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Reacting to “Nukes and the Vow” (Part I)


One published reaction to “Nukes and the Vow” elsewhere on the Internet came from Russ Wellen, who had already appeared in this blog putting questions to Ford on the issue of a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty [FMCT].  In the August 7, 2009, edition of The Faster Times, an on-line newspaper for which he runs the “Nukes and Other WMD” desk, Wellen wrote his own essay on the subject. It is reproduced here, with Mr. Wellen's permission.


by RUSS WELLEN (August 7, 2009), The Faster Times

No, Christopher Ford isn’t asking that of Buddhists. But he does suggest they entertain the possibility that nuclear weapons play a significant role in keeping the global peace.

Who’s Christopher Ford? Until September 2008, he served as the Bush administration’s lead negotiator for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Currently, he’s a member of the Hudson Institute, the think tank that traces its origins back to Herman Kahn. You remember him: Mr. Winnable Nuclear War — the man who popularized the term megadeath before the band of the same name (minus the second “a”) appropriated it for its own use.

Before you decide Dr. Ford’s qualifications are dis-qualifications, consider this: He’s a Buddhist.

Bush administration? Nuclear war? Buddhist? I know. Take a moment to let the cognitive-dissonance dust settle.

It’s true that when Dr. Ford was with the Bush administration, his positions were capable of making one question his and, of course, the Bush administration’s commitment to nuclear nonproliferation. For example, Article VI of the NPT states in part: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations. . . relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race. . .”

Dr. Ford claimed that the NPT doesn’t call for total disarmament. Negotiations alone toward that end are sufficient for a state to be in compliance with the article in question. Technically, he may have been right. But why would one of our nation’s lead disarmament negotiators even bring up the possibility of failure?

It seems Dr. Ford didn’t want any other countries in the NPT to use the inability of the United States to successfully disarm as an excuse to dodge their own obligations to nonproliferation. “Deproliferation,” meanwhile, is not an expression I’ve ever seen him use, but it seems to describe his position.

It was coined by famed communitarian professor Amitai Etzioni, who wrote, “Deproliferation calls for removing the access to nuclear arms and the materials from which they can readily be made — first and foremost in unstable and noncompliant states, and only then in all others.”

In other words, like Etzioni, Dr. Ford first seeks to strip North Korea of nuclear weapons and disabuse Iran of any notions it might have of developing nuclear weapons. Traditional arms control seeks to simultaneously roll back the nuclear arsenals of the great powers, United States and Russia, partly in hopes of convincing small states that the need for nuclear weapons no longer exists (if it ever did).

While with the Bush administration, Dr. Ford wrote that the future of a U.S.-Russian nuclear disarmament relationship might consist of “only the reciprocal exchange of various sorts of transparency and confidence-building measures [and] each party will make its own procurement decisions.” Its own procurement decisions?

At the time, such concepts seemed part and parcel of Bush administration’s unilateralism and phobia about treaties. But Dr. Ford’s work since suggests his leeriness of treaties wasn’t out of a Bushian need to keep the United States free from being much obliged to other nations. Instead, he seemed to honestly believe that treaties wouldn’t stand unless compliance on the part of the states that signed them could be verified without qualification.

In fact, once detached from the Bush administration, Dr. Ford has dedicated himself to treaty compliance, which he feels works best when customized for individual states. He also combed through arms control history to find documentation which demonstrates that the NPT does not guarantee every state that’s signed it the right to enrich uranium for nuclear power. Reflexively making this false claim for Iran is no way to prevent an attack by Israel while the United States stands by.

In fact, with his nimble mind and prodigious intellect, Dr. Ford makes many in the disarmament community seem like hide-bound dullards in comparison. In a dialogue with me at his new global security site New Paradigms Forum, he articulated one of his core beliefs: “Arms control is too important not to be done right; if you can’t do it in a way that actually contributes to international peace and security, it’s perfectly appropriate just to walk away.”

Though a staunch ban-the-bomber myself, I’ve come to find Dr. Ford’s work invaluable. Still, it came as a surprise when he contributed to a Buddhist symposium on nuclear weapons for the UCAN program at the renowned Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico. Come to find out, Dr. Ford studies there.

In Nukes and the Vow: Security Strategy as Peacework, he writes:

It is essential, I feel, to begin from the perspective that the overriding objective is to create a world that contains as little human suffering as possible. … [Survival aside] people who are being slaughtered probably face significant constraints upon their capacity for spiritual practice.

