchildren of global warming.
Consider this. The cumulative energy
embedded in all fossil fuels is on the same order of magnitude as the energy
that would be released from detonating all of the world’s nuclear devices. So
if we burn all of those reserves, in terms of energy, it is the equivalent of
an all out nuclear war. But wait, you say, even if we were to burn all those
reserves, it would take place over three centuries, hardly the same as a
Fair enough, but try this little
thought experiment, and in the words of Aldo Leopold, think like a mountain. In
terms of geologic time, three centuries is virtually indistinguishable from an
Over the four and a half billion
years the earth has existed, the systems that sustain us have been sculpted
carefully from the ether. Life appeared some 3.8 billion years ago - simple
procaryotes living off of methane and sulfur. Oxygenators became dominant about
a billion years later, and slowly, the orange sky turned blue. Painstakingly,
the world we know evolved until a scant million years ago hominids something
like ourselves appeared. Homo Sapiens - man the wise - evolved about fifty
thousand years ago, and in the last ten thousand years, blessed with a
relatively benign climate, we began our march towards civilization.
Now we look through the lens of our
own life span and declare three centuries to be a long time. But to that
mountain, the blinding death-flash of a nuclear holocaust, and the three
hundred year combustion of fossil fuels are less distinguishable, and the
consequences may be too. In a very real sense, climate change could play out
like a slow-motion nuclear war, sans radioactive fallout.
Just as with the nuclear threat, the
is the biggest impediment to progress, and the biggest cause of the problem. In
2005, the US
released 7.1 billion tons of GHGs. To put that in context, the US -
with about five percent of the world’s population - emitted about twenty five
percent of the world’s greenhouse gasses. Cumulatively, the US contribution to global warming dwarfs any
other country’s, and it will do so long after China supplants us as the largest
The Origins of Arrogance
Given the fact that we sit astride
this heinous record of disregarding all elements of a sane world, on what basis
do we now object to Iran
or any country seeking to develop a nuclear capability? Certainly not moral
How do we, the worlds biggest energy
pig, justify our failure to ratify the Kyoto
climate accords, and our failure to honor our obligations under the United
Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which we did sign and ratify?
Do we simply assert that we are
different? Special in some way?
A sizable number of neocons take
precisely that point of view, referring to the US as the “Exceptional Nation.”
Indeed, it is this notion which has animated our foreign policy to one degree
or another since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Under Bush, it has become an almost religious conviction.
Presumably, this exceptionalism
gives us the right to retain our nuclear weapons, expand our arsenal, and
prevent anyone else - even those we threaten - from developing them. It could
even be used to justify the fact that we continue to spew out GHG at more than
six times the global per capita average.
It’s worth examining the roots of
this notion of the US
as the exceptional nation. It was coined by De Tocqueville in the 1830’s, and
predicated on his observation that the US was unique in that it had no feudal
tradition, was more centered on rights, merit, religious beliefs, and was more
egalitarian. This, according to De Tocqueville, set us apart from the more
state-centered societies of Europe, and
allowed democracy to flourish here, more than anywhere else.
But it’s a big leap to go from
there, to where the neocons would take us - the US as exempt from the civilizing
treaties of the global community, by virtue of this exceptionalism.
Of course, the problem with this
arrogant stance is that it only works if other countries accept the neocons’
self-designated version of the US
If they don’t - and why should
they?- then our wholesale rejection of civilizing agreements such as the Land
Mine Treaty, the Tobacco Treaty, the World Court, the Comprehensive Nuclear
Test Ban Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic
Missile Treaty, and the Kyoto Climate Protocol looks less like De Tocqueville’s
exceptionalism and more like ignorant and arrogant jingoism.
Add to this list
of ignominy that the US supports trade agreements that exploit labor and harm
the environment and that, under Bush, we have consistently bad-mouthed the UN,
essentially ignored the Geneva Conventions, preemptively invaded a sovereign
nation, scuttled the chemical and biological weapons treaties, ignored our
obligations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (to which we
are a signatory) and publicly defended torture (water boarding is defined as
torture in our own laws and in international laws) and “rendition,” as well as
acted to limit the freedom and rights of our own citizens by subverting both
the First and Fourth Amendments, and the necon case for exceptionalism becomes
little more than a weak justification for a destructive form of jingoism that does
more to limit freedom than champion it.
The Harvest of Hypocrisy
With a record of hypocrisy like this
is it any wonder that a foreign policy based on arrogance is a complete
failure? Might it not be at least a partial answer to the question, why do they
hate us and, more to the point, why do they hate us even more now than they did
in 2001? Certainly, arrogance without portfolio is the weakest platform from
which to negotiate and lead.
We the People of the United States
have a choice about our country’s and the world’s destiny, and we will make
that choice in the 2008 elections. On the one hand, we can choose to elect
leaders who will continue to act as if we are not subject to the civilizing
rules of the international community, while insisting others are. Down this
path lies permanent confrontation, continuous wars and occupations, inevitable
nuclear proliferation and nuclear brinksmanship, destruction of the climate
that has sustained us since we appeared on the planet, a US that is increasingly isolated in
the international community, and a world that is hurtling towards nuclear
devastation and environmental destruction.
On the other hand, we can choose to
be truly exceptional, not simply by honoring our international obligations, but
by actively leading the world community toward peace, prosperity and
sustainability. This is not only ethically correct, it is strategically smart,
and it would make the US
a leader in all the ways mere military might cannot.
Imagine a world in the process of
destroying its nuclear weapons instead of its climate. Imagine the stature and
influence that would accrue to the country leading that effort.
It would have a moral authority that
would be unambiguous and undeniable.
Ghandi defeated Great Britain with the that kind of
moral authority. Imagine, now, a nation with the military and economic power
possesses, but blessed with Ghandi’s ethical leverage, too.
Such a nation could walk across the
world stage a colossus, and others would be forced to follow. It would be capable
of building coalitions, blessed with allies, and capable of being a force for
good that would be virtually unprecedented in human history. It would indeed be
an exceptional nation.
There is, in fact, only one country
capable of becoming that nation. Us. If we were to choose this path, we would
truly deserve to be known as the exceptional nation, and it would be others who
designated us so, not an arrogant and belligerent claim we made on our own
That’s the real opportunity cost of
the Bush administration and the Republican doctrine; that’s the prize that will
be lost if we allow the Democratic Party to be led by men and women of little
vision and less courage, more interested in following polls than leading
There is no other country that can
deliver us from this apocalypse; there is no other time we can choose to lead.
It happens now, or it can’t happen. If we fail to call our nation to meet its
destiny, the twin horses of the new apocalypse will ride, and we will sit
Our votes and our voices will
determine which it will be.
This is either the blessing or the
tragedy of our time.
John Atcheson’s writing has appeared
in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the San Jose Mercury News, the
Memphis Commercial Appeal, as well as in several wonk journals. Email to: email@example.com
[Thanks to Overtone for the article.]