The Unfinished Twentieth Century

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If Jonathan Schell had been willing to look history in the eye, he could have made an acutely insightful little book of his essay The Unfinished Twentieth Century instead of the gaseous piece of disingenuous piety he wound up with.

Jonathan Schell

Reviewed by Nathan Keene

Wednesday, January 2 2002, 9:39 AM

If Jonathan Schell had been willing to look history in the eye, he could have made an acutely insightful little book of his essay The Unfinished Twentieth Century instead of the gaseous piece of disingenuous piety he wound up with. As it is, Schell has produced an atomic weaponry abolition tract that only a nuclear hawk could love.

Certainly his subject is a timely one: the slow but sure leakage of nuclear weapons technology out of the exclusive club of nations which once contained it, into the rest of a restless world tired of being shut out in the cold.

The Unfinished Twentieth Century's synopsis of the treaties and conventions through which the development of nuclear arsenals has been channeled and contained is informative and concise, if highly selective in its portrayals.

Schell's chilling analysis of the strategic predicament entailed by the post-Cold War situation is also apt, as is his characterization of the nuclear options now facing a world where technical knowledge flows along increasingly unpredictable lines. When the U.S. announces that it will cling indefinitely to its nuclear arsenal while preparing a defensive system against nuclear attack, a progression from bipolar standoff to precarious global powder keg is obviously inevitable in this world. Here it is clear that we cannot even restrict nuclear capacity to nation-states, much less to those deemed stable or "responsible." Add to this a move toward missile defense that was off limits even at the height of the Cold War arms race, and it's no fun guessing how the nuclear age will end.

Sadly, The Unfinished Twentieth Century presents these basic insights on the direness of the still-current nuclear threat in the context of a political analysis which is pompous, facile and consistently -- perhaps even willfully -- naive.

To tie an analysis of nuclear terror to Hannah Arendt's bombastic and retrograde metaphysics of evil is worse than unnecessary; it undermines the entire supposed purpose of the book. In relying on her Cold War anti-modernism to interpret the arms race, Schell does more than squander the first third of his work demonstrating that the extermination of life on Earth would be bad.

More importantly than helping him establish the obvious, Arendt's revival of 18th century ethics lets her ahistorically lump fascism and communism under the catchall label of "totalitarianism." Thus Schell in his turn can legitimize the unrestrained U.S. pursuit of nuclear weaponry from the Manhattan Project through 1991: in the name of humanity, humanity's very existence had to be jeopardized; ah, the paradoxes of the Cold War! (Oddly, Hitler's embrace of the less radical paradox of merely selective genocide for the sake of "the species" fails to redeem him for Schell.)

Most importantly, Schell's liberal preaching about totalitarianism and "radical evil" provide post-Cold War nuclear hawks with perfect justification for scrapping the ABM treaty and pursuing missile defense, thus spurring an arms race of unprecedented complexity and volatility in the name of fighting the new totalitarian bogeyman they are engaged in constructing now. As I write, India and Pakistan -- the vanguard of post-Cold War nuclear proliferation -- are in a war of words that has escalated into gunfire over an attack on the Indian parliament which apparently was carried out by Muslim militants based in Pakistan and supported by Pakistani intelligence. Washington is mopping up remnants of a movement in Afghanistan which clearly sought nuclear weapon technology for use against the U.S. and enjoyed the active support of both the Pakistani intelligence agency and, in happier times, the CIA. Articles appear daily in the U.S. press detailing the gruesome atrocities perpetrated by militant Muslim groups around the world in the name of imposing theocratic regimes, and the White House has declared an unrelenting and merciless "war on terror," by which it means firstly a war on such groups and the countries in which they are based.

If you still doubt that the hodgepodge of reactionary Islamic movements plaguing Africa and Asia these past thirty years has been selected as the new "totalitarianism" in our official state mythology, compare how the rhetoric of evil is used today in describing the excesses of the Taliban or Osama bin Laden with the way the atrocities of a Stalin or a Mao (though never a Suharto or a Pinochet) were supposedly motivated by their incomprehensibly "inhuman" and "evil" ideologies, rather than by all too human and comprehensible strategies of power. Note how the phrase "nuclear terror," which originally denoted the strategic threat of universal annihilation with which the superpowers kept each other in check, now refers in the popular press to nuclear weapons in the hands of (usually Islamic) paramilitaries.

Schell's naivete consists in assuming that with the Cold War over, we can now assess whether or not U.S. justifications for nuclear buildup were sincere. With no Soviet threat, he assumes, we can rejoice that the world is safe for democracy at last, and call an end to the epoch of mass exterminations which he claims distinguished the 20th Century and found their ultimate symbol in the bomb. The idea that a new and equally compelling "radical evil" might be found to replace the commies no more occurs to him than does the idea that the Soviet threat may have served a deeper function all along, that of maintaining a global order in which nations were forced either to support or oppose U.S. aims.

As long as the U.S. intends to maintain ultimate control over the global political and economic system without simply proclaiming imperial hegemony, it must construct absolute confrontations to legitimize its massive over-reliance on military power in the diplomatic sphere. Only when countries are, in the words of George W. Bush, "either for us or against us" can we be sure that they will not act independently of our designs. Nuclear terror served and clearly will continue serving to keep the middle ground clear.

Jonathan Schell's book contains compelling strategic arguments against maintaining nuclear arsenals and in favor of unilateral nuclear disarmament. Ironically, however, Schell's reliance on nebulous metaphysical theories to substitute moralizing for historical analysis results in the inability to grasp the political function of superpower confrontation. Even worse, it prohibits Schell from forumalating a meaningful program to advocate the nuclear abolition he so fervently claims to desire. In the absence of such a program, The Unfinished Twentieth Century tacitly resigns itself to the nuclear proliferation Schell so sincerely purports to dread.

The Unfinished Twentieth Century is available from Verso 

Copyright © 2002 by Nathan Keene. All rights reserved.

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