Significant constraints, indeed. But, while many “Buddhist peaceworkers seem to believe. . . that it should be a fundamental goal of Buddhist peacework to eliminate nuclear weapons. . . to my eye it puts the cart before the horse.”

Later Dr. Ford writes:

"In Buddhist peacework, our lodestar should be fundamental human security, rather than the talismanic presence or absence of nuclear devices per se. If we cannot be reasonably confident of real security in a nuclear-weapon free world. … it might be possible to make a Buddhist argument for the retention of nuclear weapons" [All emphases Dr. Ford's.]

“Make no mistake,” he reminds us. “I do not make such an argument here. Nevertheless, it may be incumbent upon all Engaged Buddhists to be at least alive to this possibility.”

They’re alive, all right. In fact, they’re recoiling in alarm. But Engaged Buddhists, Dr. Ford argues, cannot be “absolutists, nor ‘theologize’ disarmament. We must remember that peace and security is the public policy objective, not nuclear disarmament per se.”

He writes:

"Taking disarmament seriously as an Engaged Buddhist may. . . require less moral certainty [and] more willingness to explore the swampy morass of how nations [and] their security interests … Many disarmament advocates find something profoundly distasteful in. . . quasi-realpolitik calculation. Many also find the very idea of nuclear deterrence itself to be horrifying. … little short of criminal insanity."

Dr. Ford is confronting us with two critical issues. The first is the extent to which peace workers, Buddhist or otherwise, gag over the concept of nuclear deterrence. Buddhists are not alone in their revulsion. In The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, Third Edition, Sir Lawrence Freedman writes:

In the eighties, a pastoral letter by the American National Conference of Catholic Bishops on the moral dimension. “What was significant about the letter itself was that in seeking to reconcile nuclear deterrence with their ethical principles the bishops eventually concluded that it was permissible to own nuclear weapons for purposes of deterrence but improper to use them.” [Emphasis added.]

Freedman adds:

“The significance of the bishops’ pastoral letter was not in the quality of its reasoning or its conclusions but in throwing the fundamental dilemma of nuclear policy into such stark relief.”

(The significance of Freedman’s response lies not with the stark relief into which nuclear policy has been thrown, but with the droll light in which he casts the bishops’ willful blindness about how deterrence works. For it to be effective, a firm resolve to use nuclear weapons in a worst case scenario is required.)

Secondly, Dr. Ford is pushing the envelope of peace work into a realm where few Engaged Buddhists dare to go (I like the way he initial-caps the first letter of “engaged”) — politics and policy-making. Since he comes from that world, it might not seem that un-natural to Dr. Ford. But someone like the Dalai Lama (as if there’s anyone else like him) was plucked from the monastery and thrust into the world of politics. (For an idea of just how masterful he’s become at playing politics, read Pico Iyer’s recent New York Review of Books report on Tibet, Hell on Earth.)

Dr. Ford insists that Engaged Buddhists:

. . . must become students of the complex muddle of national and international decision-making and security politics, and make ourselves more savvy consumers of other people’s policy advocacy.

But to most peaceworkers of any spiritual stripe, engagement means seminars, Hiroshima Day celebrations, demonstrations, and at the most extreme, blocking logging trains or dowsing nuclear warheads with blood. They may not be capable of the kind of engagement advocated by Dr. Ford.

First of all, it’s difficult for them to think in terms of saving, say, 500,000 in conventional war by subjecting 10 million to the risk (however small, however large — nobody really knows) of dying in nuclear war. It’s not built into the DNA of Engaged Buddhists, peaceworkers, or spiritual seekers to make a bargain like that with Mara, the devil, the unspeakable, or whatever you want to call evil.

Deterrence itself, meanwhile, assumes a fatalism, or lack of faith in human nature, that is completely antithetical to the whole concept of realizing human potential. Still, Dr. Ford’s argument is too powerful to rebut. The more, absolutist, in his words, that we remain, the less credible we are. Our rigidity reflects poorly on disarmament itself and runs the risk of making it that much harder for those creating policy or negotiating treaties to succeed.

If we’re unwilling to educate ourselves to the utmost on disarmament issues and entertain opposing viewpoints, our advocacy may do more harm than good. In fact, the cause might better be served by our backing off. (Of course I don’t tend to take that advice. I’m against deterrence because. . . well. . . I just am.)

Besides, there’s more than enough work waiting to be done to keep weapons at bay that are indefensible in any way, shape, or form: biological and chemical weapons, land mines, and cluster bombs.

In fact, why not just shine a spotlight on the fundamental causes of war itself — such as child-raising practices — and scrub them free of shadows?

-- Russ Wellen

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