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The End Of (Human) History?

Viewpoint by Sergio Duarte

The writer is an Ambassador, former United Nations High Representative for Disarmament Affair, and President of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

Image: Montage of an inert test of a United States Trident SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile), from submerged to the terminal, or re-entry phase, of the multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles. Source: Wikimedia Commons

NEW YORK (IDN) — Roughly three decades have gone by since the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s essay “The End of History?”. The interrogation mark makes clear that the social scientist and philosopher was not announcing an end to contradiction and conflict among nations. He was mainly asking whether Western liberal democracy could be considered as the final stage of human sociocultural evolution and the final form of governance that would endure. [2022-04-08-01] GERMAN | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | RUSSIAN

The “end of history” concept, discussed by philosophers such as Hegel and Marx in the 19th century presupposes a state in which human existence would continue indefinitely into the future without major changes in society, system of governance or economics.

The main question posed by Fukuyama thirty years ago was how post-Soviet Russia would evolve: either emulate Western Europe’s trajectory since World War II or “realize its own uniqueness and remain stuck in history”. At the close of his essay, Fukuyama noted that “nostalgia for the times when history existed” would continue to fuel competition and conflict.” His question seems to have been answered by Putin’s Russia.

Many analysts of the current situation after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia agree that the driving force behind the Russian action is a yearning to reconfigure Greater Russia as it is claimed to have existed even before the times of the czars and later during the five decades of the Soviet Union. That, quoting Fukuyama again, might mean that Russia decided to remain “stuck in history”. Obviously, the roots and causes of the current state of hostility between NATO and Russia are much more complex than that and would not fit in the scope of his article.

Let us recall that at the time of the publication of Fukuyama’s article the prospect of mutual assured destruction in a battle between the United States and Soviet Russia was slowly being replaced by complacency. Most of the rest of the world had by then decided that to rely on nuclear weapons to protect their own security was too dangerous and certainly counterproductive.

Despite the underlying assumption of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) that such weapons had come to stay, the wide majority of nations condoned the inherent discrimination embedded in the treaty and preferred to forgo developing their own arsenals, in the hope that somehow the weak promise of its article VI would be realized. For the nuclear weapon states and the non-nuclear ones that entrusted their security on positive assurances given by the former, the treaty came to be regarded as a license to the five parties anointed by it as legal possessors to continue adding to their arsenals.

For sure, to this day both superpowers keep engaged in a race to develop ever more destructive weapons, followed at a considerable distance by China. The two other nuclear-weapon states seem content, at least for the time being, to maintain a much smaller nuclear force aimed at deterring potential aggressors. Since they are not bound by the treaty, the four nuclear-armed countries that emerged after 1970 feel free to follow the course of their predecessors.

In 2009 presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev concluded the New START Treaty, committing to reduce the nuclear arsenals of both countries and giving rise to the hope that there would be further reductions in the near future. That hope, however, was soon thwarted. Weapons that had outlived their usefulness or whose maintenance had become too costly were indeed dismantled but soon thereafter both countries dedicated large sums to technological improvement and production of new means of destruction far sharper and faster than the ones that had been discarded. They also stopped short of clearly linking such reductions to the objective of complete elimination. Reductions seem to have been undertaken for economic and technical reasons, as with new weapons replacing obsolete ones, rather than as a harbinger of a real willingness to do away with the threat posed by them. 

Only nine months ago, in June 2021, the current leaders of the United States and Russia, Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, met in Vienna and accepted the prodding of civil society around the world by jointly reaffirming the 1967 declaration by Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan “a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought” and promising “to embark together on an integrated Strategic Stability Dialogue (...) to lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures”.

So far there has been no follow-up to these propositions. The New START Treaty was extended for five years beyond its original expiration date but given the state of US-Russia relations it seems doubtful that there will be any progress in negotiations for new reductions in arsenals or increased bilateral stability in the short and even medium run.  

All possessors of nuclear weapons have declared, with various rhetorical twists, the willingness to use their weapons in the circumstances that they themselves see such use as necessary or justified. China is the only one to have stated that it will not be the first to employ that awesome power, and several voices in civil society urge other nuclear weapon states to adopt formally a similar posture.

However, non-first use, or NFU as this policy is commonly referred to, ultimately amounts to condoning the maintenance of ever more destructive arsenals and would be conducive to a situation where nuclear weapon states feel that it is permissible to continue developing ever more lethal means of warfare under the justification that they will not use them first. The character Candide in Voltaire’s tale of innocence and double standards would simply ask: if you yourself doubt the wisdom of using them, why are you so attached to them?  

Although in different forms, all nine states that possess nuclear weapons seem to share the self-fulfilling proposition that they are entitled to keep the power to wipe out human civilization “as long as nuclear weapons exist”. Ever since nuclear weapons were used in war, efforts to negotiate and adopt multilateral disarmament measures have eluded the international community.

In 1946 the first Session of the United Nations General Assembly established a commission tasked with “making specific proposals for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and all other weapons adaptable to mass destruction”. Predictably, mistrust and hostility between the two most powerful states prevented any progress in that direction.

As time went by, other states came to acquire those weapons and the emphasis was gradually shifted from disarmament to the prevention of proliferation, as if the main problem was not the existence of the weapons themselves, but the number of countries that possessed them. To this date, existing multilateral treaties have not gone beyond establishing ever stricter rules designed to keep new states from seeking membership in the exclusive nuclear club.

The abrupt shift in international relations caused by Russia’s aggression to Ukraine as a response to what it sees as a threat posed by the eastward expansion of NATO shook the whole world and complacency gave way to fear and anxiety. Suddenly, the use of nuclear weapons seemed a real and present danger, not only for those directly engaged in the hostilities, but for the whole world. The prospect of escalation brought the fear that even the use of relatively low-yield tactical atomic devices in the battlefield would spark an inevitable chain of events with ever more powerful explosions culminating in the utter extermination of combatants and the civil population everywhere.

Researchers have calculated that some 13.000+ nuclear weapons exist today in the stockpiles of the nine possessors, some 95% of which in the hands of Russia and the United States. Even if only a fraction of them is used, countries spared actual destruction by the exchange of swarms of nuclear bombs coming at several times the speed of sound would soon be decimated by radioactive clouds and by the consequences of the nuclear winter that would forbid agriculture and generate widespread famine. The detonation of even a few hundred would be enough to render our environment unfit for human life and extinguish civilization as we know it.

This would not mean the end of human history in the Hegelian sense, but rather the end of human history upon the planet we call Earth, for it would continue to spin around the Sun as a barren, radioactive and cold mass or rocks and water where only a few primitive yet resilient species might be able to survive.  Human civilization needed several millennia to evolve and reach admirable achievements. It does not deserve to disappear with a bang in a few seconds. [IDN-InDepthNews – 08 April 2022]

Image: Montage of an inert test of a United States Trident SLBM (submarine launched ballistic missile), from submerged to the terminal, or re-entry phase, of the multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles. Source: Wikimedia Commons