If you open the news on any given day, I’ll bet you can probably find some hit piece on China, Russia, North Korea, or Iran. If you’re older than me, you might even remember the 1990’s, when newspapers and politicians alike took similarly adversarial and alarmist stances towards Iraq, India, and Pakistan when these countries became or were purportedly becoming the newest members to the “nuclear” club. Senator John McCain said that the world was “closer to nuclear war than we have been any time since the Cuban missile crisis” after Pakistan tested its first nuclear weapon. We began an entire war in the Middle East in order to stop Iraq’s rumored nuclear program. Now, we face prospects of nuclear proliferation in Iran, North Korea, and, without extension of the New START treaty, proliferation in the US and Russia.
But our daily headlines don’t talk about the dangers that our own nuclear arsenal presents to world peace and international security. Instead, we focus on Iran’s continued steps away from the terms of the Iran Nuclear Deal, North Korea’s efforts to expand its nuclear capabilities, and China’s refusal to join New START. There’s a pattern in our discussion of nuclear weapons and regimes in the East versus regimes in the West.
For the US, nuclear weapons are a means of promoting peace and protecting us from a foreign attack through deterrence. In Iran, North Korea, China, or Russia, nuclear weapons are active threats to our sovereignty and national security. In the hands of the US, nuclear weapons are safe; in the hands of countries like India, Pakistan, North Korea, or Iran, nuclear weapons are unsafe because these Eastern countries are simply not responsible enough to wield such power. America’s government is democratic, fair, and stable; China’s government is authoritarian, evil, and destined to fail any minute now. Certainly, the horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons into North Korea and Iran is bad.
If the aim is international nonproliferation, alienating those we want to work with doesn’t seem like a good approach.
Why is it bad? Your answer to this question can say a lot about your understanding of the East.
In 1999, Hugh Gusterson identified the trend in the arguments against nuclear proliferation in other Eastern countries (regarded as “Third World” countries at the time): that “we” are responsible and trustworthy while “they” are unstable and treacherous.
Reports on North Korea have long been plagued by accusations that the regime is on the cusp of complete collapse — some recent examples include articles written in 2001, 2016, 2017, and 2019 but really this dates back to the early 1990s. In China, too, it seems like any widely publicized event is a prelude to the end of the Communist Party of China, whether resulting from slowing economic growth or the Hong Kong protests. So, when these regimes inevitably fall, the US naturally wonders: what will happen to these countries’ nuclear weapons?
When discussing Iran, North Korea, or China, the US often assumes moral superiority. In President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union, he called Iran, Iraq, and North Korea the “axis of evil.” Arthur Waldron in an interview with Epoch Times called China “the most evil regime… since Nazi Germany.” Leaders of “Oriental” countries are frequently depicted as beholden to emotions and fanaticism, unlike Western leaders. Pakistan and India are incapable of rational deployment of nuclear weapons due to ancient feuds and insurmountable religious animosity. According to Newt Gingrich, “It’s impossible to deter [Iran’s leaders]” because they are inherently irrational due to their religion so would willingly launch a suicidal war against the US or Israel.
Also, by virtue of its status as a “true democracy,” the US is held accountable by its people to not engage in indiscriminate killing as opposed to the authoritarian regimes of North Korea and China. A closer look at our own history reveals little regard by the American or Western European governments for the desires of the people, however. Consider the Vietnam War protests, the UN disarmament rally in New York in 1982, or huge grassroots protests in Europe against the deployment of the Cruise and Pershing II missiles. All of these were ignored.
The appearance of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, has also served to promulgate Western orientalism and predictions of a weakening regime in China and the East. In February, Ariana Berengaut for The Atlantic claimed “Democracies are Better at Fighting Outbreaks,” saying that “good public-health practice doesn’t just require control. It also requires transparency, public trust, and collaboration.” Yet, each of those features seems absent from the US response to coronavirus. When cases of COVID-19 exploded in Iran, the country was characterized as rife with “pride, paranoia, secrecy, and chaos” by the New York Times.
This doesn’t even take into account growing xenophobia against Asians in the US, which has turned entire groups into racialized vectors of disease.
None of this dialogue surrounding the East is productive, and it certainly doesn’t further our understanding of nuclear weapons. If the aim is international nonproliferation, alienating those we want to work with doesn’t seem like a good approach. Trump’s primary argument for delaying renewal of New START is that he wants China in on the deal. This is unlikely to happen given that Russian and US nuclear arsenals are about 20 times the size of China’s, but also because Trump has done nothing to foster a strong diplomatic relationship with China. If Trump also wants a deal to denuclearize North Korea or divert Iran’s nuclear program, he’ll need more than just threats and empty promises.
The best place to start is by ending Orientalist notions of these Eastern countries and beginning to understand these countries’ economic and national security interests in pursuing and maintaining their own nuclear weapons — they’re actually not all that different from our own reasons for having, maintaining, and modernizing our nuclear arsenal.
Molly Hurley is an activist with Beyond the Bomb who will be traveling to Japan to study the society-level effects of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki under the Wagoner Fellowship.