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Jonathan Schell, writer for The Nation and professor at The New School in New York City speaks to Paul Jay about what a world without nuclear weapons might look like. He says to move there, the United States must commit to a nuclear weapons convention, like other countries. He also explains that for this to happen, the hegemony of nine countries being in the “nuclear club” will have to change.

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network, coming to you from New York. Joining us again is Jonathan Schell. He writes for The Nation. He’s a fellow at the Nation Institute, teaches at Yale. And we’re talking about President Obama’s commitment to a world without nuclear weapons.


April 5, 2009

BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: Now let me describe to you the trajectory we need to be on. First, the United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons. To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same. To reduce our warheads and stockpiles, we will negotiate a new strategic arms reduction treaty with the Russians this year. To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.


JAY: So if President Obama were to ask you, “Okay, how do I make this commitment real?” over the next few years, what are the steps you think he should be taking?

JONATHAN SCHELL, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Well, there are two commitments that would absolutely make it real. It might take a couple of years to arrive at either of them. Nevertheless, I think this is what it would be. Number one would be: commit the United States to a nuclear-weapon convention. There are conventions now banning biological weapons, and one for chemical weapons as well. Nuclear weapons are the odd man out. So that would be number one. Number two would be to commit to a timeframe for achieving that goal. But in order to do that, what you’d have to do first would be to study the whole idea of a world without nuclear weapons, and have an interdepartmental study and so forth, a commission, Congressional hearings, and so forth, to really ask what are the steps that you’d have to take between our present world and that world. In other words, what would the world look like? What would be going on with conventional forces? What would alliances look like? How would you secure such a world? What kind of inspections would be involved? What’s the shape of the Middle East if it lacks nuclear weapons? And, by the way, Israel is formally committed to a nuclear-weapon-free Middle East in the context of an overall settlement of the political problems. That’s a big “if”, of course. But, nevertheless, there it is on paper. Yeah.

JAY: So a counterargument would be that a world without nuclear weapons, given the kind of world it is—at this phase of human history, at any rate—opens the door to a world with major conventional wars again. Do we open the door to a type of war of the scale of World War II?

SCHELL: Yeah, well, there are many answers to that question, and I’d say the most important one is that when people say that, they’re always thinking of the Cold War, and what they’re forgetting is that that was a sort of a two-power arrangement, basically, or a two-sided arrangement, in which the whole philosophy of deterrence was probably at its most workable. I think one of the reasons that you see an Obama, or, for that matter, a former secretary of state, George Schultz, and even Henry Kissinger, saying that—.

JAY: Well, when I heard Kissinger was for a world without nuclear weapons, that’s what made we wonder about, oh, maybe some people want—.

SCHELL: Well, that is a colossal shift when you consider his role as really almost the prime defender of nuclear arsenals and nuclear deterrents of his era. It’s sort of an iconic change, really. And I think what has led them to that conclusion is the understanding that in a world of what we have now, 9 nuclear powers and heading upwards, that deterrence no longer applies. It’s self-evidently a self-defeating thing if you have 9, 10, 15, 20 nuclear powers, with terrorists in the wings waiting to get their hands on some fissile materials. And so whatever value the nuclear weapons once had in stopping conventional war is rapidly diminishing. It’s a wasting asset.

JAY: Well, if in theory in some time in the future China and the United States were at loggerheads, I mean, whether it’s over Taiwan or whether it’s over Africa or Asia, does the fact that both are nuclear powers prevent them from going to war over some colonial control?

SCHELL: Well, it probably does give them pause, probably does give them increased pause. It’s interesting you mention that relationship, because it’s not at all clear that the United States actually exists in a situation of nuclear deterrence with China. It’s something that’s not fully appreciated, because their arsenal is actually very small, and what’s even smaller is their capacity to deliver anything on a nuclear missile. And they have liquid-fueled missiles. It’s very likely that the United States could practice a first strike against China, and so it’s already not a situation of true deterrence.

JAY: The other issue that’s happening now is a kind of convergence between the issue of weapons and energy, and, obviously, the example is Iran, where Iran says they have a right to an independent energy source, enrich their own uranium. The United States and some west European countries are saying that if you can enrich for power, you’re one step away from enriching for weapons. But that creates not just a monopolization on weapons; it creates a monopolization on nuclear energy itself. Like, you have to come to us nuclear powers to get your uranium and probably your reactors.


