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Making Demons is Dangerous Business

We are quick to demonize global adversaries. It makes for clever political sound bites and compelling propaganda. It does not make for wise policy or thoughtful long term solutions to global problems. Think of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld “axis of evil” designation for Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. Look where that got us. A decade later and at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives Iraq seems close to disintegration, North Korea remains as secretive and oppressive as ever, and Iran is poised to become an odd ally of sorts. And lest we forget, Assad in Syria was given a pass. Whoops.

Long ago Reinhold Niebuhr warned against the folly of moralistically assigning good and evil to the actors in global affairs. Writing at the height of the Cold War, Niebuhr reminded us that our own arrogance can be as destructive of our cause as the presumed demonic character of our adversary:

There is, in short, even in a conflict with a foe with whom we have little in common, the possibility and necessity of living in a dimension of meaning in which the urgencies of the struggle are subordinated to a sense of awe before the vastness of the historical drama in which we are jointly involved; to a sense of modesty about the wisdom and power available to us for the resolution of its perplexities; to a sense of contrition about the common human frailties and foibles which lie at the foundation of both the enemy’s demonry and our vanities; and to a sense of gratitude for the divine mercies which are promised to those who humble themselves. (The Irony of American History, 1952)

While moralizing self-righteousness plays well in the Congress and on talk radio, hard headed negotiation of mutual and planetary self-interest tends to promote far more peace and security in the world.

A case in point is the conflict in Ukraine where Vladimir Putin and Russia have taken on the role of demon de jour for many American politicians and pundits. Not that there isn’t much to dislike. The annexation of Crimea and the meddling and saber rattling in eastern Ukraine are to be condemned. But as Niebuhr suggests, there is a great deal more to the “vastness of the historical drama in which we are jointly involved” than the immediacy of the crisis in Ukraine, as serious as it may be. Sacrificing mutual self-interest in some of these larger dramas for the sake of the self-righteous allure of creating a demonic Russian foe is short-sighted at best.

In an article on “Why the US should keep cooperating with Russia on nuclear security” published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, http://thebulletin.org/why-us-should-keep-cooperating-russia-nuclear-security7207, two scientists at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation remind us of the nuclear implications of the current crisis and the resulting deterioration in relations:

It is clearly in Moscow and Washington’s common interest to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and global nuclear terrorism. Keeping all nuclear materials in control of governments and erecting effective barriers to nuclear trafficking requires cooperation. It is to their common interest to make further arms reductions, rather than return to the arms race era and nuclear testing. And, if nuclear power is to provide clean electricity in more places around the world, Russia and the United States must share a common goal of making sure this spread happens safely and without exacerbating proliferation concerns.

Since the end of the Soviet Union great progress has been made in securing nuclear weapons stockpiles in the former Soviet republics, and in reducing stockpiles in both Russia and the US where the number of warheads remains unconscionably and unnecessarily vast. Given the fact that the US and Russian nuclear arsenals are enormous compared to the rest of the world – the US alone has over 7,000 warheads either deployed or in storage – it serves neither country’s self-interest, nor the planet’s, for demonization to fuel a self-righteous policy toward Russia that undercuts the possibility for nuclear security cooperation now and in the future when the crisis in Ukraine is resolved. “As the United States and the European Union take short-term measures to restrain Russia’s actions in Ukraine, they should not sacrifice the hard-earned gains made to stabilize the nuclear threats that arose after the dissolution of the Soviet Union,” the scientists maintain.

This is not to suggest that important moral questions aren’t at stake. But turning the stand-off over Ukraine into a highly personalized contest with a stylized cartoon portrait of a demonic and opportunistic leader of a resurgent Russian empire distracts us from the enduring threats of nuclear insecurity and proliferation that are of enormous consequence to a threatened planet. In this instance, neither the US nor Russia have clean hands free of the dirt of radioactive peril. It therefore behooves both of us to nurture that sense of “modesty about the wisdom and power available to us” to ensure that neither side ignores the other’s capacity either for planetary good or catastrophic disaster.

John H. Thomas
June 19, 2014

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