By Winslow Myers
There’s been a lot of “whataboutism” muddying the dialogue around the deeper causes of the cruel and pointless Ukraine invasion. What about the eastward expansion of NATO? What about the many arbitrary and unnecessary invasions of sovereign nations by the United States? While this back and forth may provide a momentary sensation of righteousness, it generates more heat than light, recalling playground shouts of “You started it! No, you did!”
The real issue is not who started it, but rather preventing regression to a level of violence which destroys everything while resolving nothing. “Whataboutism” implies a semi-realization that all parties are enmeshed in competitive power games that lead to violent military “solutions.”
Wouldn’t it be more helpful if the community of nations could begin from a humbler starting-point: instead of endless chauvinist justifications, me good/you bad, to admit that we all have rationalized our violence on the basis of national self-interest, we all, to the special delight of arms merchants, have ensured that we and our allies are provided with the most advanced weaponry, we all have violated or cancelled hard-won arms agreements, we all have dehumanized adversaries into enemy stereotypes—and this paradigm has not workedto bring us the security for which the toiling masses of this small planet yearn.
In spite of a dire risk of slipping over the nuclear edge, so far the global community prefers to stick with balance-of-power models of statecraft even as nuclear weapons only increase mutual paranoia and cancel out any potential “victory.” Where is the sane common sense that impressed itself upon Gorbachev and Reagan back in 1986, as they seriously considered getting rid of nukes entirely?
Deterrence is the sacred cow that rationalizes the status quo, but deterrence asserts that it will work forever and that there will be no mistakes—surely a bit much to ask of fallible humans. And what does it mean for the U.S. or Russia and others to refuse to renounce the first use of nuclear weapons? Isn’t this a clue that we are only semi-committed to deterrence while secretly still planning nuclear war-fighting?
There is a fatalistic insanity in the willingness of nations to throw trillions of dollars into ensuring that each “wins” the great game of superpower competition and prestige, while they remain unwilling to give real decision-making power, and the relatively tiny amount of resources it would take, to diplomatic processes based in the reality that we are drifting downstream toward a nuclear waterfall.
After WW3 will be too late; prevention is everything.
Why can’t we conceive of deterrence as a temporary stopgap as we move beyond it toward the cooperation required to mitigate climate change and pandemics? In the nuclear age, self-interest has fundamentally changed: every nation shares with every other nation, nuclear or not, a common interest in avoiding planetary annihilation, and that shared interest can form the basis of new agreements.
Who will lead? Where to start? Is the leverage-point in some kind of restructuring of the U.N.? Is it in a more forceful appeal to the nine nuclear nations from the 60 countries that have ratified the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (with another 26 processing ratification)? Is it in the convening of some new permanent conference of the nine nuclear countries, or however few or many of them that might be willing to lead?
Or will we resignedly accept the rationalizations of the lobbyists, the politicians in the pockets of the arms dealers, the narcissistic autocrats, all of whom form a self-perpetuating system that does nothing to address our real challenges?
Can we go outside the box, with the compassion of millions of NGOs like Rotary International, Doctors Without Borders, and the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (name—and support—your own favorite) all of whom are forging new connections in the context of what Teilhard de Chardin called the “noosphere,” a kind of global brain working outside the tired old structures of war-thinking?
Which of these parallel universes of thought will prevail? Putin’s brutality, whatever its outcome, has only pointed up the stupidity and futility of violence and the perennial possibility of its opposite—a world that chooses survival, takes the risk of cooperation, and ensures a further stage in the unfolding human story.
This article was released for publication on April 13, 2022.