Noam Chomsky: How Close the World Is to Nuclear War
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The following is an excerpt from the new book Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe, by Noam Chomsky and Laray Polk, which takes the form of a series of interviews with MIT Professor Noam Chomsky (Seven Stories, 2013).
Laray Polk: What immediate tensions do you perceive that could lead to nuclear war? How close are we?
Noam Chomsky: Actually, nuclear war has come unpleasantly close many times since 1945. There are literally dozens of occasions in which there was a significant threat of nuclear war. There was one time in 1962 when it was very close, and furthermore, it’s not just the United States. India and Pakistan have come close to nuclear war several times, and the issues remain. Both India and Pakistan are expanding their nuclear arsenals with US support. There are serious possibilities involved with Iran—not Iranian nuclear weapons, but just attacking Iran—and other things can just go wrong. It’s a very tense system, always has been. There are plenty of times when automated systems in the United States— and in Russia,it’s probably worse—have warned of a nuclear attack which would set off an automatic response except that human intervention happened to take place in time, and sometimes in a matter of minutes. That’s playing with fire. That’s a low-probability event, but with low-probability events over a long period, the probability is not low.
There is another possibility that, I think, is not to be dismissed: nuclear terror. Like a dirty bomb in New York City, let’s say. It wouldn’t take tremendous facility to do that. I know US intelligence or people like Graham Allison at Harvard who works on this, they regard it as very likely in the coming years—and who knows what kind of reaction there would be to that. So, I think there are plenty of possibilities. I think it is getting worse. Just like the proliferation problem is getting worse. Take a couple of cases: In September 2009, the Security Council did pass a resolution, S/RES/1887, which was interpreted here as a resolution against Iran. In part it was, but it also called on all states to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That’s three states: India, Pakistan, and Israel. The Obama administration immediately informed India that this didn’t apply to them; it informed Israel that it doesn’t apply to them.
If India expands its nuclear capacity, Pakistan almost has to; it can’t compete with India with conventional forces. Not surprisingly, Pakistan developed its nuclear weapons with indirect US support. The Reagan administration pretended they didn’t know anything about it, which of course they did. India reacted to resolution 1887 by announcing that they could now produce nuclear weapons with the same yield as the superpowers. A year before, the United States had signed a deal with India, which broke the pre-existing regime and enabled the US to provide them with nuclear technology—though they hadn’t signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That’s in violation of congressional legislation going back to India’s first bomb, I suppose around 1974 or so. The United States kind of rammed it through the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and that opens a lot of doors. China reacted by sending nuclear technology to Pakistan. And though the claim is that the technology for India is for civilian use, that doesn’t mean much even if India doesn’t transfer that to nuclear weapons. It means they’re free to transfer what they would have spent on civilian use to nuclear weapons.
And then comes this announcement in 2009 that the International Atomic Energy Agency has been repeatedly trying to get Israel to open its facilities to inspection. The US along with Europe usually has been able to block it. And more significant is the effort in the international agencies to try to move toward a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East, which would be quite significant.6 It wouldn’t solve all the problems, but whatever threat Iran may be assumed to pose—and that’s a very interesting question in itself, but let’s suppose for the moment that there is a threat—it would certainly be mitigated and might be ended by a nuclear-weapon-free zone, but the US is blocking it every step of the way.