Nuclear weapons debate takes new form
'IN EACH period, there is a general form of the forms of thought," A.N. Whitehead observed. "And, like the air we breathe, such a form is so translucent, and so pervading, and so seemingly necessary that only by extreme effort can we become aware of it." We live at a threshold now, when the "general form of thought" that undergirds a host of other assumptions is showing itself, even while it changes. A paradigm shift, in Thomas Kuhn's great phrase, is occurring. What makes this era unusual is that we can sense it happening. That an emblem of this transition, if not necessarily its cause, is President Obama can be discerned from his two historic speeches - in April in Prague, and this month in Cairo.
For most of a century, "the general form of thought" has taken its shape from the East-West division that began with a continent-wide trench line in World War I, expanded to the global war between fascism and democracy, continued as an Iron Curtain (and concrete wall) during the Cold War, and culminated in the War on Terror contest, in Samuel P. Huntington's phrase, of "the West against the rest." The thinking on both sides of this great divide was profoundly influenced by the general form of thought that the divide itself marked a boundary between good and evil, with each side demonizing the other.
Obama has deftly stepped outside this framework. In Prague, for example, he broke with the tradition of American triumphalism to honor his listeners for ending the Cold War "without firing a shot," a peaceful resolution achieved not because America won the arms race, but "because the simple and principled pursuit of liberty and opportunity shamed those who relied on the power of tanks and arms to put down the will of the people." Grassroots peace movements on both sides of the Iron Curtain made the difference. "Ordinary people believed," Obama continued, "that divisions could be bridged even when their leaders did not."
In Cairo, at a university whose roots predate Oxford, the American president acknowledged both Western civilization's debt to Islam (algebra, the compass, medicine) and its offense (religious wars, colonialism, the Cold War). If Obama could claim authority to criticize Muslim failings (toward women, Jews, other religions), it was because the general form of his thought was neither condescending nor self-righteous. Calling the poisonous American assault on Iraq "a war of choice," he all but said it was wrong. There was no "us-versus-them" in his thinking.
Central to both speeches was the over-riding problem that has made the East-West dichotomy obsolete - nuclear weapons. In Cairo he said, "it is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point." Iran makes that dramatic, but Obama, referring unprecedentedly to 1953, said those tensions began with Washington's "role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government." He argued that the only way to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to Iran or others is by a reinvigoration of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, which the United States violates whenever it treats its own nuclear arsenal as permanent. Against that posture, Obama "reaffirmed America's commitment to seek a world in which no nations hold nuclear weapons."
Prague was arguably the most important presidential speech in decades. Again, what made that resounding call for a new "form of the forms of thought" about nuclear weapons, was the president's starting point - an acknowledgment of special American culpability. "As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act." Having asserted the goal of nuclear abolition, the president, again recalling that his listeners ended the nuclear-armed East-West divide with non-violence, anticipated his critics. "I'm not naïve," he declared. That very morning, he noted, North Korea had illegally tested a long-range rocket (a prelude to its May nuclear test). "But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change." Then he lifted his clichéd slogan to a new plane of meaning. "We have to insist, 'Yes, we can!' "
There, in a phrase, is the general form of the forms of thought we need.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.