OBAMA: We should build a new framework for civil nuclear cooperation, including an international fuel bank, so that countries can access peaceful power without increasing the risk of proliferation. That must be the right of every nation that renounces nuclear weapons, especially developing countries embarking on peaceful programs.


JAY: Is there a way—in terms of solutions, what’s the solution to this so that countries have a right to the power without opening the door to weapons?

SCHELL: I mean, that once again shows the essential instability of a double-standard world, because to even preserve the existing double standard in regard to weapons, you have to take it a step further and say the nuclear fuel cycle is also going to come under the double standard. Well, that runs afoul of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, because under that treaty, countries are permitted to have that fuel cycle. That’s their payoff for foregoing nuclear weapons.

JAY: Which is the point Iran’s been making: they have the right to do what they’ve been doing.

SCHELL: So the irony and the impossibility, really, is that to preserve the current double standard, you have to extend and deepen it. And the countries of the world simply will not have that; they will not buy into it. What they want to see is the liquidation of the double standard in the other direction, not in the direction of everybody having nuclear weapons, which is where we’re heading now, but nobody have them.

JAY: So what’s a possible solution? I know ElBaradei has proposed—from the IAEA, proposed a world bank of uranium that any country that wants nuclear power could go to this world bank that would be administered by the UN or something like this.

SCHELL: Well, that’s a theoretical solution. But what you run up against immediately there is that the existing powers that have the nuclear fuel cycle, above all of the United States, Europe, Japan, China, Russia, and so forth don’t want to put their own facilities under the international control that ElBaradei proposes. So once again the double standard comes in and stops you from doing what’s necessary. If they would be willing and put the whole thing in Madagascar or something, and put the UN in charge of it or put ElBaradei in charge of it—.

JAY: Not sure it’d be Madagascar, given what’s going on in Madagascar are these days.

SCHELL: Yeah, maybe that’s not the best choice. But wherever it would be, then that would theoretically be a solution, or be a help, I should say, to the non-proliferation problem.

JAY: So the fundamental point here, if you want a world without nuclear weapons, you need a world without hegemonic-power double standards.

SCHELL: Well, that’s exactly what’s needed, and we don’t live in such a world at present. And the question is whether Obama’s commitment actually moves towards a world without double standards, or whether it’s just another piece of, you know, rubbish that is going to be offered to other countries, not to have nuclear weapons while we hold on to our own. So, paradoxically, a vow to abolish nuclear weapons would be a way of holding onto them, just one more way of holding onto them.

JAY: So we shall see, four years or eight years from now.

SCHELL: I might add that it’s not going to depend just on Obama, what the answer to that question is. There’s actually quite a lot of movement among nongovernmental organizations towards supporting such a world. I mentioned the very surprising figures of Henry Kissinger and George Shultz. Well, they’ve got a whole project, called the Stanford Project, which is supporting the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, which they trace back to, of all people, Ronald Reagan—and that’s actually correct. That’s something we can go into at another time, perhaps. There’s a group called Global Zero in Washington that is drumming up civil support and has all kinds of high officials. There’s actually a majority of former secretaries of state and secretaries of defense that support this goal. So there’s actually some support and growing support. There are governments who have established commissions. The Japanese and the Australian government have a commission. There are think tanks in Washington—the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, the Stimson Center are kind of converging on this issue. So the push is not coming just from governments; it’s also coming from NGOs.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Jonathan. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And I got an e-mail the other day that said when I point to the donate button, I have to stop pointing here, ’cause the donate button’s really here. Okay. So there. The donate button is up there. Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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We deeply regret the passing of Jonathan Schell. We will do
everything possible to keep his life long mission for peace and
disarmament a central part of TRNN coverage.

Jonathan joined the board of TRNN in 2005, he was at our very
first board meeting, smiling ear to ear. Since that day he never
missed an opportunity to stress the importance of our work.

As a journalist and anti-war activist he condemned conflicts
from Vietnam to Iraq and warned of a nuclear holocaust in
terrifying detail in his prize-winning book, The Fate of the
Earth (nominated for a Pulitzer Prize).

He was a writer and journalist, Peace and Disarmament
Correspondent for The Nation magazine, a fellow at the Nation
Institute, visiting lecturer at the Yale Law School, and a staff
writer at The New Yorker magazine from 1967 to 1987. He was a
native of NY.

Schell's companion, Irena Gross, reported that Schell died of
cancer on Tuesday at their home in New York City.

Here is a link to his work with TRNN:
The Real News

The Nation Magazine:
The Nation