02/08/2013 - 08:32

Nuclear weapons, national pride

This Roundtable has highlighted very clearly the biggest problem faced by many journalists who cover nuclear issues. Journalists, who want only to fulfill their duty to inform the public, often find themselves in a battle with officials who believe that important national objectives can be advanced by hiding or distorting information. In these situations it is usually easy for bureaucrats to prevail -- especially in developing nations, and especially if the public is under the influence of government propaganda.

In a number of countries, nuclear technology is used as a symbol of national achievement. In Russia, this attitude has become a kind of fetish. Fans of Joseph Stalin (such people still exist) often repeat a statement they attribute to Winston Churchill: that Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plow and left it with a nuclear bomb. These self-appointed patriots like to discuss nuclear weapons, but they do not like to acknowledge the large number of Soviet citizens who died in the gulag, laboring at weapons factories or in uranium mines. All these deaths enabled the country's communist leaders to get their nuclear weapons, which in turn guaranteed their ability to conduct crazy political experiments upon their own people, and upon a significant segment of humanity in other countries.

Even today, nuclear weapons have functions that go far beyond military deterrence. They are also a marker of great power status. But nuclear weapons are the only such marker that Russia can claim; the Soviet Union bequeathed it no other superpower attribute. Russians cannot be proud of a high standard of living, fair distribution of wealth, or modern medical and educational systems. Therefore, Russian authorities want the public to be proud of the state's nuclear might.

And in some countries, nuclear weapons can be a tool that enables a dictatorship's survival. In North Korea, nuclear weapons provide a medieval tyranny with a guarantee against external interference. In my view, the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States provided every dictator on the planet with a clear incentive to acquire nuclear weapons.

Where hope lies. Russia's leaders seem to believe that the main goal of any opponent they might face is to deny Russia nuclear weapons. In 2004, terrorists took hostages at a school in the town of Beslan; this incident culminated in the deaths of more than 300 people, a majority of them children. Afterwards, Vladimir Putin had this to say: "Russia, as one of the biggest nuclear powers, still represents a threat to someone. Therefore this threat has to be eliminated. And terrorism is, of course, only a tool for achieving these goals." Such a political environment, in which security threats like those posed by a group of terrorists can be portrayed as a threat to the existence of Russia's nuclear arsenal, makes it quite easy to accuse objective journalists of acting as agents for a foreign state -- or, as I explained in my first essay, to charge them with treason. And in these situations, the public will generally support the government over journalists.

All this will change only if the nation's attitude toward nuclear weapons changes. Unfortunately, it is difficult to see such a shift happening soon, even if Russia experiences “regime change." No head of the Russian state is likely to surrender a tool for international bargaining that is as effective as nuclear weapons. Therefore, the main hope for change in Russia's attitude toward nuclear weapons is overall improvement in the country. That is, if Russia changes for the better, and new national achievements emerge as focuses of pride, nuclear weapons will no longer be such a powerful symbol.

None of this will happen right away. But the press itself can help speed the process. Journalists must fulfill their obligation not only to inform the public of events, but also to educate citizens, to warn them of the risks associated with nuclear programs. This requires that journalists persist in offering honest, unbiased assessments of the issues they cover. Yes, this can be very difficult, and sometimes dangerous. But journalism has no point unless it is animated by such a mission.