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Waiting For Godot and Nuclear Insecurity

Samuel Beckett's classic play offers an apt lens for our current predicament.

Words: Anica Broman
Pictures: Gallica

In 1953, Samuel Beckett wrote the tragicomedy, “Waiting for Godot,” a play that explores the futility of life in a world where there is little practical agency for the individual. The play centers on Vladimir and Estragon, who in a sparse and barren landscape, discuss and debate topics ranging from philosophy and religion, to where they will find their next meal. They spend a lifetime waiting for Godot, but Godot never comes. They have as much influence on the outcome of their lives as a roll of the dice.

I am drawing your mind to this absurdist, existential play that distorts time and meaning because of the undeniable political parallels. “Waiting for Godot” has been seen as an allegory for the Cold War, representative of the Irish resistance, and in another framing still, theorized to be set during WWII Nazi-occupied France. Vladimir and Estragon travel endlessly throughout the play, without getting anywhere. Today we can once again draw upon Beckett’s work to understand modern nuclear insecurity — another situation in which we have traveled decades without apparently moving at all. 

This leads me to my primary question, analogous to Vladimir and Estragon in a global context where the lives of individual citizens like you and I appear to have very little impact on political decision-makers: are you feeling lucky? 

Nuclear escalation is having a moment. The United Nations is reporting on fears that “powerful countries are pushing the world closer to the brink of nuclear conflict,” and this comes only a year after the N5 (the US, Russia, China, the UK and France) signed a pledge to avoid nuclear war. The states agreed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” But, the global context has fundamentally changed and is now marred by active conflict in Ukraine and Gaza, nuclear posturing by North Korea, Iran’s intentionally obscure nuclear program, and tension surrounding the threat of bipolarity between the US and China. Despite Russia’s pledge, Vladimir Putin has explicitly stated that Moscow is ready to use nuclear weapons if provoked. Global insecurity is at levels comparable to the Cold War, and the threat of nuclear annihilation on the horizon seems possible, if not probable.

So, I will ask again, are you feeling lucky?

Are You Feeling Lucky?

Martin Sherwin reflects on luck in history in his aptly titled book “Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis.” While acknowledging that it is hard to identify, hard to contextualize, and undoubtedly irrational, Sherwin maintains that good and bad luck form critical fulcrums in the human experience. To drive this argument home, Sherwin presents compelling evidence that the world avoided an atomically Hot War in the Cuban missile crisis due to, “plain dumb luck.” I challenge you to consider that if the closest the modern world has come to nuclear annihilation was essentially avoided with no greater statesmanship than a perilously high-stakes roll of the dice, are we lucky enough to do it again? In 1962, it was the United States and the Soviet Union. Though we have come a long way, the board looks eerily similar today with the United States and Russia holding nuclear dominance (and threat).

For Vladimir and Estragon, Godot is a universal source of truth and direction; their arbitrary existence is dependent on Godot’s absence or arrival. For you and I facing modern nuclear insecurity, we are simultaneously waiting for both the absence and the arrival of nuclear warfare.

Further to reflecting on the impotence of individual human agency in modern nuclear insecurity dilemmas, Beckett’s work holds parallels for the efficacy of the United Nations in tackling supranational issues. In “Waiting for Godot,” the significance of Godot is never revealed, though it is generally accepted that Godot represents a deity, a higher power, or some other figure that will have a vital impact on Vladimir and Estragon. In Act I, Vladimir and Estragon are reassured Godot will come. They wait. In Act II, Vladimir and Estragon are told that Godot isn’t coming after all. This drives Vladimir and Estragon to consider the futility of their lives, and they even consider suicide. However, they don’t have the resources. They wait some more. 

Awaiting an Absence

For Vladimir and Estragon, Godot is a universal source of truth and direction; their arbitrary existence is dependent on Godot’s absence or arrival. For you and I facing modern nuclear insecurity, we are simultaneously waiting for both the absence and the arrival of nuclear warfare. Our existence is shaped by the ultimate weapon, and it has been ever since the United States detonated atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United Nations is the most significant possible mechanism in the international system of states that offers some form of supranational regulatory authority, even if it is purely normative. However, the failures of the United Nations have been lamented for decades and have been only further demonstrated with the humanitarian crises in Ukraine and Gaza. Like Vladimir and Estragon, we are here, waiting.

I will ask only once more, are you feeling lucky?

The landscape is sparse and barren. Individually you have minimal agency or impact on nuclear security politics. The current international structures are weak, and international tensions are heightened. These all present arguably good reasons to feel unlucky about modern nuclear insecurity. And, you would be in good company with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists who are reporting the Doomsday Clock at 90 seconds to midnight (!). 

In spite of these facts, I can’t help but feel lucky. 
Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” is a useful lens to contemplate modern nuclear insecurity, but it is limited. I wrestle with existential fear that the likelihood of accidental nuclear annihilation has increased exponentially with the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But, Hiroshima and Nagasaki have left bruises on the passage of time. The detonation of atomic weapons forced leaders to consider their objectives: annihilation or retribution. Both the conflict in Ukraine and Gaza boil down to territorial consolidation. At the risk of viewing political decision makers as exclusively rational, I argue that they would see little point in using the ultimate weapon if it would undermine their objectives, and certainly not if you can’t say I told you so at the end.

Anica Broman

Anica Broman is a Master of International Relations student at Australian National University, with a keen focus on internal state security, the ethics of intervention, and the relationship between fiction in all its mediums and policy. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychological Science from La Trobe University, which allows for a unique lens when considering the motivations of key decision makers in politics. Anica currently holds a position with an Australian national security agency.

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