Nuclear weapons and imperialism

Print edition : December 08, 2001

The Unfinished Twentieth Century by Jonathan Schell; Verso Books, London and New York, 2001; pages xvi + 104, $19.

COUNTING in tens has a natural appeal and the tenth multiple of ten years, the calendar century, possesses a mystique that has led to its observance as an epochal passage in the lifetime of the human species.

History, as it is crafted by humanity, does not quite follow the same principles of demarcation. But perceptions of the appropriate manner of distinguishing one discrete period from another could vary. Jonathan Schell, a consistent voice of conscience for nuclear abolition, identifies the 20th century as an unfinished period of human history since it has thrown up a problem that yet remains unresolved. It has witnessed the build-up of nuclear arsenals that could exterminate all of humanity. And curiously, with the future of the human race hanging in the balance, there is little overt concern over this terrifying prospect. Indeed, when the political rivalry that had fuelled the nuclear arms race ceased with the demise of the Soviet Union, these weapons of mass destruction disappeared from human consciousness.

This did not mean that nuclear weapons disappeared, says Schell. They continue not merely to exist, but to multiply and proliferate. No adequate history of the 20th century can be written, he says, while mankind remains trapped in this moral hiatus, a unique creation of this epoch.

The First World War beginning in 1914 truly inaugurates the 20th century. It was, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out, the first major conflict in a century and launched the concept of "total war", of throwing a nation's entire resources into an effort to subjugate and conquer an adversary. Rules of engagement learnt over centuries were jettisoned as civilian populations became fair game and belligerent nations ardently embraced techniques of warfare that had been earlier stigmatised for indiscriminate killing and maiming.

In the unstable equilibrium that followed the conclusion of hostilities in 1918, Schell argues, totalitarian regimes emerged in Russia and Germany, which enshrined mass slaughter as an integral element of state policy, targeting particular sections of the population. When the uneasy balance was ruptured with full-scale hostilities breaking out in 1939, new concepts of mass killing were put into practice by both the totalitarian regimes and the supposed liberal democracies they confronted: the concentration camp, "terror bombing", and in the memorable words of Britain's war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill, "exterminating" air attacks. In 1945, with the dawning of the nuclear age, extermination became the official policy of liberal democracy, ostensibly as a defence against the dangers of totalitarianism.

Depending upon how mankind responds collectively to the most momentous choice that it is today faced with, future generations could look at the 20th century in two different, markedly opposed, perspectives. If ethical concerns were to foster determined movements for nuclear abolition, which were then to secure their objective through moral suasion and propaganda, then the policy of extermination - a defining attribute of the 20th century - would be understood as a way-station for liberal democratic politics as it charted a course towards a truly enlightened idiom of mass engagement.

As Schell puts it: "The rise and fall of totalitarianism from start to finish will wear an altered aspect. It will turn out to have been a ghastly, protracted detour from the progress (the word itself might even gain new credit) and enlightenment offered by liberal civilisation, which, although capsized in 1914 by the First World War, will have righted itself in 1991, bringing on an era of prosperity and peace. Then liberal civilisation itself, freed of its complicity in the policies of extermination it adopted in 1945, will rest at last on a sure foundation."

If, on the other hand, the nuclear powers were to block all overtures towards disarmament, and where coercion fails, even acquiesce in the proliferation of arms among selected states while retaining the strategic balance of terror overwhelmingly in their favour, then the future would look at this epoch and indeed of its politics in an entirely different light. Gone would be the superior moral claims of political liberalism, says Schell, since a grave "suspicion" would be confirmed: "that the United States and its nuclear allies did not build nuclear weapons chiefly in order to face extraordinary danger,... but for more deep-seated, unarticulated reasons growing out of its own, freely chosen conceptions of national security".

The moral stain would soon enough spread to the founding political doctrines of Western civilisation, warns Schell. If the Western liberal democracies were to resist and defeat the calls for nuclear abolition, then the world would with some justification begin to view nuclear arsenals as "less a response to a particular external threat, totalitarian or otherwise, than an intrinsic element of the dominant liberal civilisation itself - an evil that first grew and still grows from within that civilisation rather than being imposed from without". And in this moment of revelation, it would also be recalled that the "seminal event of the real twentieth century, the First World War, sprang in all its pointless slaughter and destructive fury from the midst of that same liberal civilisation".

These propositions are eloquently put, though the choice that Schell only broadly points to is perhaps already pre-figured in the epoch that precedes the real 20th century. If the real 19th century were to be understood as the period between the French Revolution and the outbreak of the First World War, then the context in which the doctrine of extermination was formulated and first implemented would be quite evident in the furious competition among the Western powers for colonial possessions, when liberalism usurped the moral authority to civilise the world, invariably at gunpoint and with enormous loss of lives.

Schell is sensitive to this aspect of the story. He sees in Colonel Kurtz, a prototypical missionary for Western liberal values in Joseph Conrad's masterwork The Heart of Darkness, a chilling presentiment of future mass slaughters. But Schell is perhaps in error when he puts down Kurtz's injunction to "exterminate all the brutes" as a reflection merely of the realities of colonial rule in Belgian Congo. Extermination, whether by force of arms or by the impersonal laws of free-market liberalism, was very much a reality in virtually all countries subjugated by colonialism. It has been reliably estimated, for instance, that in the last quarter of the 19th century - if one were to revert temporarily to the calendar rather than the figurative concept - between 32 and 61 million people died as a consequence of famines in Asia, North Africa and Latin America. And these famines were only partly induced by stressful weather conditions. In the main, they were directly attributable to the policies of free-market liberalism that came to these regions under the colonial dispensation.

The real 20th century brought the doctrine of extermination to the heart of the Western world. But it must seem less than plausible to argue that liberalism retained its innocence until it was compelled in 1945, by the challenge of totalitarianism, to embrace the doctrine of extermination. If the real 19th century is viewed as the crucible of liberal values, then the categories employed in Schell's narrative seem to undergo a complete inversion. It was not "totalitarianism" that played the role of a "harsh and effective tutor to liberalism" but vice versa. And the "lethal virus" of nuclear extermination, far from being injected into the bloodstream of liberalism by totalitarianism, was rather cultured within this milieu by the ideology of imperialism.

Despite his own firm moorings in the liberal milieu, Schell is fair-minded enough to insist that liberalism as a political doctrine still has to prove itself by confronting and then defeating the ultimate threat to the future of humanity. Schell may himself remain oblivious to the baleful lingering consequences of imperialism. But his work has the great virtue of impelling the reader into directly grappling with this question. And the answers seem fairly unequivocal: the task of nuclear abolition is one that has to be addressed through a global constituency and then, only after first stripping off the mantle of imperialism that the U.S. today is the sole legatee to.

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