Disarmament How?

To tackle the issue of nuclear disarmament in the 21st century, you need the attack of a horror movie: Scare the crap out of the audience, but leave some ray of hope before the credits roll.

On the first score, Tad Daley delivers admirably. Apocalypse Never: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World, his first book, is a terrifying read. He details every variation of terrorist scheme, state calculation, and human and computer error that could doom humanity. There are the outlandish disaster scenarios that aren't, apparently, quite so outlandish, such as Plate Drop attacks (terrorists invade the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, smash plates of highly enriched uranium, and destroy San Francisco) and Bureaucratic Mishaps (the Air Force mistakenly transports live warheads, as happened in 2007). There's even the threat posed by innocuous upper-atmosphere asteroid collisions triggering early-warning systems. In this spooky account, humanity has survived the last 65 years only through sheer, harrowing luck.

Daley ably exposes and catalogs the lurking dangers as background noise -- breaking down large complexities into their precise components. "Try to imagine the world in forty years, still with only nine nuclear weapon states but with no nuclear weapon resentments, or challenges, or aspirations from any other states. The absurdity of that scenario is apparent. … If anything seems certain about the future political landscape, it is that the nuclear status quo cannot last."

Even Daley's most obvious points shock. For example, I was genuinely stunned to learn exactly how disastrous the last presidency was for nonproliferation. In 2002, George W. Bush vowed nuclear disarmament only for "those who hate freedom" and explicitly rebranded nukes as tools of preemption. His administration viewed its nuclear weaponry as a virtual trump card. But nuclear might does not ensure victory. With its overwhelming conventional military advantage, the irony is particular to America, even if the nuclear impotence is not: All five original nuke states have lost a war against a non-nuclear adversary since 1945. The Bush line also glosses over the fact that such a policy guarantees mass carnage. A preemptive atomic attack on Iranian military facilities, an example Daley uses, would kill hundreds of thousands in adjacent countries.

The book's biggest surprise is that the most troubling nuclear policy hides in plain sight. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), drafted in 1968, comes close to matching the U.N. charter in membership, and yet the treaty's own name masks one of its central pillars: the elimination of nuclear weapons. Article 6 binds all signatories to complete nuclear disarmament "at an early date." This pledge has been repeatedly reaffirmed by the World Court and the U.N. to no avail. The 1995 NPT review conference took place the same year the Bulletin Of Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock was moved forward 3 minutes, one for every year of the post-Cold War world where military spending continued unchecked. As it turns out, President Barack Obama's groundbreaking 2009 call for nuclear disarmament -- tempered by the words "perhaps not in my lifetime" -- falls far short of existing law.

Seen through current inertia, a world without nuclear weapons is a strange thing to contemplate. Daley conjures what it might require:

  • Mandatory inspections for every nation, modeled after the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention provisions
  • An international nuclear bank to provide a steady and monitored supply of fuel to any country that needs it
  • The outlawing of plutonium reprocessing facilities
  • A worldwide reward system for whistleblowers, both state and individual
  • Abolishing the U.N. Security Council veto for nuclear issues (an even less feasible scenario, he admits, than universal disarmament)

Despite such detailed policy ideas, Apocalypse Never takes 200 pages before offering any hands-on suggestions for affecting implementation. And even then, Daley's proposals for individual action are maddeningly imprecise. "The way to get from here to there," he says in his most explicit call to action, "is to activate Article 8 of the NPT and launch a formal multilateral negotiating process to transform the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty into a Nuclear Weapons Elimination Convention." It's not exactly the stuff of protest slogans. Later, he calls on readers to undertake "their own single, lonely, individual acts of conscience," without offering any hints as to what these might be.

Frankly, much of Daley's writing is jarringly inexact. He tosses the royal "we" about with great ambiguity. Does Daley mean his readers? Americans? Citizens of Spaceship Earth? He tells us that a nuclear terrorist attack would pose either an "existential" or "transformative" threat, without seeming to realize that the two words have drastically different meanings. Later, he asserts that a nuclear war would sterilize the entire planet, which is simply incorrect. These points would be nitpicking if the author didn't seem to place such a high premium on accuracy himself.

Daley also shies from discussion of the fundamentally undemocratic nature of nuclear disarmament as a goal. Millions of citizens in the world's nine nuclear powers take immense pride in their nation's arsenals. In this country, American exceptionalism flourishes with a force approaching religion and shows no sign of abating (for example, Mitt Romney's new bestseller, No Apology: The Case For American Greatness, warns that "the United States must maintain robust nuclear capability"). There almost certainly will never come a time when most Americans will agree to flush their atomic arsenal.

If -- like me and Daley -- you believe these people are wrong, how do you bypass their wrongness in a democratic society? By what mechanism will these millions be convinced or tricked into doing the right thing? Do we need to wait for the nightmarish political opening of a regional nuclear war in India or the Middle East?

Parts of Apocalypse Never stray far into the land of willful naiveté. "If we cannot consider negotiating with Al Qaeda," Daley writes with childlike zeal, "can't we at least try to recast some of our international behavior so it does not enrage so many?" At one point, he cheerfully explores the possibility of a world government without acknowledging that millions view the subject as politically toxic as slavery. He counts the anti-Iraq War protests in the positive column of grass-roots action, when, for many participants, 2003 proved the impotence of mass protest. The end effect is demoralizing. If an author of Daley's thorough analytical skills can't make the sale, what hope do the rest of us have?

Eleven pages into Apocalypse Never, Daley compares his own work to Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Jungle, and Silent Spring, with hopes that you "will recommend this book to your friends, colleagues, classmates, compatriots, and anyone you call a lover of peace." An unsettling grandiosity permeates much of the text. At the book's end, in voluminous acknowledgements, he actually thanks, by name, the staff of the Denny's where he wrote a few chapters. It is the magnanimous gesture of a far more accomplished author. Daley lavished much attention on the scares and the credits. Now what about those rays of hope?