Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 23:59 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 23:59 | SYDNEY

Abolitionists must name their price


Hugh White

6 November 2009 12:19

Sam has responded with characteristic sobriety to my suggestions about how to make the nuclear abolition agenda look like real policy rather than political posturing.

His reservations would be correct if what was needed here was a methodical step-by-step approach. Step-by-step is just the thing for getting the details right, but sometimes you need to start by establishing the principle – the broad objective towards which the detailed step-by-step routine is supposed to be taking us. 

Something of the difference between principles and details is captured by the old story about glamorous socialite and George Bernard Shaw, which came to me again via the Jerusalem Post.

As anecdote has it, George Bernard Shaw once asked an attractive socialite whether she'd sleep with him for a million pounds. After she answered in the affirmative, he offered her a mere 10 shillings. Outraged, she railed: "What do you take me for? A prostitute?" Shaw reputedly replied: "We've already determined that. We're just haggling over the price."

In the same spirit, abolishing nuclear weapons poses two kinds of problem. One is the immense complexity of negotiating a process to get from here to zero, and staying there. But the other is getting everyone to take those negotiations seriously in the first place, by convincing everyone that we really want to do it. That is the hardest bit, and it is must be done first. And it cannot be done step by step. 

If the leaders of key nuclear states are not bold enough to stand up at the beginning and commit themselves, not just to abolition in the abstract, but to building themselves a post-nuclear strategic posture with all the attendant costs and risks, then no one will ever take the project seriously enough to successfully negotiate the details.

Hence I don't agree with Sam that a big speech by Obama aimed at persuading Americans they could be safe without nuclear weapons would be premature. On the contrary, unless and until he and his successors can build and sustain a durable consensus about post-nuclear security among Americans, then the whole abolition agenda is doomed.

That is why the NFU declaration matters too. The fact that the Pentagon would oppose it is not a reason why Obama should not do it; on the contrary, this is exactly why he must do it if his abolition agenda is to be taken seriously. Sam's reservations only serve to confirm my hunch that, without a bold declaration by Obama, the US system will never find its way step-by-step to zero. 

And let's not let Canberra off the hook. In my post I suggested that the NFU issue gives Rudd a perfect opportunity to demonstrate whether he is dinkum about abolition. I still think that's so.